Well, the online trans community is all atwitter (couldn’t help myself) about the latest trans documentary, Channel 4′s “My Transsexual Summer”. And, being not only an extremely opinionated creature, but an extremely opinionated creature who was involved in part of Channel 4′s ongoing consultancy work with the trans community, I thought I might as well weigh in. So…
Cons out of the way first? There were three crucial ones, for me. In the main it was the narrator: not only the language they used, but their actual redundancy. All the usual linguistic tropes we’ve gotten used to drinking on cue to: “becoming a man/woman”, “changing gender” etc. For a programme with such articulate, well-informed participants, the voiceover felt largely unnecessary. Another problem, as many people have pointed out – it would have been nice to see a more ethnically diverse group – and people of different ages. I don’t feel comfortable commenting on diversity of socioeconomic background/disabilities – who am I to know? Finally – can we call a moratorium on the “applying make-up (with mirror!)” shot? Done to death.
The pros, on the other hand – I’m surprised to find myself writing this, but I genuinely enjoyed the programme. Maybe I’m just too idealistic, but, to me, it didn’t feel like just a one-off positive programme – it felt like a game changer. The overall feel of it – of hope, of warmth – that felt totally new to me. And hats off to the seven trans people of screen for putting that across.
This was trans people speaking for themselves – showing that we know best when it comes to trans issues – what it feels like, what’s best for us. It was our language, our words – our in-jokes (“You boys can shave, and us girls can…shave”). Our experiences with suicide attempts and self-harm – told not in a sensational way but with understanding and compassion. I saw the make-over scene criticised, but I found it touching – because it reminded me of getting ready to go out with my trans male friends – trying on clothes, styling our hair, choosing between ties – giving back to each other a sense of beauty and dignity that the world so often tries to strip us of.
Instead of positing the audience as ‘normal people’ being given a chance to pity the ‘freaks’, this felt like the audience being invited to share the experiences of the trans people on screen – as allies. Particularly when instances of transphobic abuse were shown – not only did they feel (as they should) outrageous attacks on people’s sense of safety and self-worth, but they felt unacceptable – not something to be tolerated as ‘one of those things’, but an insult to be rectified.
Coming back to the subject of diversity – there were two points in particular that made my day. Firstly was the fact that the participants did have differing views on what constitutes sex/gender, male/female, and how they fit into and/or challenged those systems. That people have different surgical needs. That some trans people, like Donna, are neither men nor women. That there isn’t a standard, one-size-fits-all trans narrative. Secondly, the natural, unforced way in which Maxwell’s Judaism was shown. Wearing a kippah around the house, reading a book on shtetl life – it was a gentle yet powerful reminder that trans people are far, far more than ‘just’ trans. That we come from different communities, traditions, families – the deep and abiding love and connection that so many of us feel for those communities – and what we stand to lose when we open up about who we truly are.
So – not, by any means, perfect. But, at least in my eyes – this felt like a beginning. My fingers are firmly crossed for even better things to come.