The world is finally beginning to recognise transsexuality for what it is – a traumatic and potentially life-destroying medical condition – rather than something to be derided and persecuted. Sex Change was in many ways disappointing, but nevertheless contributed to the process of enlightenment, if only by a small amount.
The major disappointment was that this “Channel 4” documentary was, in fact, a Discovery Channel one, filmed in America then given some brief token-Brit scenes (and an English voiceover) for offshore consumption. As a result, we learnt quite a lot about what it’s like to be on the road to gender change in the USA, but nothing about what it’s like in the UK, where (as Channel 4’s website says) medical resources, the legal climate and social attitudes are substantially different.
There were some universal moments, such as when transsexual women (only male-to-female transsexuals were featured) described the subjective experience of growing up in the wrong body (“a living death” was the most succinct definition). There was also a segment on research in Amsterdam which indicates that the brains of male-to-female transsexuals are physically structured like those of women rather than men.
Mostly though the programme concentrated on the upside of the American medical system – if you can afford it, you get the best treatment in the world (if you can’t pay, you get virtually nothing). It was fairly amazing, not least the facial reconstruction surgery, which looked horrific (they peel your face partially off then chop bits out of your bones) but delivered astonishing results. Prudishly, animation was used to show how the penis is inverted into the body to form a vagina.
Sex Change left us in no doubt about the enormity of the challenge faced by transsexual people, but it wasn’t exactly new ground, since American documentaries on this subject seem to pop up at least once a month. Most of the problems faced by transsexuals stem from the attitudes of the societies they live in, and most of their hopes from the resources those societies provide. A documentary on how transsexuals fare in British society would have been a lot more relevant (if possibly a lot more depressing), which made it all the more irritating to see Channel 4 trying to pass this one off as local produce.