The “Trans Narrative”

Currently there is a letter to Channel 4 and the production company RDF going round, asking RDF to stop filming a series tentatively titled “Transition”. At the same time, I’ve been involved in some behind the scenes discussions with another production company who want to make a programme on the difficulties trans people face in accessing surgery.

The letter correctly points out that the RDF programme simply focuses on trans peoples’ experiences during one particular part of their lives as being the sole thing that cis people seem interested in. The media narrative never seems to change – trans is all about transition.

Well, it is and it isn’t. When I was having some counselling many years ago, one statement out of many that stuck with me was that, trans or not, we are all constantly changing. It’s just that this particular change that trans people face happens to be fairly visible. As a result, I’ve never really considered “transition” to be something that has a beginning or an end for me. Sure, there were specific dates when certain things happened, but generally they were part of a process. I was fairly fortunate in that I was effectively self-employed when I did things like change my name, so I didn’t have to have a “transition date” at work – I just became less and less male in appearance until the point when I simply never “dressed male” any more. That’s a luxury few trans people have. So, in that way, trans is all about transition – but in exactly the same way that everybody’s life is actually all about transition.

The flip side is that I am more-or-less constantly affected by being trans. Trans is just one of many labels applied to me, none of which completely describe me. Thirteen years on, there are still the rare days where the regrets about a missed past come surging through. I’m increasingly known as one of a very few trans politicians, and have opportunities few trans people are given to talk in certain circles or be given certain platforms. I’m constantly under some level of medical supervision because of the medication I take. There are very few days when trans just isn’t on my radar in some form or other. However, to put that into context, most days I’m also impacted by being a company director or a Liberal Democrat.

Television is all about telling stories. If someone is unusual, because they have an interesting past or something rare about them, it’s natural that the media will take note. A large part of the work I and others have done over the past 7 years is to try to ensure that simply being trans is not seen as unusual or newsworthy. We’ve had some success, but there’s clearly still a way to go. However, there is still a lot of education around trans issues (by which I don’t mean surgery) still to do. While UK audiences of 2 or 3 million seem impressive, that still means that there’s around 62 million people who haven’t been reached. Also some of those 2 or 3 million will watch in order to have the full Mary Whitehouse experience and express the “suitable” outrage.

The issue for me is one of balance. In the absence of any formal research into how trans people have been covered in trans-specific programming, I have a strong sense that the “trans programming is all about transition” meme is correct. That’s not to say that trans people don’t appear in other contexts, but when a programme is commissioned to specifically deal with trans issues, it seems to focus on surgery or on people early on in their journey. I think it’s safe to say that one’s perspective on “all things trans” tends to change after a while of living “in role”. This repeated coverage of people at the beginning of their journey finding their feet, while it can be heartwarming, is problematic because it doesn’t really move understanding on. I do think that programmes about transition have their place – but not if they’re the only trans-specific programmes that are commissioned.

Which then leads to the question, what would longer-term transitioned people actually want covered?

One angle I’ve been trying to pursue with one production company (with little success) is looking at the ethics which underpin the way the transition pathway is delivered. There has been some evolution in those over the past few years, but the ever-growing lists for the GICs indicate that either significantly more resourcing is required, or a significantly different approach – at least for the majority of people. NHS England’s announcement earlier this week about recommissioning the entire provision of gender identity services makes it possible that either or both of those alternatives now come into play. Note that I’m not saying that supply of a trans pathway should be up for debate, but that how effective care is delivered should be looked at. I despair of trans being used as an example of how free speech is supposedly being shut down.

One idea which has been doing the rounds as long as Trans Media Watch has been in existence is to do some kind of “history of trans”. This could be broadened out into a “sociology of trans”, which looks at trans people in different cultures across the world. Some of this has already been done, but the resulting programmes tended to focus on an individual historic figure or one particular culture.

Then there’s the whole area of gender theory, using the experiences of the longer transitioned person, and a serious discussion about how being non-binary impacts people. You’ve got dating – at what point, if any, in a relationship should a trans person disclose their past? Does disclosure affect employment opportunities too? What about the ridiculousness of the way the current law applies to a person who transitioned when a child?

Part of the issue is how media likes to sell itself. Stories about dramatic decisions or tensions are what sells. A story about someone like me, who just has a gradual evolution into the person I needed to be, isn’t anywhere near as dramatic as someone who has “the butterfly moment”. For this reason the media will tend to concentrate on one kind of story, which is dangerous when it comes to the “educating” part of their brief. It’s not surprising, then, that a number of trans people see programming, such as Transition, as more akin to entertainment. We’ve moved past the point where just seeing “someone like me” on telly is affirming.

One thing that has been powerful in the media is letting trans people speak for themselves. My Transsexual Summer, the 2011 Channel 4 series, did some of that – although it does seem that a lot was squeezed into a narrative that was supplied by the production team. I suspect that’s part of the problem – trans voices are rarely heard in the production process and probably not at all in the commissioning process. It’s fine (now) to have trans people in front of the camera, but not so much in any kind of editorial control.

I suspect other groups have this too – the way Muslims or travellers are portrayed in our media is also incredibly problematic and simplistic. Fundamentally I think it displays the way that a lot of British media is run and how it can be very unsympathetic, despite all sorts of diversity initiatives and policies, to marginalised groups. And that is a much, much bigger nut to crack.

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