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Jan 27 2012

Whose Transsexual Summer?

Back in the fall, a documentary mini-series called My Transsexual Summer aired in the UK on Channel 4. It covered the day-to-day lives of four young trans people as they went about…well… being trans. This was generally advertised as a groundbreaking look at the realities of lived trans experience and an educational, non-judgmental look at an often sensationalized, stigmatized and misrepresented class of people. I imagine that for most cisgender viewers, that’s exactly how it was seen and received, too.

For trans people, however, the reaction was different. Some people thought it was alright, not bad, a fairly good, positve take on things and pretty low in the cissexist-bullshit and misrepresentation meters. Others reacted to it with a big giant “meh”, seeing it as just another in a very long line of documentaries claiming to show our strange, novel, exotic world to the idly curious cisgender public, knowing that it would undoubtedly hit all the usual tropes (shot of trans girl putting on make-up in the mirror? trans guy swigs a beer on his back porch?) and would, at best, be fodder for the trans documentary drinking game. And still another set were displeased, regarding it as just another act of appropriation, of cis producers making money exploiting trans lives.

I myself was in the “meh” category. Until I came across word that one of the men portrayed in the series, Max Zachs, had begun writing statements of anger and disappointment with the degree to which the stories, experiences and lives of the participants had been grossly edited and misrepresented by the producers. He began revealing extremely disturbing insights into the actual processes that occurred behind the scenes, citing one meeting where a producer chose to completely cut one segment of one of the girl’s stories on the grounds, and I quote, that it was “not heart-rending enough”.

He pointed out that none of the participants had been paid. At the time the contract was presented to him, he agreed to the terms, feeling that an honest and positive portrayal of trans lives to the British public would be compensation enough. That particular aspect of the bargain, however, ended up in his opinion not being met by the producers, which left him feeling (understandably) rather cheated. From what I understand, many of the other participants are in agreement and feel similarly.

In a really interesting development, though, a new project has begun in response. DIY Transsexual Summer is a grassroots project that emerged from twitter hoping to be a representation of trans experiences that is instead produced, edited and controlled by the participants and trans folk themselves, with the stories being presented on their own terms, in the light that they themselves feel is accurate and appropriate. Hopefully nothing will be heart-rending just for the sake of being heart-rending. The positive and joyous aspects of trans life, the mundane and not-all-that-different aspects, the non-sensational, the nitty-gritty, the things that end up on the cutting room floor of cisgender producers, could be included. A rare portrayal of trans experience from trans voices!

I’m extremely excited about this idea and would love to see it blossom into something tangible and terrific. To find out more about it, and offer whatever support you can, please go ahead and visit them at their Facebook page. For developments and updates as the project continues, you can follow it at twitter, @DIYtranssummer. I truly hope this project comes to fruition and ends up being every bit as great as it has the potential to be.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Christianne

    “The first ever portrayal of trans experience from trans voices!”

    I feel duty bound to suggest that this isn’t true. The documentary, Prodigal Sons, was directed by Kimberly Reed, a trans woman. Also, there are a number of trans filmmakers out there either in the underground indie world (like, say, Ashley Altadona) or in diy porn (like Tobi Hill-Meyer).

    I know you know all this, but I think it still needed saying.

    Also, the transgender documentary drinking game is a good way to land in the hospital with alcohol poisoning. It’s harsh.

    I’ll be interested to see the results of this pushback, in any event.

    1. 1.1
      Natalie Reed

      You’re right. I was definitely overstating there. I’ll go make a quick edit.

      A great one is the DIY documentary film by my kinda-friend Gwen Haworth, She’s A Boy I Knew.

      1. Christianne

        She’s a Boy I Knew is awesome.

  2. 2
    michaeld

    That drinking game looks very hard on my teetotaled liver 0.0

    Its also interesting to see a post talking about something I was curious about, your thoughts on particularly good or bad portrayals of trans women/men. I’m unfortunately not surprised at all that the editing was a mess as it seems people are always messing with things to make them more controversial or to show extremes.

