Saturday, November 12, 2011

Channel 4, Python and "the violence inherent in the system..."

Not for the first time, the Pythons have it said.

Experiencing the behaviour of the transgender community can be like living on the set of 'Life of Brian'. Specifically being part of the sub plot which has fun with squabbling Judean nationalist groups and their endless competition to be the voice of the people in the fight against the Roman occupiers.

Who can forget "Are you the Judean People's Front?" ... "Fuck off!"

But these last few days, I've been thinking of another piece of a film they made before 'Life of Brian'. I'm personally probably even fonder of 'Holy Grail'. It's sillier.

The section that's come to mind is this one...

This week, much heat, though rather less light, has been ejected on the subject of the strengths and weaknesses of 'My Transsexual Summer', Channel 4's new four parter about the lives of seven trans people. It follows the stories of this group as they come together in a sort of retreat house to share and mutually support one another, whilst going through a few weeks of their respective transitions.

The show is far from perfect. It lapses quickly and too easily into some of the standard media tropes of transgender portrayal - the shots of the make up (though these do come to have a certain meaning in the film), the awkward and inconsistent voiceover which talks of the someone "becoming a woman", or a man. There's the inevitable money shot - or in this case money sequence - as one participant goes off to have her genital surgery and the cameras follow her in to the theatre (though they do also capture the surgeon saying some very sensible things about that surgery - a first I think). And perhaps most controversially of all, it dwells on moments when the participants celebrate being "trannies", thus bringing into the picture, and potentially reinforcing in the public consciousness, a word which many trans people loathe and which has routinely become a term of hate and abuse.

But, and it's a big but, for all this, the first episode of the series had a freshness and an authenticity I had not seen before. Here were seven people all seeking the things that everyone seeks. Happiness and the right to be themselves. That they were dealing with circumstances which made them unusual in one way was not the central point, and I hope it won't become it.

I recognised them - though they aren't living their experience of being trans like I like live mine.  But much more important than any connection I forged with the participants, over 2 million others saw the programme. And hopefully many hundreds of thousands of these viewers will have - perhaps - recognised them too. Will have found themselves realising that they understood more than they had expected - not because they suddenly became expert in the terminology or concepts of the trans community, but because these seven (for all their foibles and regrettable affection for a word which causes others a lot of trouble) were portrayed by turn as articulate, vulnerable, strong, witty, charming, thoughtful, serious.

In short, human.

And dare I say, take a deep breath...'normal'?

If the film makers can do this, if they can create a series which builds a greater understanding amongst others that trans people are fundamentally recognisable  - that we want what others want - then they will have contributed to something very important. Respect is built on recognition. One day trans people will become judged by the world as people with a legitimate right to take our full place in society, through a common human bond we have with others. No longer pigeonholed into some baffling space expressed in the dense vocabulary of a condition forever incomprehensible to others and which only serves to make us seem distant and difficult. I believe that our chance is to find common ground with others around us not by forcing them to try and understand something they never can, but by turning to the essential things that make us, as human beings, all the same. Connected.

I hope and believe that for all the cliches that won't die in this series, the people who have made it are trying to do something positive for this community. Are trying to create connection. They have taken criticism for not understanding the nature of the trans experience, as most film makers who approach this field do, for looking chiefly at the needs of the audience in approaching the series more than the needs of the trans community in looking out from it. I'm not sure that's fair, but if any of it is true it is because perhaps that they know that a series which speaks only to other transgender people is pointless. Pointless for them as a production company - barely anyone will watch. Pointless for us as a community - barely anyone will watch.

So I too squirm at the awkward script, but I will try and forgive it its shortcomings in the hope that I am right about the motives of those who wrote it. Whilst treating the subjects of a documentary series like this with respect and decency, it remains vital to reach out. To find an approach, a feel, a language, which a general audience can come to grips with. If this means that a production company tackling this topic needs to walk a nightmare tight rope in trying to both honour its subject and speak to it's inexperienced audience then it's to the credit of Twenty Twenty Productions and Channel 4 that they are at least trying. They didn't have to. Far easier to commission and make some humiliating transphobic sitcom than this.

