26 August 2010

A Transgender Journey: how it came about

Since the beginning of June 2010, I have been blogging my gender reassignment process for the Guardian website, in a series entitled by the Life & Style section as 'A Transgender Journey'.

To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that the transitioning process (either male-to-female or female-to-male) has been documented in such a mainstream British publication. To the layperson, The Guardian would seem the most obvious host for such a blog, but the liberal-left newspaper has often had a fractious relationship with the transgender community.

I won't comment extensively on their works or opinions here - plenty of others have done so elsewhere - but in recent years The Guardian has published pieces by Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Julie Burchill, which echoed hotly-debated second-wave feminist positions on transsexual women and angered the trans community. (It should be pointed out that The Guardian allowed a platform for argument against these pieces, such as to CL Minou.)

It's only fair to assert that Julie Bindel retracted some of her 2004 statements in this excellent podcast with Christine Burns - which is well worth a listen. She has also proved herself perfectly willing to debate her views with the trans community in a number of contexts, and however much we (I) may disagree with her opinions at times, her preparedness to discuss them with the people concerned is to her credit and should be applauded.

One issue that trans critics on blogs and forums had with the appearance of such articles was that there were no transgendered writers appearing regularly in the paper or on the website, and it was a criticism with which I agreed. On a wider level, it bothered me that I often saw trans issues discussed in print and on film/television, but the articles were usually written by people with no lived experience of gender dysphoria, the films/TV shows usually directed by cisgender people who portrayed trans people as objects of pity or contempt.

Trans-sympathetic articles often tended to highlight the 'trapped in the wrong body' cliche - perhaps because they were one-off, short features that didn't have the scope to unpack the complexities of living through gender identity issues, for which this phrase has become a kind of journalistic shorthand. (This is not to deny that many trans people do feel trapped in the wrong bodies, by the way: just that the phrase has been so prevalent in media coverage of transsexuality that there's a discussion to be had about how much transsexual people have internalised it - that's another debate, though.)

So I felt that it was time that this was countered. Not at this point, though, did I think that it should be me that did this. In fact, the idea never really occured to me. I'd long wanted to write something about trans issues: originally, I wanted to write a fairly avant-garde collection of short stories covering different trans lives and issues, perhaps aimed at the Dalkey Archive Press. But I realised that there was plenty of underground/experimental literature and theory written from a trans perspective: what was absent, as it had been in my youth, was prominent, accessible exposition of transgender experience, told by trans people, in a highly visible context.

So my next plan was to write a television script - a trans equivalent to 'Queer As Folk' or 'The L Word' - something I'd still like to happen. I hadn't planned, though, to share my story in a purely autobiographical context.

*

I began transitioning in May 2009, having started to seriously explore my gender, privately and publicly, after graduating from the University of Manchester in 2003. One of my closest friends on the History course was Joe Stretch, the lead singer of the sublime synth band Performance, who I met in my final year, when I was involved with the independent Valentine Records label.

Throughout my pre-transition struggles to become a writer, Joe offered no end of critical readings of my work, as well as intelligent conversational support. As we only knew each other in the same city for about six months (January to June 2003, when I moved to Brighton), this mostly happened by phone (we'd meet once or twice a year on average). As well as signing to a major label, Joe became a published novelist with his debut 'Friction' in 2008, and did much to help me form some invaluable literary/journalistic relationships.

So, during a telephone conversation shortly after I started living as female in summer 2009, we started discussing my initial experiences: Joe, with the critical distance about this that I subjectively lacked, simply said, "You should pitch this as a blog to The Guardian - they'll bite your hand off."

So, through Chris Borg - a contact I made through my support for Norwich City and my work with The Justin Campaign - I approached Rachel Dixon, the acting editor of the Life & Style section. Chris told me that Rachel liked the idea of a blog documenting the transitioning process, and we exchanged emails.

*

Rachel emailed back, suggesting that we launch the blog with a series of other articles about trans issus by trans writers. She said that she would like the blog and accompanying articles to 'be a good resource for the transgender community, and to raise awareness' - at no point did she or I mention the Guardian's previous record on transgender. She asked me to suggest some suitable trans writers: amongst others, I put forward Stephen Whittle, Roz Kaveney and Bethany Black, all of whom have since contributed fascinating pieces to the website.

