There seems to be an explosion of transgender-related stuff appearing on TV, in newspapers and magazines and just about everywhere else you look these days. 2015 certainly was the year for trans awareness; hot on the heels of Time magazine’s 2014 ‘transgender tipping point’, suddenly we’re everywhere in the media. Caitlyn Jenner appears on the cover of a glossy mag and suddenly it’s okay to be trans. Some might say it’s even a bit trendy.
Certainly, the Tavistock and Portman NHS trust report that the number of British children who want to change their gender has doubled in the last six months and quadrupled in the last five years, so it’s clear that something big has changed somewhere along the line. And it’s a good change, too.
There have never been so many TV dramas and soaps with transgender characters and/or actors, and never so many documentaries about the lives of transgender people. So, when a simple doc about how that bloke in the house on the corner turned out to be a transsexual no longer has the surprise factor that once titillated the nation’s television consumers, where do TV producers go next?
How about a documentary about the lives of young transgender people getting together in ‘same-trans relationships’ and others trying to start relationships with everyday Muggles? Someone pitched that to the Beeb, it turns out, and it appeared on our screens this week.
Young, Trans and Looking for Love lit up our BBC3 screens with the trials and tribulations of several American kids as they tried to find partners at the same time as transitioning from one gender to another. Arin Andrews and Katie Hill hit the headlines in the States back in 2012 when they got together. Katie was born a boy and Arin had been a girl before both decided they were not happy in their skin and that they had to change. Then they met and fell in love and lived happily ever after (until they broke up about six months later).
Of course they were not, in reality, the first transgender couple. That accolade goes to the very first transgender people to have surgery in the UK, Roberta Cowell and Michael Dillon, who became an item back in the 1950s - so these American kids are interesting but not unique.
One thing I think I learned from watching Young, Trans and Looking for Love was that relationships like this cannot hope to last. The reason Katie and Arin broke up was because of a lack of functioning waggly bits, which appear to be very necessary for a good relationship (outside marriage anyway) according to the narrative of the documentary. And so both parties went their separate ways, looking for love with cisgender folk who do have in their possession the meaty bits that make the difference. It’s not exactly the message anyone was looking for – and it is all a bit genital-centric at a time when trans people are getting fairly sick of being rudely questioned about their genitals – but there you go.
Transgender people who are in transition really do need other transgender folk for support during what is an extremely difficult time, so it’s not really surprising Katie and Arin got together in the first place. They obviously had a great deal in common that no one else could possibly understand or relate to, so of course they were drawn together as people. But when Sexy Time came around, they were let down by the very transition that brought them together. Ironic, yes, but apparently inevitable.
My fear is that we may now start to see a new genre of cheap fly-on-the-wall single camera documentaries showing trans people starting relationships with non-trans people and we’ll all be glued to our screens waiting to see how long it will be before the trans person tells their new boyfriend or girlfriend about their past, and what the reaction is like. Presumably, the more angry it is, the better television it will make. And so we end up back at the Jerry-Springerification of transgender entertainment, that which did so much harm to the community a decade or so ago.
Or maybe I’m just being pessimistic about the way in which TV can handle the sudden interest in transgender affairs. Perhaps I need to stop getting so angry about and accept the sensationalised way in which our bodies and our minds will end up portrayed. Because I’m sure, at their heart, that all TV production companies only have the best intentions and are not bothered at all about ratings. That is true – isn’t it?
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