“One last operation and Kellie will finally be the woman she always wanted to be,” said the narrator, dripping with honeyed sympathy. Yep, that’s right. It’s surgery that makes trans people complete, isn’t it?
“Kellie Maloney: No Going Back” was full of the clichés of every trans story you’ve ever seen written by non-trans people. Kellie was trapped in the wrong body, Kellie never showed her boxing mates any sign of being effeminate, Kellie was brave to have surgery, Kellie had hidden her guilty secret for years, and so it went on in the same overly sincere voice. Most uninspired of all was the cliché that all Kellie needed, in order to be a woman, was surgery. So, there was an inordinate amount of time dedicated to operating theatres, hospitals and recuperation – well over half of the hour long programme. It was “Embarrassing Bodies” by the back door.
The narrative of the programme was almost identical to one I remember seeing about Professor Stephen Whittle fifteen years ago, one of the first to be shown in Britain at a time when there was a spike in interest by documentary makers in trans lives. We are seeing another spike now, due to the success of programmes like “Transparent” and the work of charities to move trans rights forward. However, where the entertainment industry is changing how it portrays transgender people, the way trans lives are presented by factual television has not moved on.
I admire anyone who goes on these docu-reality television shows. Not for telling their story, because at the end of the day it’s not their story, it’s the story the television producer wants to tell, but for relinquishing control of their reality and putting their image in the hands of a television producer and editor. Unfortunately, this trust is misplaced and often knowingly abused.
Unless as the trans subject of these films you are prepared to do a ton of educating, the most shocking, most incomprehensible part of your life is going to be “having your bits chopped off”. That’s how non-trans people see it and it makes them feel funny. What they seem to be unable to grasp is that trans people do not see their bodies in the same way as non-trans people – that’s what gender dysphoria is, stupid! The various surgeries available to us are, therefore, like the various surgeries available to fit titanium joints. Does having a hip replacement make you feel funny? Well, that’s how trans people feel about their surgeries.
Surgery was not the most important, significant, scary moment in my transition; coming out as trans was. The thought of surgery did not make me feel funny; the thought of having surgery was a completely natural progression in my mind, the thought of not having surgery made me feel depressed. Surgery did not complete me; I am a work in progress like everyone else on the planet. Surgery is not the hardest part of transitioning; remembering every day to drop my voice, wondering if I’ll be challenged in the gents toilets, finding a style that allows me to consistently pass, watching my facial hair grow far too slowly, these are all far harder than surgery.
Very shortly we will have the Kardashian spin-off series, “Caitlyn Jenner: The Transition”, all over social media and our television screens. The smart money is on the same narrative trotted out again for shock value, but wouldn’t it be amazing if there were no *drum roll* build up to the day of the surgery, no operating theatre shots, no footage of Caitlyn looking bruised, just a mention that she had surgery two weeks ago and is now trying to buy groceries from a cashier who doesn’t believe she is a woman? How did that misgendering feel, Caitlyn? What do you wish that people could grasp about being trans, Caitlyn? How might legislators help the trans community, Caitlyn?
If television documentary makers really want to help the trans community, they will stop making programmes that place the emphasis on surgery. As activists for trans rights, we work so hard to de-pathologise trans lives, to remove surgery as a criteria for being “really” trans and to educate people that they cannot ask us about our medical history to satisfy their curiosity or to put us in the correct sex-segregated box. It is not helpful to still have this narrative played out on prime time television. It is time that the documentary makers moved on to the issues that really affect our lives and focused on those – I guarantee that the end result would be a lot more interesting.