One thing I’ve noticed is the way many of the commentators onMy Transsexual Summer from within the trans community have bemoaned the fact that the experiences of the participants do not reflect their own. Similarly some of the participants have bemoaned that aspects of their characters such as their non-binary identities or otherwise have ended up on the cutting room floor in favour of the clichés such as putting on makeup and genital surgery. This is all quite understandable among people who find it hard in our society to establish their individual identities.
For that matter not much in MTS has anything to do with my own experience, a good while post-transition. A week or so before the first episode aired I retweeted one of Patrick Strudwick’s tweets, in which he said: “Oh Channel 4, why call your new documentary My Transsexual Summer? It sounds like gender tourism, a fun little trip to the other”. I like his writing and was pleased that a gay man should make such a perceptive remark. Initially I totally agreed with him. I felt it was only slightly better than the working title of: “Boys Will Be Girls and Girls Will Be Boys” which was dire and totally inappropriate to that part of the trans community who have always felt a certainty about their experienced gender. To be fair the producers did consult about titles and ‘to be fair’ I did suggest some myself via Paris Lees which were all rejected, as I think were all hers.
However now I’m starting to think My Transsexual Summer is about as appropriate a title as you could pick … and that is in no way an implied criticism of the great Patrick Strudwick, nor do I think the producers or C4 were conscious of how apt when they plumped for it. Think of movies like My Favourite Year, Absolute Beginners, Stealing Beauty … oh there’s hundreds … and perhaps you start to get the picture. Coming of age is what I’m on about.MTS like nearly every other documentary programme on a trans topic before it is about transition. Here are seven people, some of who have never met another trans person before, spending a great few weeks together last summer while transitioning. It may be a fun part of a longer trip but it totally will not be tourism. There’s long been arguments in the trans community about how long transition lasts? How do you know when you’re done? But undeniably there is a period when everything is in total flux and at some later point hopefully everything will no longer be in flux and you will have arrived at a place where you are comfortable with the way you present and experience your gender. At this point many will meld back into society and their trans history will cease to be visible. The story documentary makers always want to tell is the fairy tale romance of transition, which ends at the alter of surgery, and nobody is very much interested in the happy ever after and/or relatively uneventful life which follows unless it spirals into melodramatic disaster, which thankfully very few transitions do. The great majority of people who transition travel to a place where they are comfortable with their gender and, even if society continues to treat them badly, they are still happier that way and get on with their lives. Anybody want to make a documentary about the rest of their lives? Thought not. But what we do need is to be aware that such lives are being lived in society all around us, just as lesbian, gay and other lives, which were once considered too different to be safely visible, are being lived.
So what does this have to do with some members of the trans community bemoaning the fact that MTS does not reflect their personal identities? Perhaps not much directly but it does introduce us to a group of engaging and lively characters who are trans. Most of them will probably not be heard of in the media again once it has aired … although I suspect one or two will because they are talented people. Some will say they have been used by the media. To an extent … yes. But MTS has already been viewed by well over 2 million viewers and I suspect that figure may be considerably higher by the time the series ends. This is unprecedented for a programme about real trans people. What they will have achieved by letting us view their transsexual summer is to show a pathway to an estimated 60,000-90,000people in this country who would follow a similar transition path if they felt it would not make them social pariahs. It shows to parents with trans children that there is such a pathway which is both-life affirming and viable. That will be no mean achievement.
I think perhaps we in the trans community need to see a bit beyond the single minded desire to establish our own peculiar and individual identities which so often sucks all the air out of the room and destroys any chance of practical discussion about how to do that. Isn’t it a far more powerful outcome that, although the programme makers undeniably made some compromises to draw in viewers, millions will have enjoyed the company of these seven, shared in their lives and learned a lesson in diversity … that they will now have an entry point to broadening their understanding of the rich and joyful diversity of gender experience, something which has always existed but of which they were previously unaware … and if they they thought about it at all, they thought of as just being sad? I certainly think so.