TV review, Horizon: Being Transgender (BBC2)


There was a scene at the end of Horizon: Being Transgender that I think must have been something of a television first. Certainly it was a novelty to me; quite explicit footage of a man being converted into a woman via surgery.

It was in San Francisco and the surgeon was described by the patient as “the Louis Vuitton of the Vagina”, and there can be no higher compliment than that in this line of work. Vinessa, it was, and she was delighted with the results. While under general anaesthetic the LV of the V, as I shall abbreviate her, commented on the unusually large size of her patient’s “nuts”, which came as a jarring moment of humour in what was a very serious, though routine, operation. The LV of the V, btw, was once a biological male gynaecologist, married with kids. So there you go.

It was a serious documentary, though, and a very enlightening one. Some of us (OK, me) are a bit hazy about the sexuality/gender thing and rather timid about having opinions about it because of a literal state of ignorance. So I was greatly educated by hearing the moving and inspiring stories of trans people making a traumatic journey towards such a fundamentally different self-identity. They were, above all, very brave indeed.

It was Charlotte, a trans women from Birmingham, who remarked that the best way to understand one important distinction is to remember that sexuality is defined by who you go bed with (and of course that can be quite varied itself) while gender is who you go to bed as. Charlotte was filmed standing around the extremely male environment of the railways shed she worked in explaining to her workmates about what was happening to her. What was striking was how sensitive they were in the questions they asked and, thus, very supportive of someone who they first knew ostensibly as a man but is now going through the social phase – wearing female clothing, for example, before more fundamental physical changes are embarked on.

Another candidate for gender reassignment, Jamie, transitioning to a male self-identity, also put things simply – the process is about making someone’s body “fit” their mind. He also asked “what boy wants to have a period?”, and I certainly can’t argue with that.

Most of these candidates were what I’d call young – late teens to early thirties, but the academics and medics interviewed, as well as the trans people themselves, made a strong case for how self-awareness about gender misassignment at birth – and subsequent the compulsion to change – can start at a much earlier age. In that case puberty becomes more terrifying than unsettling because you are turning into something you do not wish to become – and which you know will require much painful surgery in later life to reverse the process.

Thus the question arises about “pausing” puberty through hormone medication, so that the individual can make a more informed choice about what to do with tier own bodies. The tabloid horror stories of children being given injections to postpone puberty and to (possibly) change gender suddenly become simply a rational response to the reality that some people plainly are in the wrong body, and the very fact of that depresses them to the point of suicide. Trans people do not suffer from mental illness; but the pressures that are placed on them all too often make them mentally distressed. I was glad that that is just starting now to be a thing of the past. The non-binary world is a bit bewildering for some of us to get used to (and I apologise for any inadvertent offence I may have given here) – but it is a much better place for all of us.

Before there were trans people there were “inverts”. Inverts such as Gluck, for example, a talented artist and an extraordinary example of a trans person out, loud and proud in the dark ages of British homo- and trans– phobia – the first half of the 20th century. The BBC documentary, which expired on iPlayer yesterday, said it rather well – Gluck: Who Did She Think He Was? Born Hannah Gluckstein to an extremely wealthy family, who owned the J Lyons chain of corner houses (tea rooms), the Starbucks of their day, Gluck made his true gender perfectly apparent to anyone who encountered him. He smoked a pipe, had a mannish hairdo, ordered bespoke male tailoring and enjoyed a string of female lovers, though his most intense passions were frustrated by the strict social norms of the day, which was much the saddest part of the story.

She was able to be what we would now term openly “trans” in part because her painting was so striking and popular among the elite of society; through sheer force of his personality; because there was a fashion for short hair and women wearing versions of male outfits in the 1920s; but also because he was rich enough to be able to do as he wished (and of course “female” homosexual behaviour was not illegal in the way it was for gay men).

I cannot say what Gluck would have made of the trans rights movement of today’s fluid “inverted” world, but I have an uncomfortable suspicion that he, being such a strong and rather cussed individualist, might not have had much time for it. Trans people can be eccentric, too.