I was delighted to discover last night that Channel 4 were rescreening the first part of My Transsexual Summer at 11.05pm. I'd missed the regular slot last week because of my Somerset holiday, and this was a chance to look at the programme and decide what I thought about it. Part two of this documentary is on tonight at 10.00pm. I've asked my female cousin R--- (a retired headmistress, and one of the people who gave me active and unwavering support in my transition) to watch too, because I'd like to know what she (as a member of the ordinary public) thinks of it.
This first part of the documentary had to do several things for the programme makers and Channel 4.
First, it had to grab the attention of the public and make them watch it at least once, and if possible get hooked sufficiently to see the whole documentary as it unfolded.
Second, it needed to suggest that that the programme makers and Channel 4 were serious, unbiased, open-minded, progressive and sympathetic in their approach to a very difficult subject. Professional reputations are important, and tacky, voyeuristic, salacious 'tabloid treatment' would have been a mistake in an area where public opinion is beginning to undergo its own transition.
Third, it couldn't dwell on frightening medical details or dry-as-dust psychological explanations that might turn viewers off.
Fourth, to get the widest audience, there had to be a range of individual types, so that at least one person there would remind a viewer of someone they knew of in their own lives, perhaps themselves.
Fifth, there had to be a reason for watching week after week. So every one of the participants would have an individual story to bring out and develop, with if possible a looming crisis to face. It had to be something like a soap, leaving the audience with a cliffhanger at the end of each episode, and some kind of resolution at the very end.
Clearly these considerations could apply to a very wide range of possible subjects. Just now is a good time to put the spotlight onto transsexual people. Tomorrow it may be some other group.
So I felt before watching that in this first part of this documentary there would be a big effort to stimulate my senses and hook me in. There might be some shock tactics as well as more subtle methods of arousing and then sustaining my interest. I was therefore prepared to see a preponderance of frothy in-your-face stuff, and not too much of what was quietly thoughtful and reflective.
As for the line-up it was, as expected, weighted towards the young end of the scale. There was only one person anywhere near my own age: 52 year old Karen, who disappeared off for her genital surgery. Perhaps it was a rational production decision to whittle the contenders down to six, all of them much younger, but it meant that the army of older transitioners (of which I am one) won't have a representative to identify with.
I took it for granted that whatever their individual problems, all seven had to be basically lively, extrovert, outgoing, and full of life - just the sort who would be willing to appear on TV in this kind of showcase. Nobody was lethargic, depressed and so lacking in self-confidence - or fearful of being attacked - that their lives were crippled. And yet I know of trans people who are stuck in that place. I do see that the portrayal of transsexuals with a personal situation so dire that they can't function would be at odds with the upbeat and celebratory nature of this documentary. But there are a lot of them around, and leaving them out of the picture is to ignore a defect in the care of trans persons in this country.
I thought the idea of bringing everyone together for a series of weekends in a country retreat - a rather nice large peaceful lakeside house with bright modern furnishings - was a good one. It provided a pleasant, problem-free setting against which to assess the seven individuals. It was a 'safe haven', a place in which everyone could relax and let go. There were few glimpses of the real backgrounds that they all had to go back to. We saw most of Drew's (she was the young slim blonde one), who lived with her very supportive mum, and seemed happy pushing the pram and hanging the washing up in the back garden, but clearly wanted much more from life. I felt rather sorry for her, when, enquiring after a job in a salon, it was pointed out that her adam's apple might be a giveaway to customers. I wondered if the public at large could appreciate that general acceptance, and getting a foot in the world of work, can depend on little things like this. And that it isn't 'mere cosmetic surgery' to want male features banished and female features created. There was something quite poignant about one of the other girls (Sarah I think) showing how to 'put on' a pair of artificial breasts, and the way they were obvious underneath her bra. Or how much 'less Sarah' she was without her wig. Or Fox explaining how he was desperate to squash his breats into flatness with a binder.
Deeper personal problems were beginning to emerge towards the end of this first part. I especially felt for Karen, admitting to not seeing her daughter for years, and fearing to lose her entirely. She burst into tears about it, and it was nice to see Drew comforting her. I hope the documentary reveals more of this sort of thing: that transition usually means devastating personal losses. The general public is still stuck with the idea that it's simply a 'lifestyle choice', and all about pink and fluffy things. MTS needs to correct that.
The 'big night out' in London was the worst bit. Off they went in a stretch limo, the girls in typical tranny getups, all happy and bubbly, and inevitably having a confrontation in a bar with a young drunk male person who wanted to mouth off at them on camera. I hurrahed when convincing FTM Max intervened to deflect the foul-mouthed idiot's abuse. It was nicely done, and completely defused the situation. The lout couldn't cope with another man offering him 'female sex'. For, of course, in the ignorant world of cultureless and badmannered chavs, FTMs don't exist. MTFs are the target they think they understand; but FTMs are confusing and disturbing, and they can't handle them. Hurrah again!
Anyone watching might have judged that the seven trans persons on their night out asked for trouble by going around in an obviously tranny group, by the clothes and wigs and shoes they wore, and by their lack of authentic behaviour. But hey, this was a celebration of a weekend together in which they had bonded, and besides, next day Karen was off to Charing Cross for her fateful appointment with Mr Bellringer the surgeon.
So there was plenty of excuse for over-the-top behaviour on the night. But at the same time, I'm sure that the ordinary viewer would have it confirmed in their mind that when trannies go out they look like that, sound like that, and are really just messing around. My parents seriously thought that when I went into Brighton, I tottered around in red high heels and the sort of dress and makeup that would get me arrested. They had no idea; it was ridiculous; but it was one reason why I changed my surname, as well as my first name, just so that arrest wouldn't besmurch the family name and embarrass my parents and their friends. As if a retired, 56 year old ex-Inspector of Taxes was really going to be cheeky and provocative to members of the Brighton & Hove Constabulary, or tout for business in a pub, or provide frontpage copy for a Brighton Argus reporter. But my shocked parents had their lurid notions of what a 'tranny' was and did, and that was that.
It'll be interesting to see whether tonight's part two will be more of the same, or move on into more thought-provoking territory.