I've had no other involvement in the other trans pieces besides putting names forward. As for my blog entries, I've had complete freedom regarding subject matter and content. The main editorial direction I've been given concerned the second piece, which Rachel said could do with being less theoretical and more personal.

Originally I included some quite explicit theory about rifts within the LGBT community (particularly between the trans community and Stonewall) and was asked to make the piece less theoretical and more personal. Initially, this annoyed me, but the piece worked more better for it – I was challenged to find a way to show how the theoretical issues informed my thoughts and life choices – and I ended up with a much tighter, livelier piece.

Writing a highly personal set of articles is, politically speaking, the best thing I could have done: feminist/other opponents of transgender people have (as stated above) tended to reduce us to stereotypes and caricatures, ignoring our human experiences, knowing full well that this is the most effective way to make people hate us.

There are issues with this personal approach – the sad story of Mike Penner/Christine Daniels illustrates the pitfalls of publicly airing the intensely private very well – but nonetheless I consider it a genuinely important, if not radical act, which will hopefully have a long-term effect in changing the way we are represented by - and within - the media, and how people perceive us and our lives.

The Guardian has been the facilitator for this, and should be applauded for it - the trans community have noticed and do appreciate this, it seems. There is still some way to go, as this Gender Trust blog and this activist blog post point out - the Gender Trust criticism looks at the way trans issues are covered by non-trans writers, whilst the latter post asks important questions about what type of trans people are being represented - but both agree that we've made a very important start.

So hopefully in the future, we'll be able to look back on the blog as an important point in the relationship between trans people and Britain's mainstream media. If that is the case, then we should thank not just the trans people who articulate their stories and thoughts in these outlets, but the non-trans people who understood the need and made it possible for us to do so.

For now, we should thank Joe Stretch, Chris Borg and Rachel Dixon - they, and people like them, are the true guardians of equality.

21 August 2010

The Struggle for the Real: The British Avant-Garde Film, 1930-1939

In film as in literature, the Thirties are remembered as a decade dominated by an essentially Realist orthodoxy. John Grierson and the documentary movement dominate histories of Thirties film just as W. H. Auden and his circle dominate studies of Thirties poetry. But the avant-garde circles of the decade, and the films they produced, were not as homogenous as history has often adjudged. Although the avant-garde filmmakers were politically broadly left wing, their ideological positions differed markedly, encompassing Communists, reformist Socialists and left-leaning liberals, and their aesthetic practices were no less diverse. It was a decade in which orthodoxy was defined, not one where it reigned.

During the 1970s and 1980s, after the London Film-Makers’ Co-op had established a tradition of stridently avant-garde film theory and practice in Britain, many film enthusiasts became concerned with re-evaluating pre-war film characterised as anti-mainstream or ‘experimental’. In one of the most important essays, Deke Dusinberre reflected the 1930s avant-garde was (like that of the 1920s) ‘really an attitude formulated by a series of film periodicals’ rather than an organised group with shared aesthetic and political principles.

In Britain, there has long been a tendency to equate epochs with decades, or centuries, but these epochs rarely tie in neatly with temporal divisions. ‘The Thirties’ as we have come to think of them – a decade dominated by opposition to Fascism in Germany and Spain, outcry over unemployment, and crisis on the Left caused by the rise of Stalinism and above all as an artistic ‘movement’ – cannot be said to have begun at any particular historical moment (although the Wall Street Crash heralded massive political changes across the West) but instead evolved over several years. It was the advent of Nazism that confirmed the shift in political (and, consequently, aesthetic) climate from that of the 1920s; in British film circles, this change of epoch was symbolised by the collapse of Close-Up magazine in March 1933.

There was a generational change in poetry – where the hermetic formalism of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound was superseded by the social commentary of Auden, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice, and the restrained irrationalism of Dylan Thomas – and in film, where the Close-Up circle of Kenneth MacPherson, H.D. and Bryher relinquished their avant-garde centrality. The Close-Up writers were aware that their brand of intellectual criticism, infused with internationalist egalitarianism (manifested in their passion for German film) had been undermined by both the arrival of sound and by political developments. Bryher’s final editorial, entitled ‘What Will You Do in the War?’ demonstrated an acute awareness of the destructive nature of Nazism, informing its readers that ‘Tortures are freely employed, both mental and physical. Hundreds have died or been killed, thousands are in prison, and thousands more are in exile.’

