What Am I? was a television documentary looking at the plight of transgender people living in the UK in 1980.
It was produced in response to a case going through the European Court of Human Rights at the time. This case was a Belgian trans man whose government had denied him the opportunity to change his gender on his birth certificate.*
What Am I? was an extremely sympathetic look at transgender people in the UK. Participants included well-known people such as April Ashley (formerly George Jamieson) and lesser-known people like Judy Couzins (formerly Lewen Tugwell). Ashley had her marriage dissolved in 1970 when a British court ruled that she was still legally a man at the time of her wedding. Couzins spent the majority of her life as a man, serving in the British Army in India but went on to found the self-help group SHAFT (Self Help for Trannsexuals.)
There are even some light-hearted moments – intentional and otherwise. Trans man Steve tells how he took two weeks leave from his job while undergoing his transition. While he was away, his colleagues were given regular lessons on how to casually greet him with “Hi Steve!” upon his return.
Meanwhile a therapist describes what kind of church service a trans person can have. This all seems to depend on the degree to which they are attached to the church. “In some cases,” she says, seriously, “They can have an organ.” Her next line, “Or even have a choir.” clarifies any potential misinterpretation!
April Ashley smiles as she describes how her French-speaking surgeon said to her, “Au Revoir Monsieur,” as she went under anaesthetic. When she awoke, he said, “Bonjour Madamoiselle!”.
Overall, the documentary is incredibly sensitive and informative. But there are the occasional moments when it’s clear that some clinicians still have a lot to learn. For example, we meet a GP who advises that ‘nearly three quarters of his [trans] patients have fathers who wore some kind of official uniform [e.g. police officers, etc]’. Watching him interview a prospective candidate for surgery he seems determined to show that she had an over-bearing father – even when she categorically denies this.
- The Belgian case was referred back to the Belgian government for re-consideration on the grounds that they had not fully exhausted all available remedies.