Transcendental argument

December 3, 2011 9:36 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Through a mist of tears, I caught up with the conclusion of ‘My Transsexual Summer’, Channel 4’s four-part fly-on-the-wall series.

Seven strangers, ranging in age from 22 to 52, were brought together for four weekend “retreats”. The only common factor between them was transitioning – three from female to male, the rest the reverse route. Their progress along these transitions varied greatly: from a few weeks to four years of “living as” the gender opposite to the given, from hormone treatment but with no plans for surgery to undergoing genital “correction” during the first programme.

That the seven individuals were necessarily self-absorbed was no hindrance to an immediate atmosphere of mutual support. Hugging and weeping soon became the lingua franca but that was no bar to laughter and the odd interesting undercurrent. Those of them – the youngest – who could not utter a subordinate clause without prefacing it with the syntactically redundant “like” or adding to it the rhetorical “d’you know what I mean?” may, having seen themselves on the box, attempt to eradicate this dreary verbal tic. For the viewer, it was a modest price to pay for their candour and courage.

Putting hitherto obscure people under the media spotlight is as old as broadcasting. What has changed radically over the years is the way that obscurity is mediated. Half a century ago, producers took a disciplined, even puritanical approach to pointing microphones and cameras at people in the sanctity of their lives. Charles Parker’s wonderful and imperishably influential ‘Radio Ballads’ tapped into a rich oral tradition and linked it to ordinary people’s experiences as expressed through their music – literally, folk music. Parker’s approach was pursued in television in various ways by Philip Donnellan, Denis Mitchell, Charlie Squires, Harold Williamson, Edward Mirzoeff, Paul Watson, Roger Graef and others.

These film-makers were also tapping into the traditions of documentary-making for the cinema in the Soviet Union and, in the west, by Robert Flaherty and the Grierson school. Although their methods could sometimes be suspect – staging, scripting and even faking scenes – the intention was to create the sense that the people momentarily in the spotlight were there on their own terms.

Though there has been a surprising revival in documentary for the big screen – especially in the States where serious non-fiction seems still to be greatly encouraged by PBS and independent cinema companies – swathes of routine documentary-making for British television have descended to a bankrupt aesthetic. Commissioning editors seem to believe that the audience will accept nothing unless it is said or shown by a supposed celebrity, however self-evidently unqualified to pontificate on the subject (or indeed on anything else). The audience cannot be trusted to watch and appreciate a stranger; an introduction must be effected by someone both viewer and stranger have (theoretically) heard of, even though the viewer and the stranger usually have rather more basis for a rapport than either has with the intermediary.

Frequently, also, members of the public only earn their place on the screen alongside the “stars” by dint of their utter singularity. This is “freak show television”, epidemic across the channels. The more grotesque and humiliating the disability, the more unusual and distorting the condition, the better the commissioning editors like it.

And then there is the most unspeakable genre of all, the crassly misnamed “reality television”, whereat people both unknown and known (though not mixed) submit themselves to situations that are very far from real. Indeed, the programmes depend for their (apparent) appeal on the increasing inordinacy of both the situations and the behaviour of the participants: a diminishing prospect, they will surely discover.

The premise of ‘My Transsexual Summer’ might have cast it into the “freak show” category or the fringes of “reality television”, but thankfully in practice it did not. Producer Helen Richards had contrived a mechanism that permitted sufficient freedom for the participants to learn a little about and from each other and to get comfortable with each other and with the camera. The retreat venue obviously allowed for ease of filming but did not impose its own characteristics. More importantly, the forward planning allowed for judicious moving of the production away from the communal set-up and into the individuals’ environments.

This expansion added greatly to the reach of the series’ engagement with the participants. In the matter of any kind of search for identity among the young, the role of the parents is central and Richards was lucky or shrewd (or both) with her casting, which opened up a range of parental reactions and methods of dealing with their offspring’s dramatic developments. If the estranged father of Lewis suddenly found a warmth and sensitivity towards his son because the camera was on him, so much the better for the camera and for Lewis.

Those parents – and an adorable grandma – who gamely took part did themselves great credit. Others were eloquent in their absence, including the 20 year-old daughter of the 52 year-old former policeman-cum-lorry driver. Is changing sex more difficult, more testing, more traumatising – both for the transsexual and for those close to her or him – when the changer is middle-aged? Clearly the subject does not lend itself to too many generalities. It depends on the case.

Even so, during the course of the series, I could not help wondering whether the transition from female to male is easier, more satisfactory, more ‘ do I mean “natural?” ‘ than from male to female. Among the seven we met, at least, the women became very convincing (if camp) boys, whereas the men tended to face the problem of seeming like, in the words of Sarah in Programme One, “bad drag”. Vocally, becoming female is especially taxing, whereas hormone treatment appears to lower the transitioning women’s voices considerably. And of course facial hair helps a lot.

A couple of the group spoke shrewdly about the crucial matter of moving convincingly, especially walking, and (by implication) the larger picture of demeanour, of presentation. Genital surgery clearly assists here, obliging the transgender person to walk accordingly. But both the programme and my own observations of drag entertainers and transvestite civilians convinces me that the unselfconsciously loose and informal body language of men is much easier for women to acquire than is the unselfconscious poise and subtlety of women, especially the glamorous women that men always seem to want to become.

Of the seven, the most “successful” transitioner appeared to be Donna: that is to say, the most confident and outgoing and – more important for transgender people even than for lesbian, gay and bisexual people (and, come to that, for straight people too) – the most comfortable in her own sexuality. Donna admits to having self-harmed in her teens but now, at 25, has been on hormones for two years and presents a persuasively female shape. Her breasts have developed but she knows how to present them too.

Still, she has no plans to seek surgery. For the females-to-males, chest surgery was/is part of the process and Lewis longs for a penis of his own, even if erecting it requires mechanical assistance. For her part, Donna gaily frequents bars where men go to meet transitional women who have not had surgery. She perhaps will settle for a hermaphroditic state. As a personality and a presence, the while, she appears – successfully and in many ways to her advantage – to carry off the trick of enjoying many of the advantages of both women and men.

Donna’s strongest suit is that she is not prepared to defer to anyone. She is sure of her place in the world and will fight to keep it. All the other transitioners recognised that and drew on it. We should too.

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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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