Close-Up’s exclusive focus upon form was no longer sustainable. Neither was its opposition to Hollywood cinema, which had relaxed somewhat since the arrival of the ‘talkies’. Bryher warned that ‘close collaboration with the United States is needed if we are to preserve peace, and that constant sneers at … American slang will not help towards mutual understanding.’

It was obvious that Germany was now The Enemy – not just an enemy of art (and a far more violent enemy than Hollywood), but an enemy of life itself. The artists, theorists, writers and filmmakers so beloved by the British avant-garde of the 1920s were persecuted – a few committed suicide, but in most cases they were dispersed across the West. Given the shadow of Fascism across Europe and the catastrophic rise of unemployment at home, political ‘engagement’ became a near-necessity for Britain’s intellectuals, and the formalist explorations of the Twenties were often viewed unfavourably by the new generation of critics and directors.

The rise of this ‘new generation’ was symbolised by the appearance of new periodicals. While these journals often took a very different attitude to Close-Up, they shared its opposition to mainstream sound film. Dusinberre believed that the advent of sound ‘initially reinforced the pluralist attitude towards progressive counter-cinema … as it endorsed all practices aligned against the commercial talkie, an attitude maintained throughout the Thirties, with various diverse filmmakers united by this opposition. B. Vivian Braun launched Film Art in 1933, a quarterly committed to the ‘Advance Guard’, which distanced itself from Close-Up’s more sympathetic approach towards Hollywood, but still retained some affinity with the publication’s practices.

Braun, like Kenneth MacPherson, wanted his publication to anchor a film culture, and established the ‘Film Art Group’, which declared itself the ‘First Cinema Unit for the production of Specialist Films’ as well a ‘Cinema Art Course’ for would-be filmmakers. Braun’s first effort was Beyond This Open Road (1934), a silent film about British people leaving suburban homes and offices for a drive in the countryside. Other films by Braun appeared under the Film Art Group banner, as did Fairthorne and Salt’s abstract X + X = O (1936).

If Braun was spiritually closest to MacPherson, his ousting from Film Art after five issues by Irene Nicholson and John C. Moore says much about the change of atmosphere – Braun’s new journal, New Cinema, collapsed after a year. Braun did not share the disdain for the Film Society held by some more politically-minded filmmakers, who considered the Society a bourgeois enclave. Indeed, the Federation of Workers’ Film Societies was founded by Ivor Montagu, Oswell Blakeston, MacPherson and Communist politicians Harry Pollitt and Willie Gallagher in 1929 as a counterpoint, and Montagu was able to show revolutionary Soviet works on 16mm film, as that format was exempted from BBFC censorship.

However, the Federation was run along similar lines to the Film Society, and Britain’s creative artists did not make a definitive break with the artistic culture of the Twenties. Stylistic changes were inevitable, though, not just because of the changing domestic situation, but also because the vibrant German and Russian film cultures were decimated by their governments. In Britain, despite frustrations regarding censorship, the counter-cultural filmmakers found that they were not only able to operate with comparatively little interference, they were often patronised by governmental institutions, or by large businesses.

Perhaps this diffused the extremity of the filmmakers’ political radicalism. Britain lacked any school of Marxist thought along the lines of the Frankfurt School. Although some of the decade’s key practitioners were Marxists, particularly Norman McLaren (who studied at the Glasgow School of Art, when the city was a Communist hotbed), most were more moderate Socialists. None of the key Thirties avant-garde films contained direct calls for proletarian revolution, tending to avoid clearly discernable ideological positions.

Norman McLaren’s Hell Unltd. (1936), directed with Helen Biggar, was a notable exception. Along with the Kino group’s Bread (1934), it was the most impassioned critique of British economic and foreign policy, employing an appropriately low-budget aesthetic reminiscent The Life and Death of 9413 – A Hollywood Extra (1927) to rail against the National Government’s policies of appeasement and non-intervention in the Spanish conflict.

The intensity of McLaren’s political critique was not, however, representative of the Thirties avant-garde as a whole. Importantly, the intelligentsia of the period were essentially literary (or cinematic): they were concerned with politics, but they were devoted above all to creativity. Consequently, the aesthetic debates of the Twenties were not terminated, but instead became intertwined with questions of Socialist expediency. The key debate throughout the decade concerned levels of ‘Realism’ within avant-garde work – what constituted ‘reality’, and the extent to which aesthetic experimentation could be reconciled with this focus upon the ‘real’. Whilst the Stalinist imposition of Socialist Realism in Russia was widely resented, the new generation of filmmakers believed that ignoring political issues would be irresponsible under the circumstances, and many favoured the documentary form.

