My Cissexist Summer

Channel 4’s latest trans documentary has certainly achieved an impressive amount of commentary from within trans communities. Like it or loathe it, we all have something to say about My Transsexual Summer. I suppose that’s because this particular programme – running unusually as a series rather than a one-off show – has been really pushed by the broadcaster. You can’t really miss that it’s happening, and as such many people are painfully aware of how likely it is to shape the general public’s perception of trans lives and trans issues.

That level of public consciousness has no doubt shaped the fury emerging from some quarters. I’ve seen outrage at the employment of numerous cissexist tropes (as Paris Lees noted in the Guardian, anyone playing the Trans Documentary Drinking Game whilst watching My Transsexual Summer is guaranteed to get utterly sozzled very quickly), the dodgy narration from a clueless cis woman, and the frequent use of the word “tranny” by documentary participants. The latter issue in particular has predictably reignited debates about whether or not (and how) offensive language can be reclaimed.

Others (including Lees) have welcomed the show as a positive step forward. I agree with those who point out that the show breaks new ground in enabling trans people to speak for themselves in a public/media setting. The best parts of episodes one and two do tend to involve group conversations in which the show’s participants have the rare opportunity to discuss their unique challenges within the safety and comfort of a trans space (other good bits included Dr Bellringer’s justification of genital surgery and the revelation that some trans men keep their clitoris post-phalloplasty…imagine, a functioning penis and a functioning clitoris! Dude!)

My own problem with the show is that these moments of brilliance are inevitably compromised by the ciscentric, cissexist editing process. I’ve already mentioned the narrator: the show would be a considerably stronger, warmer portrayal without the presence of her patronising, occasionally transphobic twaddle. Then there’s some of the things the participants are required to do. In the first episode, they’re expected to take pictures of one another (an activity some are clearly uncomfortable with), leading to this gem of a comment:

The photographs are ready. Now they’ll be able to judge themselves, and each other.

Congratulations Channel 4: you’ve managed to touch upon everything that’s wrong with internalised transphobia, judgemental “more stealth-than-thou” attitudes within trans communities and the cissexism within the wider world in one fell swoop!

The worst part of the editing process though is the identity erasure undertaken for the sake of telling a safe, easily digestible story to a cis audience. Maxwell – the jolly Jewish fellow from the show – has written about this process extensively on his blog:

What I see is the inevitable privileging of narratives that do not challenge dominant paradigms of normative gender. What I see is programming that will make you think “oh I feel so sorry for them, maybe I might think about how those people get a tough ride”. What I don’t see is anything that is going to make people think or feel any differently about what gender is or how it limits us all in one way or another.

What we see are lovely endearing transsexuals (who I still consider to be my good friends) struggling though ‘typical’ transitions and don’t get me wrong these stories are hugely important, I do not underestimate how important these stories are but where are all the queers!?

These narratives are totally valid but I believe they need to be seen in context and juxtaposed with a more diverse representation. A representation that was there in the house but somehow didn’t make it to our television screens.

Where is Fox talking about being mixed race, about his art and about how he sees himself as two spirit?

Where is the exploration of Donna’s male and female identities as she navigates the personal relationships that mean so much to her?

Where is the discussion about how I reject gender binary and sexuality and still live an observant Jewish life at the same time?

The film-makers’ approach also ensured that the word “tranny” was employed in a deeply problematic context:

The responsibility was not on us to act or behave in a certain way- our job was to turn up and be ourselves. TwentyTwenty and Channel Four bear the responsibility for broadcasting footage without providing any context whatsoever. Donna ‘I’m pretty manly for a Tranny’ is a superbly articulate young woman who’s reasons for using the T word were not broadcast, instead they used endless footage of her and the other women putting on make up.

Maxwell and the other participants have been attacked extensively for their use of the word, with detractors arguing that they should have been more careful. Maxwell is now wondering if he did the “wrong thing”. Yet I’m inclined to agree with his initial assessment: if the editors had any sense, if they listened to the numerous community members they corresponded with, if they gave a shit, then they would have thought quite seriously about how they used the small amount of footage in which the word is uttered.

