Last night the UK’s Channel 4 aired the first episode of a new reality TV series, My Transsexual Summer, following the lives of seven (mostly) young trans people. The series is unusual, firstly because of the number of trans people involved, and secondly because it was produced with input from TransMediaWatch, a UK pressure group that aims to improve the image of trans people in the media. As this is a subject about which I know somewhat more than the average person, I thought it might be worth elucidating some of the issues involved.
One of the interesting things about programmes like this is that expectations vary wildly. Those on the front lines of trans activism are liable to be outraged no matter what is said and done, because they hold everyone to extremely high standards. Others who are long-time post transition are liable to be cringing in embarrassment and worrying what this new round of the freak show will mean for them. TV critics will doubtless be asking whether the freaks are freakish enough for people to want to keep watching. There’s probably no such thing as a middle ground, but I’ll try to cover all the bases.
Let’s start off with the things I have seen friends of mine complain about. The most obvious trigger point is the frequent use of the word “tranny” by the participants to describe themselves. This is problematic, because people disagree as to whether it is a term of abuse or not. For many people, the word has meaning only as an insult shouted at them in the street, or used by “comedians” on TV. For others it is a vaguely affectionate term, and yet others regard it as a term of abuse that it is OK to reclaim for use within the community, but not to be used by others. The latter is apparently the official line of TransMediaWatch, but clearly the programme participants didn’t get the memo.
Another issue that is being raised by trans activists online is the breadth of coverage. With no less than seven people, from a variety of backgrounds and in different stages of transition, you might think that the whole spectrum of trans experiences is represented. The show seems to be presenting itself in that way. But at least 6 of the 7 appear to be what one might call classic transsexuals seeking full gender transition. Those whose sense of gender identity is less certain or fluid are feeling somewhat invisible.
Finally there is the question of clichés. In her preview of the show for The Guardian Paris Lees, the TransMediaWatch staffer who acted as a consultant on the show, mentions the Trans Documentary Drinking Game. If those of us watching the show had indeed taken a drink every time we saw a cliché we would have been rat-arsed after the title sequences.
Having said all that, I thought the show was remarkably good — much better than I expected, and that was down largely to the participants, and how they were able to speak for themselves rather than simply be subjects of voyeurism.
Let’s go back for a minute to the question of the selection of participants. I have no idea what the producers had in mind when they put the show together. They might have had only seven volunteers. They appear to have tried to get people who are going through different stages of transition. Some, I suspect, will assume that the programme tried to find people who obviously looked trans, though that’s by no means the case for all of them. What I am hoping they did, however, and appear to have succeeded at, is to pick people who have happy, outgoing personalities, get on well with others, and are generally fun to watch.
Looking at the comments on Twitter after the show, I was quite encouraged. There was the usual sniping from some. One bloke said he wanted to murder all of the participants (and if challenged doubtless said it was “only a joke”). Someone else raged, “God will judge them!” But by and large the watching public seemed charmed and touched by the people that they had seen and the stories that were told.
One area that I think the show may have missed out on is including someone who is many years post-transition. I know that goes against the set-up, which is to have a group of people all going through the same difficult life changes, but it may have added some perspective. Transition is a difficult process, and there’s a terrible tendency to over-do the gender performance in order to try to fit in. By concentrating on people in transition, TV programmes can give a rather unbalanced view of what the typical trans person is like.
The one cliché that the show has managed to avoid thus far is that of the “tragic transsexual”. Even Sarah, who has run away from home at the age of 28 in order to start transition, and is worried sick about what her family will say when they find out, manages to find her moments of hope and optimism. Yes, all of these people face terrible struggles in their lives, but they are also getting to be themselves. The standard narrative for a trans documentary, at least those that I have seen, is that the subject is deeply unhappy, but after much difficulty finally manages to start transition; the programme closes with the ominous suggestion that this will only lead to more unhappiness as the subject will never be accepted as the person they believe themselves to be. There wasn’t any of that last night. Despite all of their problems, these people were fun.
It is odd what some people think of themselves, of course. Drew apparently spends 2.5 hours doing her make-up each morning. I can’t imagine ever doing that. Fox spent much of the programme worrying that he doesn’t look masculine enough compared to Max and Lewis. Well maybe he’s not a hairy hunk, but he’d fit right in to any boy band. I bet there are teenage girls with posters of him on their walls already. If I wasn’t (ahem) many years older than him, I might have one too. But trans people obsess about their appearance like no one else. It comes with the territory.
Someone on Twitter mentioned that the programme passed the trans Bechdel Test. I’m not sure that it did, because I can’t remember any conversations which were not about being trans. But it may get there in later episodes.
One worry that I had was that the programme makers, in search of added drama, would encourage the participants to argue amongst themselves and compete to see who passed best. Listening to Max Zachs being interviewed on Radio 4 this morning I was pleased to discover that this didn’t happen, though I have no doubt that if this series is a success then someone will try to take the format down market (and some trans people will be desperate enough for money and fame to participate).
From my point of view, the ultimate test of such a programme is whether it is likely to improve the lot of trans people amongst the general public. As I said, the reaction on Twitter was, on the whole, very encouraging. There’s something inspiring about people being positive and happy in the face of great adversity. The reaction in the mainstream media has been less encouraging. The Guardian’s review of the programme starts by deliberately mis-gendering the participants, something that the programme never did, thereby showing that Lucy Mangan’s natural prejudices hadn’t been shaken one jot by watching it. If that’s what happens in The Guardian, I shudder to think what other newspapers have done.
Channel 4 are not exactly covering themselves in glory either. The programme makers may have listened to TransMediaWatch, but those responsible for promoting the show clearly haven’t. The adverts in the papers yesterday showed a picture of Drew with the caption “Ex Man”. On the radio today Max said he didn’t regard what surgery he had undergone to be a matter for public discussion, but the C4 website page about the programme leads with details of exactly what he has had done. It is still very much the case that many people in the media see trans people solely as freaks to be exploited.
Ultimately, however, these things are all incremental. Social change doesn’t happen overnight, it is a generational process, but it does get there. Back when I transitioned, which is not that long ago, such a programme would have been unthinkable. I’d like to finish by noting another article in yesterday’s Guardian. In it, a senior UK judge, Jonathan Sumption QC, complains that judges in the UK are becoming too politicized in this country, thanks to the influence of the European Court of Human Rights. One of the influences that court has had on UK law is to force our government, much against their will, to consider the human rights of trans people.
While I was transitioning, I had occasion to interact with the British legal system. The advice my lawyer gave me was as follows: “don’t contest anything, there’s no justice for people like you in British courts, and if you try to stand up for yourself the judge will throw the book at you.” Thanks to the European Court of Human Rights, that’s no longer the case. If that means that our courts are “too politicised”, well I’m all in favor of it. But courts by themselves don’t change social attitudes. The media has a huge role to play, and on the basis of the first episode My Transsexual Summer has added one more small nail to the coffin of transphobic bigotry. Progress.