Robert Flaherty, whose groundbreaking Nanook of the North (1922) remained widely respected, teamed up with John Grierson to create Industrial Britain (1933). Grierson had announced himself as a documentary maker of considerable promise with the silent Drifters (1929); Industrial Britain, with the addition of sound, was a 20-minute exploration of the craftsmanship involved in the manufacture of glass, steel and pottery, emphasising the individual endeavours of British labourers rather than aestheticising the modern steelworks or prizing the collective productivity of the urban working classes.

Industrial Britain was not a consciously avant-garde film in the Twenties tradition. Grierson and his circle disliked mainstream (particularly Hollywood) cinema and aimed to place themselves outside of it, but they were also opposed to T. S. Eliot, the Bloomsbury group and the Left Bank culture of the Twenties. Industrial Britain was a stirringly patriotic film, and many documentary makers focused on problems faced by British industries and workers, moving away from the ‘internationalist’ culture of the previous decade. Arthur Elton & Edgar Anstey’s Housing Problems (1935) anticipated the television documentaries of the Sixties in its sober description of the slum conditions in which many post-Depression Britons lived. The British Commercial Gas Association produced the film, one of several commercial or industrial organisations that funded documentaries.

Many of Grierson’s films, and those of his contemporaries, were produced by the GPO Film Unit, with the aim of mass exhibition and comprehension for their works. This desire was reflected in the character of Grierson’s own journal, Cinema Quarterly, established with Paul Rotha, Basil Wright and Anthony Asquith, among others, which attempted to demystify the process of making films, in the hope of encouraging working-class people to become involved. The GPO’s backing allowed the more ‘purist’ filmmakers to avoid the infrastructures of commercial cinema; given their Socialist inclinations, they were far happier to accept funding from nationalised industries, which perhaps made them feel more obliged to address domestic concerns.

However, the documentary makers did tackle foreign issues, particularly the Spanish Civil War, the defining intellectual ‘cause’ of the Thirties. Montagu made Defence of Madrid (1936) from stock footage of the conflict. They also explored foreign territories, especially those within the British Empire. Basil Wright, who produced Night Mail for the GPO in 1936, made Song of Ceylon (1934), a highly contemplative film about life in the Asian colony. The Thirties documentary makers tended not to aestheticise their subjects, presenting their films as ‘realistic’ accounts, usually employing quiet, accentless voice-overs and restrained cinematography. The art of their films was in their skilful juxtaposition of shots of ‘ordinary’ people and their surroundings – Song of Ceylon was particularly successful, with many intelligently-chosen images of Sri Lankan culture and commerce placed together, with poetry written by Robert Knox in 1680 complementing its images.

In many ways, Song of Ceylon epitomised the combination of social realism and poetics favoured by many Thirties filmmakers. Alberto Cavalcanti, the Paris-based Brazilian, was invited to make Coal Face (1935) by the GPO, which was scored by Benjamin Britten and narrated by Auden, who wrote verse especially for the film. However, the only prominent poet of the Thirties to actually direct films was Humphrey Jennings, a member of the British Surrealist group established in 1936 by artist Roland Penrose and poet David Gascoyne as a counterpoint to Auden’s orthodoxy. Jennings had been a committed Surrealist, passionately refuting Hugh Sykes Davies’ belief that British Surrealism extended a tradition that stretched back to Coleridge and Wordsworth, but his films (unlike his poetry) were anything but Surrealist. Spare Time (1939) was informed instead by the Mass Observation project set up by Tom Harrison in 1937 to record the habits and opinions of the British public. Distanced from the political critique of films about the difficulties of working-class life, Jennings’ film detailed, with charming simplicity, the leisure interests of the masses, and was narrated by poet Laurie Lee.

The official British Surrealist group did not produce any films itself, despite Gascoyne’s anxiety that ‘In England … there will be many to protest that surrealism is foreign to the national temperament, that it cannot grow here as it has no roots in English tradition – they used poetry, rather than film in their attempt to root Surrealism within British artistic culture. Roger Roughton, editor of the pro-Surrealist periodical Contemporary Poetry and Prose, had a bit part in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), but the other major Surrealist writers and painters failed to involve themselves in British cinema. Of Surrealism’s acolytes, only Jennings and Len Lye made films: Lye, like McLaren, won the backing of Grierson, who appreciated the value of uniting artists with different aesthetic principles under the GPO banner.

