'My Transsexual Summer' appraised

'My Transsexual Summer' 'My Transsexual Summer' - Richard Ansett/Channel 4
Posted: Thu Dec 8 2011

A trans author and activist considers the impact of 'My Transsexual Summer'

For Britain's transgender population, Channel 4's 'My Transsexual Summer' looked like a landmark: the most important TV programme since 1980, when the BBC followed Julia Grant through 'A Change of Sex'. But now that its four hours have finished, that population - myself included - is reassessing a show that promised to be more sympathetic and less sensationalist than anything before, and asking: 'How useful was it?'

'My Transsexual Summer' followed seven people in transition - four male-to-female and three female-to-male, mostly in their twenties - as they came out to family and friends, tried to find work and homes, and discovered themselves in pubs and clubs, some designated as trans-friendly and others not. In mixing their everyday worlds with footage at a 'retreat', 'My Transsexual Summer' didn't just walk a fine line between sensitivity and sensationalism - it built it into its form. Personal narratives combined jarringly with the retreat, which recalled the Big Brother 'house' of Channel 4's recent past.

The involvement as consultants of Trans Media Watch, who monitor negative print and broadcast portrayals of gender variant people, raised hopes for 'My Transsexual Summer'. TMW's Paris Lees enthused in the Guardian about how it rejected the standard narrative of isolated victims who risked the trappings of heterosexual life to transition, showing a vibrant community who supported each other with grace and humour.

Musician CN Lester echoed Lees's reservations about a style of editing that repeated all the sensationalist clichés of yesteryear: shots of make-up applied in a mirror, and gratuitous footage of surgery. But, like me, Lester was pleased to see trans people speaking at length in their voices, sharing terminology and in-jokes. Even if the show wasn't really made for us, it was made with us, providing a positive, accessible starting point for those who may be struggling to understand a loved one in transition.

This says as much about past programming as it does about 'My Transsexual Summer'. The reiteration of old tropes and positioning of its participants as 'transsexual' in the narrow sense of moving from one end of a gender binary to another, despite Donna not planning surgery and Fox seeing himself as 'two spirit', produced a witty reply in the 'DIY Transsexual Summer' Twitter hashtag. Here, trans people imagined a show that did far more in deconstructing myths, particularly the '70s stereotypes about how we look (sample: '#diytranssummer would involve transwomen wearing jeans and respectable tops going for a quiet drink in a little pub', which sounds like most of my Friday nights).

So how do I feel about 'My Transsexual Summer'? Regarding its representation of the trans 'community', it's worth recalling that the participants never claimed to represent anyone bar themselves. One, Maxwell Zachs, expressed frustration on his blog about how the show ignored non-binary identities, their words and deeds framed by programme makers with preconceptions about how to make 'complex' issues accessible, with Karen 'reduced to her anatomy' and Donna 'a caricature of her real, intelligent self'. It would be as ludicrous to take 'My Transsexual Summer's cast as 'representative' of trans people as it would to take 'Loose Women's as representative of women, so we should ask: how well did it illustrate the social tribulations that accompany transgender living?

The scenes where Drew-Ashlyn (whose 'These are our streets too!' became a memorable rallying cry) struggled to find work, turned away by a bridal shop who thought that customers (but not themselves) could not accept her, were touching, even if the narration avoided the legal implications of declining someone because of their transsexual status.

Most positively, we saw parents and grandparents accepting their loved ones' transitions, which can hopefully inspire other families to do the same, addressing the fact that historically, many transsexual people have been abandoned by those closest to them after coming out. The points where the cast socialised together worked less well: nobly, the programme makers attempted to highlight transphobic attitudes and behaviour in mainstream social spaces, but one wonders how much this negative attention was exacerbated by the cameras, or whether any situations were set up to maximise conflict.

And whilst Lewis's failure to get NHS funding for chest surgery was an accurate reflection of his reality, more exploration of how to challenge his primary care trust's decision or have private treatment in Britain would have sent a more informative message to any viewers considering a similar path.

Perhaps in 30 years' time, 'My Transsexual Summer' will look as dated as 'A Change of Sex' does now. If so, this will be because it has, for all its faults, taken trans-related television in a more positive direction.

Still available to watch on 4oD