Reality Calling

Remembering My Transsexual Summer, the trans reality show that showed us everything

Back in 2021, Trace Lysette’s podcast “Harsh Reality: The Story of Miriam Rivera” broke down the behind-the-scenes drama of There’s Something About Miriam, a 2004 Sky1 reality show that treated its subject’s transness like a cruel twist used to prank its cis contestants. The show harmed Miriam, a Mexican trans woman who later died a tragically early death, and the “experiment” of putting trans folks in front of the camera wasn’t followed up on—perhaps with good reason.

But just seven years later, the UK’s Channel 4—with input from trans journalist Paris Lees—broadcast a groundbreaking new series that promised to look at the lives of transgender people with minimal cis judgment. My Transsexual Summer placed seven British trans folks in a gorgeous Bedfordshire home for the summer, and encouraged them to get into the weedy, intra-community conversations that we rarely see on TV even now. It was an unprecedented moment of visibility in a broadcasting atmosphere that—both in the US and the UK—still traded on transphobic “man in a dress” tropes and treated trans life like a punchline.

But that visibility came at a cost. Watching the 2011 series today (it’s all on YouTube) is both sweetly nostalgic and strangely ominous, knowing everything that came after. In 2011, JK Rowling had yet to jump on the TERF train, and there weren’t anywhere near the amount of attacks on transgender health clinics and services that have blossomed in the wake of greater mainstream visibility. Back in 2011, the trans folks we met in Bedfordshire—transmascs Fox, Lewis, and Maxwell, and trans femmes Drew-Ashlyn, Donna, Karen, and Sarah—were able to speak freely about their gender-affirming care plans and cheer each other on as they navigated each step in their gender journey. But they had to deal with so much more besides.

When we meet Sarah, who has just recently come out and is still figuring out how to feel comfortable in her new identity, we’re reminded of just how painful it was to be trans in a time when visibility was incredibly scarce, and what did exist of it was often more harmful than helpful. Many of the trans folks in My Transsexual Summer must raise their own funds for surgeries, having to beg money of parents who are still ashamed of their childrens’ transness, and some had never encountered other trans folks IRL until participating in the show. And while some of the crew, like the confident, bubbly Donna, were able to navigate the cis world with relative ease, others found it impossible simply to get a job a coffee shop or safely engage in the world of dating.

These problems haven’t gone away—they’re still very present for many trans people who must deal with intolerant parents, medical gatekeeping, and the difficulty of finding employment as someone who doesn’t “pass.” But at least today, it’s easy enough for trans folks to find themselves online, in pop culture, and maybe even in a fellow classmate in high school. The trans folks on My Transsexual Summer are shown as being almost completely isolated from trans community, except for those that are further along in their transition. There’s also the cis gaze problem: because this is a show made to “raise awareness” of trans lives, it’s very much edited to make it look like all these folks do is talk about being trans and getting surgery. And yes, all the trans folks in this series are white. There is zero diversity, except for age.

But all these issues didn’t stop younger trans folks like me from being extremely psyched to watch trailblazers like Fox, Donna, Drew-Ashlyn, Karen, Sarah, Lewis and Maxwell as they talked about their hopes, dreams, and upcoming gender-confirming surgeries. At one point, an anonymous trans guy shows up just to give everyone a glimpse of his bottom surgery results—which we get a full-frontal view of. Is it invasive? Yes. Did it feel groundbreaking at the time? Yes!

So what’s happened in the over 10 years since My Transsexual Summer first aired? In a word: much. We got to check in with the group two years later when transmasc filmmakers Fox and Lewis did their own series. Sarah Savage, who had just come out when the series started, gained a lot of confidence and began to wear her transness proudly. She’s now an accomplished trans activist and the organizer for Trans Pride Brighton. Fox Fisher is a filmmaker and author who runs the resource project My Genderation, and Lewis Hancox is also a filmmaker who just came out with a graphic novel called Escape From St. Hell this may.

Donna Whitbread is also a filmmaker and Drew-Ashlyn is an accomplished make-up artist and cosplayer. Maxwell Zachs is also an author who petitioned, in 2012, to get the word “transsexual” removed from the IDC where it was listed as a “mental disorder.”

The world has changed along with the seven trailblazers who let us see a glimpse of their world in 2011, and not entirely for the better. While increased visibility has led to Gen Zers coming out in huge numbers, they’re also facing increased medical gatekeeping and anti-trans legislation in both the US and the UK.

But to watch the show now is to remember just how starved we were for stories like this before 2014. Karen, Maxwell, Lewis, Fox, Donna, Sarah, and Drew-Ashlyn showed us their rawest, realest selves, and weren’t afraid to let us see the harder side of living as trans in a hateful world. They gave us a glimpse of a better life and a possible future, when the painful present was all we had.

Don't forget to share:

Read More in Entertainment
The Latest on INTO