However, filmmakers who wanted to continue the Twenties discourse of painterly abstraction had to do so under commercial auspices, and it is interesting to note that all their films were used to promote a certain corporate image. Most successful was Lye’s astonishing Birth of a Robot (1935), a six-minute advertisement for Shell oil informed by both Surrealism and the work of Georges Méliès. Lye impressed Grierson with A Colour Box (1935), synchronising images drawn onto clear film with a pre-printed optical soundtrack, displaying a shrewd awareness of the potentialities of the material aspects of film. Grierson’s decision to embrace Lye’s work was emblematic of another attitude change in the mid-Thirties. Although the documentary advocated artistic ‘realism’, they did not oppose the rise of ‘irrational’ Surrealism or of abstract film, which drew on British Surrealism’s aesthetic style and engagement with Freudian ideas, and were keen to promote the work of both Lye and Jennings.

Lye’s Rainbow Dance (1936), Colour Flight (1937) and Trade Tattoo (1937) furthered his exploration into the possibilities of film printing and development techniques, being experiments in colour manipulation. Filmed in Gasparcolour, which involved the application of three light primary-dyed mixes (cyan, magenta and yellow), they too were advertisements for the Post Office, as was his N or NW (1938), a humorous study of a love affair nearly destroyed by a postal error before the GPO rectifies the mistake.

The most consciously Surrealist film of the period – in fact, the only work to display a genuine interest in the movement, termed ‘Super-realist’ by art critic Herbert Read – was McLaren’s Love on the Wing (1939), also commissioned by the GPO. Set against a backdrop that recalled the dreamscape paintings of Salvador Dalí, Love on the Wing promoted the novelty of airmail, with figurative images drawn onto the filmstrip, frame by frame. However, the censor found McLaren’s film to be ‘too Freudian’ – the Surrealists spent much of the Thirties trying to put Freud’s psychoanalytic theories to a revolutionary use – and briefly banned it.

By this point, however, the public and critical enthusiasm for ‘Super-realism’ generated by the Surrealist Exhibition at London’s Burlington Galleries in 1936 had faded. In 1938 Jennings (with Penrose and Julian Trevelyan) argued for Surrealism in a debate organised by the Artist’s International Association, against the painters William Coldstream and Graham Bell, but the Surrealists’ beliefs and techniques were increasingly viewed as irresponsible as the international political situation worsened. British Surrealism did not perform the same function in film as it did in poetry, as a strong alternative to poetic realism – at best it formed a backdrop to several works produced by Lye and McLaren, most of which were explicitly non-Surrealist. The Surrealist films produced in France by Man Ray and Germaine Dulac did not prove influential upon the British group, hampered by continual changes in personnel and the collapse of Contemporary Poetry and Prose in 1937, and although the group continued to operate until 1947, it never recovered its initial energy.

If the point that the Thirties ‘began’ it is unclear, the point they ended is indisputable: 1 September 1939. For all that the Spanish defeat and the Nazi-Soviet Pact shocked Britain’s writers, artists and filmmakers, it was the outbreak of war – a war which the Prime Minister had assured the public would never happen less than a year previously – that necessitated fundamental changes in British film (and wider artistic) culture.

There were individual films that did not address socio-political concerns in the manner of Grierson’s unit – Lye’s, several of McLaren’s (such as Camera Makes Whoopee, a delightful stop-motion film), and Anthony Gross and Hector Hoppin’s animation Joie de vivre (1934), all of which serve to contradict the image of the Thirties as a decade solely dominated by the works of Grierson’s circle of documentary filmmakers. This image owes much to the state sponsorship of Grierson’s films through the GPO, with a number of films made outside of the unit (particularly those of Braun’s ‘Film Art Group’) unseen for many years, and so neglected by historians of the period.

However, during the war, it would become even more difficult for filmmakers to produce works without state patronage, and for them to exhibit any works that did not win the approval of Churchill’s National Government. Nonetheless, Jennings, Lye, McLaren, and the more ‘realist’ directors, were still able to create a number of valuable films, which (in the case of Lye and McLaren) would link the pre-war avant-garde culture to that which emerged in the Sixties.