Monday 22 January 2018

My Transgender Journey: An unexpected public service from brave TV3

Sam, who is UCD Student Union’s LGBT Coordinator, made the transition from female to male with the full support of his family and friends. (Photo: TV3)
Sam, who is UCD Student Union’s LGBT Coordinator, made the transition from female to male with the full support of his family and friends. (Photo: TV3)
Sam, who is UCD Student Union’s LGBT Coordinator, made the transition from female to male with the full support of his family and friends. (Photo: TV3)
Louise shares her story as the first transgender worker in Ireland to successfully use the Employment Equality Act in a case of discrimination on the grounds of gender (Photo: TV3)

Pat Stacey

One of the most grating things about RTE2's abysmal comedy The Centre -- and there are enough to reduce a block of cheddar to rubble -- is its depiction of a transgender character called Nuala.

Actually, describing Nuala as a character is stretching credibility across several large landmasses. But at least The Centre, which continues to provoke anger from Transgender Equality Network Ireland (TENI), serves some purpose.

Its festering presence lends a certain timeliness to tonight's Irish Lives documentary, My Transgender Journey, on TV3.

This is the kind of public service broadcasting you'd expect a public service broadcaster, not a commercial one, to be producing.

The documentary focuses on three people searching for a sense of identity and fighting to find their place in a society that, as governed by our political masters, makes both those goals extraordinarily difficult to attain.

Ireland is currently the only EU country that doesn't provide a legal mechanism for recognising transgender people.

Louise Hannon, one of the three people featured in the documentary, is the first transgender person to successfully use the Employment Equality Act in a gender discrimination case against an employer.

It was a long, tortuous road to that point for Louise, who, in what you might call her previous life, was a married man.

"Fifteen years ago, I was very low, to the point where I was ready to commit suicide," she says. "For a long time I didn't know what was wrong. I had been sexually abused as a child, and I had this morbid fear that I would turn out to be an abuser."

Counselling guided Louise to the path that nature, in all its randomness and fallibility, had diverted her from. Working at her dream job, fashion photography, she's happy now, or at least happier than when, as the son of conservative parents in Ulster, she was compelled to attend agricultural college and do all the macho, manly things boys are supposed to do.

Nineteen-year-old veterinary student Sam Blanckensee, who seemed to sense from the very beginning that being born a girl was the wrong fit, was luckier in the parental stakes. He has loving parents and siblings who have supported him; the family accompanied Sam to Florida for gender reassignment.

At the time of filming, however, that had yet to happen. Sam describes the physical discomfort of binding -- tightly strapping down the female breasts to give the illusion of a manly chest -- and the long-term health risks involved.

"You can't breathe in them [binders]. You can break ribs. I developed asthma from wearing them too much. I know a friend who will possibly need heart surgery because it has cut off the circulation to the blood vessels in his heart. "

Perhaps the most moving moment occurs when Kay Bear Boss, who was born a boy in Indiana, Michigan, listens tensely on the phone, while at the other end, in America, her mother awaits a judge's decision on whether Kay's birth certificate can be changed to reflect her female status.

It's a "Yes". Kay's delight is matched by that of the judge, who we hear jovially telling her to have a glass of Jameson for him. It's hard to envision such a scene unfolding in an Irish courtroom.

My Transgender Journey is an eye-opener. Hopefully it will also be a mind-opener, not least for the people who commission RTE comedies.

Irish Lives: My Transgender Journey, TV3, 9pm tonight

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