I can understand why some feel that My Transsexual Summer represents a step forward, a positive move in spite of its failings. I see hope in the brave, strong participants, and in the few moments when their voices are heard loud and clear. If we’re to have a truly decent, representative mainstream trans documentary though, those voices have to be centred rather than sidelined. We’ll continue to see poor programmes produced as long as cis filmmakers have the power to re-contextualise our stories whilst erasing our gender(s), sexual orientation, and race/ethnicity.

6 thoughts on “My Cissexist Summer

  1. I have been trying all my life to move things forward, traveling for the most part alone in many countries. I’ve suffered all the slings and arrows thrown at me by ignorant people believing that Transsexuals are just a bunch of Gays dressing up for sexual reasons. Well done to channel 4 and the circus star’s for helping to confirm this to the millions watching. Star number 1, Gay guy dressing up staying in the house with mummy, Only job, working in Gay bar part time,hobbies, likes playing with Barby dolls. Star number 2. Gay guy loves dressing up does not associate with being a woman just wants the sex. ” if i could take a pill to turn me into a woman,I would not take it ” .His words on the 2nd show. Star number 3 cross-Dresser from Gursey 4 weeks of dressing up and now he’s a Transsexual. I could go on but what’s the point. This show as done to much damage to an already mixed up, miss-understood medical condition.

    • Hi Jenny,

      I feel your disrespect for the identities of the individuals involved in the programme is deeply saddening. Not every person conforms to a particular ideal of femininity or masculinity, and not every trans person conforms to an ideal of binary gender (for that matter, if we are to truly seek gender liberation, why should we?)

      I also fail to understand what your problem with gay people is.

      Please refrain from inappropriately gendering and homophobia if you wish to post on this blog.

  2. Jenny,

    I can’t help but notice that you are the one “slinging stones and arrows” and inflicting harsh judgment and ridicule towards others. It’s sad when in your words “ignorant people” treat those in our community with disdain – I’m frankly shocked to see it coming from someone within our community.

    I love the fact that our community is diverse – and I think we need to respect that diversity. I’m not about to tell someone that they are “doing it wrong” – when “it” is being true to who they are. To me being trans is not about what surgery, therapy, vocal training or hormones I’ve taken – I was unbearably unhappy before my transition – now I am at peace and prospering in life. That’s what I wish for everyone in our community regardless of their path.

    I love the show – I think for those outside the community ( the show’s largest audience ) who’ve never had exposure to anyone trans – it will do us all far more good, than harm. Even if the average viewer can’t understand “the whys” behind transition the cast is great and it’s hard not to like them and wish them well.I just hope one day they have a version of the show in the U.S.

  3. it doesnt matter how old you are,it doesnt matter how you look in this world,it doesnt matter what we want,but it does matter to the individual,i know this is a youth bit,but im 39 years old,lived in mens clothes all my life,my wardrobe has male clothes,etc,i have tried for the third time,i am living my life with other peoples old beliefs,they have tried to control my mind to transform me in to the lady they desire me to be in,they have tried to attempt to produce to give female hormones,to stop my thoughts of wanting to be a male,but it isnt a thought,i have wanted it all my life,it is just like a ordinary male getting up for work in the morning,breakfast,shower,in wardobe in office today,suit?what one?
    That is me,what jeans today?what boxers?what top?to me,well it is me,it is second nature,just like a ordinary female,getting ready to go out clubbing,make up,dress,phone the men up,etc,
    if any one has the gender dysphoria,i say go for it,conquer what you desire deep in your soul,
    To any one that might have a idea that you might recongise these paragraphs,i am not you,you aint me,you did not give birth to me to justify your self,you gave birth to me to have the control until i was mature to leave the nest and be independent,well that nest has gone,now i am where i am,you cant justify me no more,you canot arrange to decide,you cannot orgainse my life,you have no rights to destroy my desires,to justify your structure,your look in the mirror,you way of sitting,you way of behaviour,your way of walk,your way your mind,i look in the mirror i look like me,when i look in the mirror when i have finished getting dressed,im cool,im decant,I LIKE WHAT I SEE OF MYSELF.

  4. I refused to watch this program altogether because of the bad things I’d heard about the trailer. Judging by your blog, it’s probably good that I didn’t watch it.

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