Horror Writers Association

Transgender Awareness: My Gender is a Chainsaw by Jef Rouner

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My Gender is a Chainsaw

By Jef Rouner

Gender is a construct. You know, like those killer robots in Chopping Mall. And just like them, it has sharp edges.

It took me forty years to figure out what gender I was, and frankly the question is still far from answered. I recently settled simply on “not cis,” and when people ask me my pronouns I answer “he/him will do.” It’s not me being a melodramatic pain in the ass… well, not JUST that. The mystery and ambiguity of that label brings me back to the gender heroes of my adolescence: monsters.

Monsters are allowed to be genderless or gender undefined in a way heroes can never be. I remember as a child being fascinated when Little Shop of Horrors finally hit cable television in 1987. Six-year-old me found it terrifying, but darkly compelling. Here was a creature, a giant carnivorous plant, using human speech to achieve its ends as much as it used its vines and jaws. It had a man’s voice, a woman’s name, could reproduce on its own, and indulged in a bizarrely sexual nature that transcended biological kingdoms.

Everything about Audrey II was confusing from a gender standpoint, and goddamn if it didn’t look like fun. I’m not surprised the original ending where the plant wins tested poorly. Not only is the end of the world kind of a downer, but most people don’t like it when something so transgressive comes out on top. It’s more comfortable to see Rick Moranis and Ellen Greene leave it to beaver.

I kept up this allegiance to the gender terrors throughout high school. My favorite slasher was Jason Voorhees, a hulking man who was also the embodiment of his mother. In the dark circles of his hockey mask was only a glimpse of eyeball, a sexless glare that fixated on heteronormative fornication and denied its existence on the end of a machete. I fell in love with Sleepaway Camp’s Angela Baker. Even after the sequels waved away her assigned-male-at-birth origin with an off-screen bottom surgery, I loved knowing that Angela was something more than man or woman. She was the murderous product of a world that twisted her gender around in traumatic ways until she became an unstoppable explosion of violence. That was oddly hopeful for a child who felt approaching manhood like an iron maiden.

I discovered Leatherface, horror’s most famous crossdresser, and am one of the less than 10,000 people who actually saw Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation in theaters when it first released. That film is widely derided now and mostly seen as a weird blip in Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey’s careers, but for me it was transcendental. Leatherface’s penchant for crossdressing and love of wearing a woman’s face when it suited him was ramped up until the volume knob broke off. It was all tied up in a greater conspiracy of fear built by mysterious illuminati figures that tortured promgoers for reasons beyond their comprehensions.

Jef Rouner as Dr. Frank N. Furter at the River Oaks Theater in Houston

Basically, it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show with the glamor stripped down and the chainsaw gassed up. That’s another monster I would pledge allegiance to. I spent the better part of a decade playing Dr. Frank N. Furter at the River Oaks Theatre in Houston every Saturday. Leatherface and Frank have more in common than crossdressing and cannibalism. Both were written during Nixon’s America, with Rocky Horror outright putting Nixon’s resignation into the plot of the movie. Meanwhile, as author Martin Harris points out in Leatherface vs. Tricky Dick, the original Texas Chain Saw Massacre oddly parallels the Watergate scandal.

Nixon’s time was marked by paranoia, hatred of the counterculture movement, the active suppression of LGBT people by government forces, and a backlash against feminism following Roe v. Wade. The country was obsessed with gender roles and sexual identity, and that fear manifested in a series of gender anarchist movie killers who literally consumed the old world on a dinner plate.

That was the world I was born into, and by the time I was an adult, I thought a hazy truce had been built. The normies would give us rights, and in return we would bury the monsters. By the ‘00s, horror was painfully hetero, something made by pretty people in neat boxes for pretty people in neat boxes.

Now I live in Texas, where the state government has openly declared war on trans people. There are days my hands shake with fear, and I can’t sleep for crying. I feel weak and trapped, and I dream of running through woods with something behind me I cannot fight or esczape.

When I wake up in the dark, I name the names of power: Leatherface, Frank, Audrey II, Jason, Angela. I reach for the boy who didn’t know what gender was and found comfort in killers that made those who did know shrink back in terror. What I am is called monster, and if that’s how it’s got to be in Texas, I might as well be a chainsaw. Then we’ll see who will survive and what will be left of them.

Bio

Jef Rouner is a freelance journalist and writer living in Houston. He is the author of two short story collections, Stranger Words and The Rook Circle, as well as dozens of articles on trans issues. Being the only Jef Rouner on planet Earth, if you type his name into any social media search engine you will find him.

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