We interview the director of new Channel 4 documentary, airing tonight at 10pm, which follows three Brits through their transition
Over the past year alone, we’ve been exposed to strong pop cultural trans figures on our magazine covers, mass boycotting of the erasure of trans history, and on a grassroots level, trans teens refusing to bow to pressure in schools. But trans visibility has been accompanied by tragic headlines and an even more worrying reality. Trans women of colour face extreme hate and violence over in the US, where many have been killed in what Laverne Cox declared a state of emergency. Globally, the community faces much adversity.
By no means is the trans revolution over, and an important element that seems to be missing from the narratives coming through is youth. Furthermore, the actual details of very young people transitioning. And you know it’s about time these stories are told when they manage to break through onto UK TV.
As one of a fascinating and hugely important three-part Channel 4 documentary series, Born in the Wrong Body, second episode, “Girls to Men”, follows young three young British trans men, Ethan, 19, Alfie, 17, and Billy, 25, as they transition. It also features Jamie Raines, the 18-year-old British trans male who shared a video of his transition online, as part of a Testosterone Diary.
We spoke to the 33-year-old series director, Nicholas Sweeney, about what to expect.
We’re seeing more trans people in the public eye but not necessarily stories of transitions in any real detail.
Nicholas Sweeney: No and a huge part of that is because people are cautious about revealing that much of their lives, understandably so. It was really remarkable what these very young people were willing to show, particularly when it came to things like surgery, which is obviously a very personal and stressful thing. I think they were motivated by the fact they didn’t have much information themselves when they were going through these stages of transition and they wanted to help other young trans people and demystify the whole process. Even though there’s a great amount of media coverage of trans people at the moment, like you said, there’s not a huge amount of information on what it’s really like to transition and what it’s like to go through these consultations where you get told all these graphic things about the surgery or go into the operating theatre. I feel honoured to have gained their trust and for them to have allowed me to show so much of their experience.
And did you really have to win that trust?
Nicholas Sweeney: In terms of winning their trust, it was a long process. The films took close to two years to make. We started filming beginning of last year. One of the truly remarkable things we show in the film is trans female to male phalloplasty surgery. And in a level of detail which people just haven’t seen before. I think it was really remarkable that Billy, the character we followed through that journey, was happy to share that. I was lucky that his response the film was very positive.
Two years is a reasonably long time to be following the lives of three people.
Nicholas Sweeney: Yes, part of the reason it took so long was that, even in the UK, there are incredibly long wait times and huge hurdles that trans people have to go through to get medical treatment. They even have to prove they’ve been living as a man for two years before getting some types of treatment.
Those are the two main parts of the documentary - those who are going through the transition and the other part is meeting people that are part of the online T Diary community, or Testosterone Diary community. They broadcast every detail of their changes online and some of them have been very widely viewed, as you saw with Jamie and his.
How did you find out Jamie’s story?
Nicholas Sweeney: He has a pretty big online following, so we got in contact with him and asked, “What are some of the ways in which you documented your transition?”. And he incredibly, casually, mentioned that he’d taken a photo every single day for three years. He sent over these photos and I’d never seen anything like it. It is just remarkable. To have documented your life in that detail… It’s an illustration of how proud these guys are of their achievements and overcoming all the obstacles that society and the medical world put in their way. This is their way of proving that they won and they’re proud of their identities.
You mentioned difficulties with NHS waiting lists?
Nicholas Sweeney: One example is Billy who is undergoing phalloplasty and he explains he has been transitioning for 10 years. He’s encountered incredible wait times at every stage and has had to go through a lot of bureaucracy to prove to people that he really wants these procedures. The main reason there’s a long time to wait for something like phalloplasty is that in the entire UK there’s only one clinical team who perform it for the entire trans community and when you think about how large that community is in the UK for just one team, you start to understand the delays and what these guys have to go through.
And it’s not just the trans people themselves who have to go through this process, the doc shows the families too.
Nicholas Sweeney: Yes, there are psychological conflicts others in the film go through - Alfie’s mother, who is extremely supportive, nevertheless says in her interview that it felt like she lost a daughter when her child began to transition. And I think that’s a sentiment that many even supportive parents echo, like the ones we see in this film. It’s a difficult thing to come to come to terms with and there is often a period of grieving.
What do you ideally hope to achieve with Girls to Men, in particular?
Nicholas Sweeney: I hope the film demystifies what it means to be young and trans in the UK in 2015, both to young trans people as well as those who are on the outside and just curious or interested or don’t understand. A lot of comments online in reaction to the first film were from young trans people saying they had a sense of relief or they were inspired by young people sharing their lives, and to me there’s no better reaction than those comments and I read them all.
Watch Girls to Men at 10pm tonight, 13th October, on Channel 4.