As a woman who transitioned comparatively late in life (in my late fifties), my attention was recently caught by a television programme made by BBC Scotland*. It was, for the most part, sympathetically presented (although there were the inevitable and pointless shots of the women applying their make-up – why is this such a ‘must’ for those documenting anything to do with transition?); it seemed to be careful in its adherence to acceptable terminology and the correct pronouns, and in the lack of sensationalism or salaciousness in the voice-over. At the end of the programme I was more impressed than I had expected to be, for the current wave of enthusiasm for trans-related material in the media often has an unfortunate lack of authenticity about it. As an actress said, when commissioned to work on a new trans-themed ‘sitcom’: “Transgender has become the new black”.
For me, one of the most striking features of the programme was the staggering contrast between the celebrity transitioners of the moment, such as Caitlyn Jenner, and the lives of the five women featured in the documentary. The transition process is an arduous journey for anyone to follow, no matter what their age or their resources when they set out. And, it could be argued, those with the most wealth, the happiest family, the highest social status at the outset theoretically stand to lose the most. Yet they also tend to have the influence, the access to the best advice, the resources to buy the best medical and other professional support, and thus potentially the greatest chance of making a success of their new lives. The bus driver, the postal worker, the social worker in the documentary, for example, had (judging by their surroundings) little financial wealth or other means of support compared with a celebrity, beyond, in some cases, a loving family.
The trouble is that the condition of gender dysphoria is completely unselective when it chooses its host bodies – no-one is to know, when a baby is born, that this son of a duke, or that son of a dustman, is destined to grow up doubting everything about his own gender identity. (The same, I agree, applies to women who just know that they are male inside, but it was male-to-female transition which was at the heart of the BBC’s programme). The feeling that one should have been born in the other sex can, and does, strike anyone, no matter what their personal fortunes.
The five women, whose ups and downs through the transition process were followed by the documentary, provided a wonderfully heartening contrast to the glitz and glamour of, forgive the phrase, celebrity-style transition. There were no chat shows for these women; no red carpets or fawning interviews; no glossy front covers. Instead, they had to contend with all the self-doubt (and, yes, self-loathing) which is common to this condition, but with precious few resources to boost their confidence; they had to face verbal and physical abuse on the streets of their home towns – no chauffeur-driven limousines and bodyguards for them; they stood every chance of losing the jobs on which they depended for their money every week – no millions in the bank or sponsorship contracts for them; they had to present themselves to match their new way of life on a budget probably less than a celebrity’s daily small change – no Versace or Dior for them; they had to confront their mostly male colleagues, often in a largely masculine (and potentially hostile) work-environment, with the news of their transition plans – no sympathetic media-coverage or heroism accolades for them.
Having named Caitlyn Jenner I will hasten to add that I in no way doubt her authenticity or her genuine need to transition, and I wish her every success. Where I feel uncomfortable is in the excess of publicity given to her individual case. Her openness, when she is very much in the public eye, is laudable, and very few could cope with that degree of publicity and scrutiny. Yet I fear that the wave of coverage will somehow give the impression that transition is easier and more glamorous than it really is. In truth, whatever one’s social standing at the outset, it is a hard, frustrating and frightening process.
Yet the very ordinary women in the BBC documentary all knew – they simply knew – that they had no other choice. And so, despite the loss of family, of friendships, of freedoms, of money (when they all had so comparatively little to begin with), they had no option but to continue the journey down ‘Transition Road’. And those who, by the end of the programme, had largely achieved their goal of adapting completely to life as a woman (whether with or without sex reassignment surgery) also knew that they had made the right decision. Setting off on the journey is a bitterly hard decision, no matter how ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ you are (and not just in monetary terms). For those who are truly afflicted by gender dysphoria, the journey may not lead to ‘riches beyond compare’ in the material sense, as the media hype around some celebrities might imply; but it does, almost without exception, lead to a mental and emotional satisfaction, which are reward enough.
* ‘Transsexual Stories’ was first broadcast on BBC 1 in Scotland on 24 August 2015. It may be available via this YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R_R77js3dQ4
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