Whenever there is a Documentary about Transgender people on TV I find myself torn between excitement and dread. We desperately need more visibility, more understanding, more acceptance and the media is a powerful tool in assisting to either make that happen, or, by portraying us in sensationalised ways with incorrect terminology, do so much damage.
My friend and I were talking about this last night as we watched the Channel 4 Documentary ‘girls to men’ and compared it to early portrayals of gay men on TV. Remembering programmes such as ‘Are you being served’, the now cringe worthy portrayal of the token gay man that so badly represented the rest of the gay male community. This is what we have now with Transgender people, the generic Cis (non- trans) view of Transgender men as simply ‘butch dykes’ that wish to become more masculine and are on a quest for THE surgery that will make them REAL men
A lot of people on that show were my friends, and the ones I don’t know personally are part of my community, my brothers and my heart goes out to them. They bravely stood up and shared their private struggles in order to help to educate and inform the wider population and they were badly misrepresented.
I don’t want to scare the media away from sharing Transgender stories, or scare away the brave people that help in that venture. I do think that Transgender people, myself included, can sometimes be a little too quick to jump in when things are wrong and berate the media, which then negatively effects the brave trans people that took part. I’ve chosen to share my story before and have had negative comments from doing do. People that share their stories do so with the best of intentions, it’s not their fault when they then find they have been edited in a bad way. Of course I understand why the sudden jump to have a go at the media when they represent us badly; they have done us a lot of damage over the years. However, the only way they will ever get it right is if we have a balanced dialogue with them, we need the visibility, and if parts of the visibility are bad then at least it gets us talking, it’s a good start. For example, I’ve had people contact me after shows to ask things and I’ve found that their views were often changed positively by the coverage and then I can put them straight on using more correct terms than they heard on the program, which they in turn then pass on to others. I think it is unrealistic of us to expect perfect terminology from the off, even if there is such a thing, as we all differ on our preferred use of terms, however, there are certain terms we all agree are completely out of date and send the wrong message
For example, by using the title “Girls to Men” in a programme about Transgender people you are implying that before transition we were female. This is simply not the truth; we are male that is why we undergo medical transition, because our bodies have grown incorrectly to the gender of our brain. Our bodies should have produced testosterone but they didn’t so we were born with parts that looked female and at puberty our bodies received the wrong signal and grew extra parts that also shouldn’t have been there. So we are not becoming men, we already are men; we are just having surgery to correct what nature got wrong.
These terms also keep the idea going that transition is a choice, that we decided we wanted to be ‘manlier’. The terms in this documentary just added to this, for example when the narrator said, “X takes testosterone to make him more manly”, “X had his breasts removed”, “X is going to extraordinary lengths to be the man he wants to be”. In order to be correctly represented, this could have been said in such ways a, “X had chest reconstruction”, “X is given testosterone as his body cannot make its own, “X is taking testosterone so will now go through the male puberty that he should have gone through”.
The use of all young guys in this programme also seems to support the message that this is somehow a phase, a new craze. Why not use a broader range of people? There are a number of guys like myself, that did not begin their transition until their 30’s and upwards. Our stories help to show that this isn’t a choice or a teenage fad as the undertone of the documentary appeared to hint at. Us older Trans guys have lived a very confused and desperately unhappy life, without access to the information we needed to make sense of our experience, in a time in the world with little acceptance. Now times are changing we are finally able to come out and begin transition. Sharing our stories too would show that this isn’t something new; it’s always been there it’s just that its own in recent years become easier to talk about
And why the focus on the penis?! Why reduce our experience to using surgery to define us when there is rich tapestry of existential experience in our personal stories? Besides, there is not just one surgery, there are many different surgeries, many choices within those surgeries, and a lot of guys choose not to pursue surgery for numerous reasons, from not feeling they need it or the surgery just being too much of an upheaval. This over focus on surgery is not helpful to our community and leads to invasive questions being asked and the perception that Transgender men cannot be real men if they haven’t had THE surgery.
As I said in the beginning of this piece, whilst frustrating and upsetting, getting terminology wrong can be corrected, if we waited until it was perfect then we wouldn’t get any visibility and besides, to get terminology correct you need a dialogue between all parties so rather than an outpouring of rage when media gets it wrong, there should be a conversation about why it was wrong and how it can be corrected. However, what overshadows this much needed dialogue about last night’s programme is the awful experience of two Transgender people who took part who had images shown for which they did not give consent. They were misinformed of the title, not consulted of its change and when they contacted channel 4 to say that they were no longer happy for it to be shown, especially due to the unconsented footage, channel 4 went ahead anyway. There is simply no excuse for this. It doesn’t matter if channel 4 believes they did their best regarding consent, these transgender people don’t feel they did and that is what is important.
There really is no excuse now, we have agencies set up such as Trans media watch and All about Trans, which provide education and information for the media on correct use of terminology and .work in partnership to ensure that transgender people who are willing to put themselves forward can do safely without fear of being misinterpreted or having their personal life violated.
All of this breaks my heart as without the consent issues, as infuriating as some of the term usage was, this could have been corrected through a dialogue with channel 4. The personal stories of the people in there were informative and incredibly inspiring; it was the voice over and poor editing that made a mess of it and turned it into a patronising and sensationalist nightmare. However, these consent issues now completely overshadow everything else about the show and if not handled correctly could set the transgender community back in public understanding and in how the media handles issues in the future. Channel 4 you have made some fantastic documentaries of late, what went wrong here and what do you plan to do about it?