    1. 2.1
      Christianne

      The best portrayal of a trans woman that I’ve ever seen is in a Brazilian movie called Quanto Dura o Amor? (released to the festival circuit in the US as “Paulista”). The second best is XXY, from Argentina (though, technically, that’s about an intersexed teen). Most others are very problematic. Trans portrayals tend to fall into four categories: the pathetic transsexual, the prostitute/victim, the psychopath, and the punch line. As someone who writes about film, it’s a continuing source of annoyance for me to rail on trans portrayals in otherwise excellent movies like, say, The Silence of the Lambs or The Skin I Live In.

      Anyway, sorry for butting in.

      1. WMDKitty -- Survivor

        XXY was … wow. It left me feeling an odd mix of confusion, sadness, and… what’s the word for when you’re so stunned that you just can’t even?

        I, for one, would love to see a documentary made by trans people. I think that, well, if you want to understand something, go to the source, go to the people who are experiencing it; you still may not grok it, but you’ll learn a lot, you’ll open your mind. And, uh, I’m all for opening minds, man.

        Er… and I like documentaries.

  3. 3
    Megan

    I can’t say that I’m surprised about how this miniseries turned out. It’s simply predatory how the producers of content like this always target recent transitioners who don’t know any better than to trust the producers’ promises that they’ll be portrayed in a good light.

    I propose that the producers of trans documentaries should be required to play the drinking game with their own documentaries before they air – it would be a good form of quality control. The ones who make the worst ones would get weeded out as they die of alcohol poisoning, and pretty soon we’d have documentaries that don’t constantly rehash the same harmful tropes that we’re all familiar with!

  4. 4
    freemage

    Wow. That Trans Documentary Drinking Game list is frightening, both for the sheer banality of the items, and the amount of damage a ‘typical’ documentary would probably do to the game participants. I’d probably suggest removing a few of them (they’re more ‘generic documentary cliches’ than trans-specific–like the soft-focus shot; hell, you get that in true-crime stories these days), but so many of them… yeah, if someone were to hand me a camera and say, “Go make a documentary about some transgender folk,” I’d probably end up shooting something like that.

    And that would be horrible, because beyond what I’ve gleaned from your posts, and a few other similar sources, I have no fuckin’ clue about trans life.

    One of the comments on Max’s site took the tone of, “Well, the producers know they won’t get the audience if they step outside the safe boundaries, we have to package these things so the cis-folk will accept it, yaddayadda….” There’s probably some truth to that, but there’s also ways around it. For a series like this, for instance, you can start safe and cliche, then move into the less comfortable stuff. Get the hook in, then lead the audience to the truth you really want to show them, rather than eliciting a ‘poor dear things’ response.

  5. 5
    Robert B.

    Hopefully nothing will be heart-rending just for the sake of being heart-rending.

    I should certainly hope and expect that the lives of transfolk aren’t intrinsically tragic, yes.

    This is a great argument for why the experiences of underprivileged groups should be related and described by members. Or at least, such accounts should not come solely from outsiders. Dubious motives – like sensationalism at the expense of respect and accuracy – always seem to crop up.

    (The drinking game strongly reminds me about some jokes I’ve seen on multiplicity communities about media portrayals of DID. Google “Fifi the Slut” for one example – and come to think of it, that stereotype manages to be sex-negative and misogynistic as well as anti-neurodiverse. Apparently privileged media does the same stupid crap to everyone.)

  6. 6
    Greg Laden

    This may be a case where “diversity” must be matched with “quantity.” There probably is no “fair” or reasonable documentary or, for that matter, fiction project (like a regular movie) that includes, addresses, or otherwise messes with trans people and/or issues. But a corpus of projects can potentially do so, and the production over time of a corpus of projects can self organize (evolve?) into something with more shared meaning and fewer holes. Maybe.

  7. 7
    hall-of-rage

    Wow.

    I think “Georgie Girl” doesn’t do many of those, but it’s not that easy to get hold of I think. It’s about Georgina Beyer. I just want to recommend that to as many people as possible who might be interested.

    As an aside, hope you don’t mind the several comments in a row on different entries; I’m recovering from being sick and found your blog a couple weeks ago.

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