My Transsexual Summer: why has it taken so long?

Channel 4 really outdoes itself in bringing the very first reality series charting the experiences of transgendered men and women to the screen.

After Fatima Whitbread trended on Twitter due to her entry into the Australian jungle for ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ and sparked some horrendous, transphobic comments, it’s great to see something positive covering this oft misunderstood community.

Image credit: Channel 4

Fox, Sarah, Drew, Lewis, Donna, Max and Karen (L-R) are all at various stages of transition from their biological genders to the gender they feel suited to. Channel 4 does its best to show what it’s like to feel you’re in the wrong body and charts their highs and lows – from conversations about hormone treatment and surgery to the nastiness they encounter on the high street and, in Drew’s case, finding a job.

Today the Daily Mail published a story about Danann Tyler. Born into a male physique, Danann wants to live as a female. She’s eight years old and from Orange County, California. The article certainly attracts a few transphobic comments; “At that age, kids should not be taken seriously about their genders“, writes JJ. One commenter, not brave enough to assign a name, states “no child needs this press coverage about something that is still essentially taboo in our society“. And that is the real crux of the matter.

Exploding taboos is something Channel 4 does very well. This illuminating and sensitive documentary series does its best to portray trans men and women as normal people- something everyone should be considered, whoever they are. We live in a world where people feel it’s acceptable to sexually harrass transgender men and women, shout at them in the street and even assault or kill them.

We also live in a society where the media feel it’s acceptable to portray transsexuality as taboo and disgusting, meaning that they are dehumanised and made to feel social outsiders.

Trans Media Watch‘s April 2010 report ‘How transgender people experience the Media‘, co-authored by Jennie Kermode, showed how cultural and popular representations of trans men and women, like Little Britain’s Emily Howard and the League of Gentleman’s Barbara have harmful effects that go beyond the general public: they affect the views and behaviour of the friends and family of transsexual people too.

Some may find it hard to conjure up a view of a transsexual person without, incorrectly, thinking of Dame Edna Everage, Eddie Izzard or Lilly Savage (respectively transvestites and a drag queen), Emily Howard, or Barbara. There aren’t a lot on television either, points out Paris Lees, appearing on the BBC World Service radio programme (starts at 20:21).  Paris is an activist and served as a consultant on the show (you can watch her 4thought.tv piece here).

This lack of representation on television (with the notable exception of Julie Hesmondhalgh – Coronation St’s Hayley- who became a Trans Media Watch ‘friend’ as of March this year) is something Paris hopes will change. Indeed, My Transsexual Summer is already helping with the focus not on just the transition, but on the before and after – just like in the gay community where the focus has moved from ‘coming out’ to living life, regardless of sexuality; just getting on with the trivial aspects of life, from the highs and lows to the mundane arguments about whose turn it is to buy milk this week.

Corrie’s Hayley Cropper

Coronation Street was arguably the first to do this with Hayley, whose transition from a biological male to a happy female, now in a committed and loving relationship with Roy, is now barely referred to, as many happy transsexual men and women would strive for.

For me, the most shocking aspect of the show was not the look at a newly constructed penis on a female to male transgender person, but the reaction of two women interviewing Drew for a potential role at a bridal wear shop. Drew ‘came out’ to the shop owners. The owner was surprised by Drew’s admission of being transgender, drawing shock from the owner’s sister who promptly pointed out Drew’s Adam’s Apple, stating that she knew Drew was transgender from the start. But the offensive nature of the comments didn’t stop and the owners were reticent about offering Drew a position, citing that their customers may be uncomfortable with Drew. After all, claimed the owner, “every little girl’s dream is to have this fairytale wedding and there isn’t any books that have transgender fairytales in” [sic].

I’m no expert in the Gender Discrimination nor the Equality Act, but I’m sure that they’re sailing close to the wind in this case. Putting the obvious transphobia (that they assign, erroneously, to their customers) aside, I wonder if they’d have the same problem employing a man in the role? Binary gender rules win the day, in this case.

Treating transsexual people as anything other than human is something that’s pervasive enough to affect the transgender community itself, a feeling examplified by Drew, previously too scared to leave the house, saying “I feel like I’m a person like everyone else”. It was also borne out by Sarah’s concern that she’d be cut off by her family once she told them she identified with being female. A concern that, thankfully, wasn’t fulfilled. Her mother’s only concern was that Sarah wasn’t a pretty enough name.

Next Episode: Tue 22 Nov, 10pm on Channel 4


Drew on Twitter | Donna on Twitter | Lewis on Twitter | Karen on Twitter | Sarah on Twitter | Fox on Twitter| Max on Twitter

More information:
Press for Change -seeking respect and equality for Trans people
Sarah’s Blog
Trans Media Watch on Twitter
Juliet Jacques on her transgender journey
Channel 4’s guide to terminology
Paris Lees interviews Drew-Ashlyn Cunningham
A blogger’s take on the employment law in Drew’s case in the bridal wear shop

Posted by Tannice for The Custard TV. Follow Tannice on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “My Transsexual Summer: why has it taken so long?

  1. Good to see a bit more exposure for the plight of transgender people but there's such a long way to go.
    Even watching last week's QI I was properly disheartened to see them all laughing at the Indian transgender tax-collectors. The joke seemed to be something along the lines of “Haha, men in dresses, look, this is funny! Can you imagine?” accompanied by raised eyebrows and Oooohs.
    QI is a supposedly high-brow, liberal show.

  2. Good to see a bit more exposure for the plight of transgender people but there's such a long way to go.
    Even watching last week's QI I was properly disheartened to see them all laughing at the Indian transgender tax-collectors. The joke seemed to be something along the lines of “Haha, men in dresses, look, this is funny! Can you imagine?” accompanied by raised eyebrows and Oooohs.
    QI is a supposedly high-brow, liberal show.

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