That they are making mistakes is barely surprising. That the trans community is, in part, reacting like the peasant in this early scene of 'Monty Python and the Holy Grail'  - bringing its assumption-based suspicions to bear and finding offense with supersonic ease - is equally predictable. This is an abused community. It is conditioned to hear certain words and ideas which have lead to ridicule and hate in the past, and to start hurting almost before they are out of the mouths of those who speak them. This can happen whatever the intention, motives (or absence of them) or simple misunderstandings of the speaker of these words. There's a Pavlovian narrative in some of this - seeing some of the errors of My Transsexual Summer and launching into them, (and even participants who a few feel are sleeping with the enemy), with an avalanche of criticism grounded in historical assumptions about the motives of those involved. I understand that. I've been dreadfully hurt in the past too. And the media's record in this area has been appalling.

But, for all of my difficulties with My Transsexual Summer, I am hoping the intentions of those who have made this series, are different, and better.

And that the fruit it will finally bear will be tangible, and positive.

And that the trans community will start to notice the difference.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Pinker than before

Yesterday, the Independent on Sunday published its Pink List 2011. 101 names of people judged by a panel of appropriate luminaries, with assistance from the general public, to be making the most significant contribution to the lives of LGB & T people today.

It is of course, utterly subjective. The media...the popular culture...loves lists. That sense of jockeying for position, of relative influence. Lists of things - especially ones with people - attach a certain 'value' to individuals, speaking both to our competitive instincts and giving us something against which to respond, to measure our feelings. We might blame the record industry of the 1950s for starting all this, but we're stuck with it now.

The Pink List is attracting quite a lot of comment. There's some grumbling from a few in the trans community about the exclusions - the people who might be on it, but aren't (right off the bat, I can think of 5 or 6 people who might well have claimed a place there). There's some other whining that it's a dumbed down stunt, without any meaning.

But generally, it's been received positively. And there's one massive reason for that. Seven trans people are on the list. Several more are mentioned alongside it. Seven out of a hundred and one. Not many. But a vast improvement on last year, when there were none - that's right, none - on a list of LGB & T people. Even the equivalent Time Out list a few months ago managed to score only a baldly tokenistic one trans person.

Does the Pink List matter? Yes it matters. The Indie on Sunday might be small incarnation of the smallest national circulation quality paper, but in the absence of many similar resources this list becomes an instant reference point for journalists and broadcasters who want someone to interview, or from whom they can find a quote. And the trans people on it are all quite capable of doing a good job in that regard. It becomes a resource to which politicians and civil servants can turn if they are trying not to forget us. It becomes a place where another 150,000 readers are introduced to the names and achievements of some trans people.

Being there also gives a lift to a community which is finally beginning to make some real progress. The first years of this century have seen trans activists break down some enormous barriers, walking in the footsteps of those who came before. Legislation has been passed which once might have seemed a ridiculous dream. The mainstream media - the bearpit in which social attitude is crystallized - remains for the most part a self serving, amoral, profit chasing hydra.  But finally trans people are finding their voice in it, and to it.

We have had to fight to start to have our lives and our experiences presented with accuracy, dignity and respect, and for every victory we achieve, we still see ghastly examples of prejudice, ridicule and ignorance. But the tide is with us. You can feel it. Latest attempts to force change upon the media only began in March 2009 (after some stunningly transphobic comedy in an ITV sitcom galvanised hostility and anger in a way nothing had done before) but doors have opened in the last two years which had been shut for decades. Trans Media Watch was built around that moment in 2009, and soon joined with others who were taking the fight to Ofcom and the tv production community - moving from a monitoring site based on Facebook to a group with growing influence.

There are years to go yet. There are laws to be passed - not least one that allows trans people to have their gender recognised and stay married (and it looks like it might be coming). The situation with respect to trans children remains horrendous in many instances - though breakthroughs are appearing (like here). NHS treatment of trans people for this entirely authentic medical condition remains patchy at best, insulting and dangerously bad at worst. And there are parts of the country where to be trans, and to be in public, means being in desperate physical danger still.

But things are getting better. The momentum is growing. Change is coming.

And having seven people on that list is part of it.

Sunday, October 23, 2011


I have moved across to Blogger from, a platform I started using but found awkward and choked with banner ads. Every time I went there to write something, I locked horns with the terrible interface and lost my thrust. So now I'm here. Much better.

There are a couple of posts over there still, discussing media presentation of trans people in the UK. Drop across and have a look...

Superficial, Unconvincing, Insulting and Unacceptable
Changing the game? Not yet. But getting on the pitch