16 October 2014

Are trans people a laughing matter at Channel 4?

Are trans people a laughing matter at Channel 4?

Two months ago, a group of London-based, transgender volunteers met some of the key players in the Channel 4 comedy game. Are Channel 4 prepared to step forward and push sensitive, accurate – and crucially funny – comedy featuring trans people? Think it can’t be done? Read about our interaction below. Written by J Tebble.

Ambassador Paris Lees facilitates the session

Ambassador Paris Lees facilitates the session

We had a few… interesting… moments before our interaction at Channel 4. There’s nothing quite like waltzing down Horseferry Road with nine helium-filled balloons struggling to break free, and then cramming them inside some incredibly small doors into the Channel 4 lobby. Our gifts were met with initial suspicion: Are we protesters? Nope, we’re here for a party, we explained. But before that, we’d scheduled in a quick interaction – and arguably one of our most important ones yet. Sitting around a table, we had Phil Clarke, the Head of Comedy for Channel 4, as well as Charlie Covell, one of the writers for pioneering new E4 drama Banana, featuring trans comedian Bethany Black. Also present was Lee Mason, Commissioning Editor of Hollyoaks; Celine Coulson, Development Editor for Film4; Ryan Davies, Publicity Manager, Channel 4 drama and Film4; and several others from the Diversity department and production companies like Firecracker Films.

The volunteers – some old and new faces – ranged from Paris Lees as facilitator, to my mum, the first parent on this year’s phase of interactions. We’ve both had a bit of previous experience with Channel 4, back in 2009 for a documentary about my transition, so it was interesting for us to see how things have changed – if they had.

There was nothing unusual about this interaction: for those of you who aren’t familiar with the format, it’s pretty informal – usually it’s nice to take everyone out of the office, but this time we had a swanky boardroom with sweets and barely enough room to fit everyone in! We were buddied up in pairs, and then, as usual, discussed different topics in the large group.

Non-binary identities and childhood experiences

Channel 4 interaction

Fred McConnell, Charlie Covell and Jamie Pallas

It was refreshing to hear from Phil Clarke, who said that exploring trans issues had been ‘a journey’, and jokingly said that he’d met the ‘trans cabal’ before – but that he’d actually learned a great deal. Others in the room were coming from places of less knowledge, despite knowing or working with trans people. Luckily, nobody was in the dark for long. The breadth of volunteers present inspired the diversity of conversation in the room. My mum spoke about her experiences of supporting me growing up and transitioning at 15, even though she doesn’t fully understand the nuances about non-binary identities. I think it’s important for media professionals to be in a space with parents, friends, and family, and realise that even though trans people are at the heart of any trans community, there are hundreds of other people affected by how trans issues and stories are portrayed in documentary and film.

Parenting came up a lot when sharing our childhood experiences. One volunteer shared toys with their brother, and wasn’t forced into any stereotypical masculine or feminine activities; I was also brought up in a household where I could play with Polly Pocket, and then run around the playground with my boy mates pretending to be a fighter pilot. For others, especially those who were older or came from different religious backgrounds, things were different. Lee Mason pointed out that when gay people come out they can often ‘see’ their future, as well as older role models who are openly gay, and spaces where lesbian and gay people can be themselves. As Fox Fisher (co-founder of Lucky Tooth Films and filmmaker for Patchwork) mentioned, for trans people, especially a few years ago, it was harder to see a visible ‘world’ where you might end up once you came out. If you did have any inkling about where you could fit in within society, it was often in an undesirable place.

Musician and blogger CN Lester, organiser of trans and queer performance and music evening Transpose, explained their genderqueer identity, something many of the Channel 4 participants hadn’t heard of (as usually happens). They touched briefly on the difference between why, as many people they’d met had asked, they couldn’t ‘choose’ to be a feminine trans guy or a butch cis (not trans) woman. It was good, from a personal perspective, to have non-binary voices there, and it’s important we’re heard.

Lee Mason and CN Lester

Lee Mason, CN Lester

I talked about gender fluidity with Lee Mason in my pair – more fundamentally, that there are femme trans guys and butch trans women, and that gender expression is different from sexuality. While Lee understood and accepted this with ease, there are many cis people who don’t – and there can also be judgements within our own trans communities about other people’s gender or self-expression. While Octavian, a housing support officer, and Faizan, a journalist and co-founder of Imaan, stressed that there needs to be respect and validation for individual’s identities and self-definitions, the mention of TERFs (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists), both shocked and upset the Channel 4 crowd. This being the internet, I’m not going to go into depth about what we discussed. However, many were disgusted at several of the experiences trans people around the table had gone through, both on- and offline.

“Trans people are funny in their own right…”

Perhaps the most progressive moment was discussing our love of comedy, and how trans friendly portrayal could be encouraged and developed even more than it was. It’s pretty easy to create a funny comedy with trans people without making trans people a laughing stock – how about a Modern Family with a trans kid? We all expressed our love of Netflix series Orange Is the New Black (predictably!), but it’s an example of a funny, honest drama that doesn’t solely focus on the trans narrative as a sensational part of the story – there’s a rich backstory created and fleshed out instead.

Channel 4

Ryan Davies, Liz Ridgway, Becky Casey

I’m not worried about Channel 4. They are already hitting the nail on the head with the comedic aspect of Dennis and Blessing’s story, where, after our Hollyoaks interaction this year, the team learned to relax, not be so uptight, and lace drama with compassion. Since July, we’ve already seen some developments: Channel 4’s Lara Akeju has been collaborating with Lucky Tooth Films (aka Fox Fisher and Lewis Hancox), and after our launch event of new short documentaries with diverse British trans people, we’re expecting to see a selection of the Patchwork films broadcast on Channel 4 later this year. Community interest company for young trans people (and their families), Gendered Intelligence, are developing a new group for young people liaising with the media. They are working on relationships with Channel 4 as well as external documentary production companies.

Phil closed the session with some parting words everyone could get behind – plain common sense. Trans people are funny in their own right. We’re tired of being the butt of jokes, and for a good reason. But neither are we a humourless bunch who only get into Twitter fights. All we ask is that if you’re going to do comedy, then at least make something where we can laugh with you. Channel 4, moving forwards, needs to have more courage to find things that have never been done before. And it seems the more they talk with trans people in these sorts of meetings, the more their confidence will grow.

Patchwork launchOutcome of the meeting

If you are interested in coming on an interaction or hearing more about the project, please get in touch.

Keep following @AllAboutTrans and @OnRoadMedia for updates.

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