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▶ A Change of Sex will be available on BBC iPlayer from 3 June.
Among the many storylines that intersect in Adam Curtis’s recent epic documentary series Can’t Get You out of My Head, one in particular may have caught your attention.
In the fourth chapter, But What If the People Are Stupid?, we are introduced to Julia Grant, a trans woman navigating the medical and bureaucratic hurdles of 1980s Britain. Curtis introduces Grant as a symbol of the rise of individualism, an argument he illustrates through scenes depicting Grant sitting opposite her psychiatrist, an unseen paternalistic force.
“Maybe you identify with certain stereotypes… but that doesn’t make you a woman,” the doctor insists, withholding the surgery that Grant desperately wants. “It’s a medical matter, it isn’t a personal choice.”
This arresting footage comes from a groundbreaking series of films available to watch on BBC iPlayer from 3 June. The Inside Story film George (1979) and the subsequent series A Change of Sex (1980-99) were the first documentaries to depict a transition on British television, and as such a queer cultural landmark. They are also a subject of controversy among trans viewers, who see them as both a watershed for visibility and a precedent for problematic tropes.
When David Pearson, then a young director at the start of his career, was commissioned to make a film about transgender issues for the BBC’s Inside Story series, he knew finding a subject would be difficult. By 1978 homosexuality had only been partially decriminalised in the UK for just over ten years. Trans media coverage was restricted to salacious outings and, aside from notable outliers such as the journalist Jan Morris, trans stories were seen entirely through cis eyes.
Even more so than today, the 70s were a dangerous time to be trans. In the end it was this danger that attracted 25-year-old Julia Grant to the project – she believed that the presence of a BBC crew might make her safer as she began her transition.
Grant had already lived through a lot before she allowed cameras into her life, including a difficult childhood, time in prison and a stint as a female impersonator. Pearson and Grant quickly formed a bond, trust that was vital given the intimacy of the subject matter. Hostile press began even before the film was finished, and Pearson was followed by a reporter pre-emptively trying to dig dirt. When that first film was originally broadcast in 1979, tabloid coverage was predictably sordid, but the public response was largely positive. Nine million people tuned in and the BBC was inundated with sympathetic letters from viewers.
Two more episodes were commissioned, setting into motion a lifelong relationship between filmmaker and subject. In the end, five documentaries were made, which offer a unique if highly subjective portrait of trans life in late 20th-century Britain. The final film, Julia Gets Her Man (1999), depicts Grant at an all-time high, running a successful business in Manchester’s gay village and settled in a loving relationship. It’s a satisfying, TV-friendly conclusion, but in reality Grant’s story continued with many more twists and turns – a move to France, a relationship breakdown, cancer. A sixth film was planned in the mid-2010s but rejected by commissioners, citing an oversaturation of trans stories. Grant’s death in 2019 brought the project to a close.
A Change of Sex stands up best today as a time capsule, capturing an LGBTQ+ community poised on the brink of change. Unquestionably a product of their time, the films show us a world saturated in transphobia, from the teenage boys who gleefully shout homophobic slurs into the camera, to the doctors who withhold treatment on a whim. The terminology – ‘sex change’, ‘transsexual’ – is as resolutely 80s as the feathered hairdos and chiffon dresses.
For trans viewers who saw them the first time around, the films occupy an ambiguous space. The book Trans Britain (2018), an anthology edited by Christine Burns, features contributions from critics both championing and challenging the series. Burns describes how A Change of Sex “broke a wall, by showing an ordinary trans person seeking – and finding – the way to achieve transition on her own terms”.
Unquestionably a product of their time, the films show us a world saturated in transphobia.
For activist Helen Belcher, co-founder of the charity Trans Media Watch, the experience of watching was one of alienation rather than recognition – this was “zoo television – treating trans people as exhibits, objects of fascination”. Certainly, it’s possible to see the series simultaneously as a pioneer of what Paris Lees has dubbed “transition porn” and as a vital resource at a time when little information about trans life was freely available.
Perhaps the most striking thing, revisiting A Change of Sex today, is seeing how slowly television has moved on. In 2011, Channel 4’s My Transsexual Summer was hailed by some as a new landmark, but also widely criticised for focusing on medicalisation and reinforcing binaries. As recently as 2018, the makers of ITV’s Transformation Street seriously considered the title My Sex Change Clinic, only dropping the idea when a high-profile contributor, the writer Juno Dawson, threatened to walk. As long as trans stories continue to be told predominantly by cis makers for the benefit of cis audiences, it’s difficult to see how we can move beyond this point.
The version of Grant’s story we are left with has been largely framed by cis men. To Curtis, Grant is an ideological symbol; to Pearson, she is a long-term collaborator. The real Julia wrote two autobiographies, but is captured most vividly in the films that made her famous.
For all its flaws, the strength of A Change of Sex lies in its sincere commitment to its remarkable subject. By showing us how Grant’s fight for selfhood unfolded across 20 years, the films offer a three-dimensional portrait of a complicated woman. Not a heroine, not a victim, but a person, in all her complexity and humanity.
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Sight and Sound, Summer 2022
Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.Find out more and get a copy