Credit: BBC

Sarah Cleary

There was a time, not that long ago, when the vast majority of people would never see themselves on a screen. Needless to say, this time has passed. Existing on-screen, in one way or another, has become a completely mundane facet of contemporary life, and the means of image creation and dissemination have now been ‘democratised’ beyond comprehension. But, in the 1970s and 1980s, the monolithic BBC saw fit to offer ordinary folks a shot at the UK airwaves in the form of Open Door (1973 – 1983), a ground-breaking series recently chronicled at East London-based gallery Raven Row. Their exhibition, People Make Television, showcased over 100 community-orientated programmes created by activists and advocates on a dizzying array of contemporaneous issues. One of the first grassroots organisations selected to create an edition of Open Door was the Transex Liberation Group, and the resulting programme (which originally aired June 2, 1973) is a miraculous thing to behold – a TV show about trans women by trans women.

The programme begins with a more typical example of the BBC’s treatment of the transgender community: a wink and a nudge from popular shop-floor sitcom Are You Being Served? In the clip, ladies’ man Mr Lucas (Trevor Bannister) is downright shocked to see the camp-as-tits Mr Humphries (John Inman) apparently flirting with a beautiful woman. Humphries explains that they’ve “known each other for years”, adding that “he’s much more settled now he’s had the operation.” Cue the laugh-track and cue the gay panic from Mr Lucas. It’s at this point we meet our Open Door hostess, Della Aleksander, chuckling to herself. “I like that programme”, she says, “and now for the reality.” And with that, a delicate tone is set: Della (along with the programme’s other trans participants) will be endeavouring to change viewers’ hearts and minds, but not without a sense of humour.

We are then formally introduced to the four featured members of the Transex Liberation Group in a series of film sequences, each offering an intimate glimpse into the ladies’ daily lives. We see the groovily-dressed Jan out clothes shopping. In voiceover, she tells us how her transition has inspired her to become an affordable electrologist (a godsend for trans women). We hear homemaker and mother Rachel recall quite how much she loathed the “rough types of jobs” she undertook pre-transition. The newly married Laura is dying to tell us how she met her beloved Barry – watching her flirt with him during an adorable (albeit obviously staged) phone catch-up is an especially tender moment. Finally, in a truly daring choice, we watch Della take a bath. What makes this so radical is how nonchalantly her naked trans body is presented to us. There’s no sense a viewer’s prurience is being indulged here – there’s a simple, mundane beauty about it.

Each sequence begins with a photograph of the subject pre-transition and ends with her looking directly into the camera, holding the viewer’s gaze for a moment or two. The former choice would look downright tawdry without the latter but, as it is, this before-and-after device imparts the huge physical and psychological distances each subject has travelled. Still, it’s a curious combination of tabloid shock and arthouse technique. What these film segments provide for a contemporary viewer – perhaps even more than later discussion segments – is a tangible insight into transgender life in 1970s Britain. The fact they do so in such pointedly quotidian fashion makes them all the more remarkable and, ultimately, invaluable.  

Following these filmed profiles is a studio-based conversation between the group members. Led by Della, the group first try to find adequate words for the ineffable frustrations of transition. Jan describes waiting for her gender affirming surgery as “like living on the edge of a volcano”, adding that she lives in perpetual fear of succumbing to an injury and waking up in a psych ward where she would “be made to feel an oddity.” Rachel describes the waiting period for her own operation as a “limbo stage”, as well as “like being in a revolving door you can’t get out of.” It’s striking to see these women bare their turmoil with such candour – a forthrightness that is surely rooted in mutual support. Some of Della’s questions are blunt, yes, but they are coming from a fellow trans woman. As such, her line of questioning can elicit more unguarded and authentic responses than a journalist would likely receive. Here Open Door lives up to its tagline: “your say, your way.”

The group then move onto discussing some of the structural and systemic issues each of them have faced and continue to face. On the subject of work, Jan points out that potential employers aren’t likely to offer a trans applicant as much money as “the girl next door.” Della then relates her frustration at having been told by a psychiatrist that she needed to work “as a woman” for at least one year before she could be considered for a surgery, and stresses how much she hated having to “hoodwink” people during her months-long wait for female documentation. With a bit of cheekiness, Laura describes the Kafkaesque quantum state of her marriage to Barry – “legal but not lawful”, as Della puts it. “I could still get married to a woman”, muses Laura, “but I’d hate getting into drag to do it!”

The final segment sees the panel joined by Dr. Schlicht and Leo Abse MP to offer their perspective on “the transsexual problem”. While it does have its points of interest, this is by far the least fruitful portion of the programme. Jan, Laura and Rachel all remain in attendance, though they can’t seem to get a word in. The segment quickly devolves into a rather shallow three-way debate between Della, the doctor and the MP. Both men ostensibly hold a pro-trans position, with the doctor being the more convincing of the two. He does, however, quibble with Della’s assertion that everyone is “intersex” to one extent or another. Though it’s hard to be certain, it appears that she’s using the term as an imperfect placeholder for the concept of non-binary gender – a line of thinking the doctor stubbornly fails to follow. 

The MP rejects Della’s notion far more aggressively, pointedly discouraging her from suggesting that she and other trans people have anything in common with the general population. “The doctor and I want to be men”, he barks, “you want to be women, but you mustn’t confuse the issue.” It’s telling that the programme starts to more closely resemble televised conversations about trans people in 2023 as soon as the supposed expertise of a politician and a psychiatric practitioner are deferred to. Della fights her corner though, clarifying her position thusly: “masculinity has quite a large degree of femininity in it, being a man involves a feminine aspect, and being a woman involves something masculine.” 

It’s of course unsurprising that some of the language used by Della and the other Transex Liberation Group members during the programme is, for lack of a better term, old-fashioned. For example, they not only refer to themselves as having had “sex changes” (a generally outmoded term for those not in the know), but also refer to themselves as being “sex changes”. However, a great deal of what these women have to say is strikingly forward thinking. At one point, Della delivers an impassioned piece to camera wherein she states that “transsexualism is really the tip of an iceberg”, and that “there is no pure male and no pure female.” Going further, she opines that “the sex act itself is a transsexual act, in which one endeavours to become and absorb the beloved.” Here Della is explicitly prompting the viewer to examine their own relationship to gender it’s their empathy, rather than sympathy, that she seeks to arouse. This proclamation would surely prove controversial today, not least because it necessarily rejects the Us vs. Them dichotomy which sustains contemporary ‘transgender discourse’. That such a radical, big-hearted sentiment once occupied one of three television channels in the UK is – frankly – mind-boggling.