Laurie Penny: A sensational subject without the sensation


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How long does it take before you find out what a new friend has stashed in their pants? A year? A day? An entire lifetime, barring the occasional unfortunate bit of drunken exhibitionism? If you happen to be a transsexual person, the question "how's your junk?" often comes up before proper names are exchanged. To avoid this sort of fist-biting faux pas, those of us lucky enough to have been born in the right body could do worse than watch Channel 4's new consciousness-raising reality show, My Transsexual Summer.

In a culture coming late to the understanding that transsexual, transgender and genderqueer people are human beings who deserve to be taken seriously and treated sensitively, My Transsexual Summer satisfies some curiosities while failing to resemble a Victorian freak show. The documentary follows seven transsexual men and women, all at stages of transitioning from living as one gender to living as another, on a "summer retreat", and has clearly benefited from Channel 4's association with campaigns group Trans Media Watch. Despite a few clichéd makeover scenes, the show avoids some of the traditional pitfalls: it does not, for example, refer to transsexual people using names and pronouns which they have abandoned. Unfortunately, programming that allows trans people to speak for and among themselves, rather than simply forcing them to justify their existence, is still uncommon enough to merit comment.

My Transsexual Summer offers a vision of a more compassionate reality. The "retreat" is a safe haven, where the show's seven protagonists are encouraged to befriend and support one another.

Many transsexuals describe the experience of moving from one gender to another as "a second adolescence", especially where hormones are involved. This programme captures all the awkward tenderness of seven adults going through that process, from envious comparisons of beard-growth to preparing for a big night out.

For some, however, it comes at a chilling price. The annual transgender day of remembrance falls this Sunday, and, like last year, there is a new list of names of those around the world murdered and maimed because of transphobic prejudice. My Transsexual Summer conjures a world of tolerance and safety where transsexual men and women are allowed to live in peace. It is a sad reflection of our culture that television does not yet reflect reality.

Advert for doomed youth?

A recent TV advert encouraged unemployed young people to apply for careers advice with an arresting image of catatonic teenagers in an landfill site, being shovelled into the jaws of enormous rubbish trucks. "Ever feel like you're on the scrapheap?" it asked.

This week, following the news that youth unemployment has passed the one million mark, an eviction notice has been served on the protest camp outside St Paul's.

Watching the New York sanitation department rip up and toss away the Occupy Wall Street camp, I thought of that advert. The message being sent to the young and indignant could not be clearer: you are trash and filth, your ideals are trash and filth. Ever feel like you're on the scrapheap? Well, you are now.

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