I was a little apprehensive going into the latest episode of “BBC America Reveals” – titling it “Sex Change Soldier” made it sound like a tawdry tabloid exposé rather than a serious documentary on one person’s journey from male to female. But I knew they’d done previous respectful treatments of a young transman and three partners of transvestites, so I approached it with an open mind.
The format was a little different in that the female documentary-maker (unnamed, and unseen) gave a narration that showed she became a true friend to Jan Hamilton during the filming. Apart from a few interactions that Jan has with people in her life, we don’t get to see or hear from others during the hour-long show. From the start, when we see footage of “Captain Ian Hamilton” of the Elite Parachute Regiment hiking through the jungle, Jan is on-camera almost all the time.
We are introduced to Jan, who tells us that she is a 42-year-old woman trapped in a man’s body. The narrator informs us that Jan will be the first officer in the (presumably British) armed forces to “undergo a sex change” – transition. She continues on to say that during the making of the documentary, she came to fully understand the price that Jan must pay to go through this.
Jan takes us through her daily routine of voice exercises, putting on makeup, tucking, and – after she shows us her thinning hair – putting on her wig. “I’m still Ian when I wake up.” Each morning she jogs four miles, in an effort go from 224 lbs and 14″ biceps, down to 154 lbs. Despite only having dressed in public for four months, Jan is ready to go to Thailand for FFS, “to have my face rebuilt to make me look like a woman”.
“I hid behind this big wall of being a paratrooper … I hated myself and I hated the world and I hated being in the world.” Jan had an overpowering sense of the wrong person, the wrong body.
While we watch her undergoing an obviously painful laser session, the narrator tells us about her enforced coming out. When Jan was warned that the British tabloid newspaper “News of the World” was after her transition story, she took her story voluntarily to a rival newspaper without having the time to prepare the army or her parents for what she was about to do. She paid a heavy price, losing not only her army career, but also her friends and all contact with her family. Later she tells us that she had wanted to continue her career and hadn’t imagined the rejection she was shown. Tabloid headlines blared out the loss of her £45,000/year salary.
We see Jan shopping for dresses and talking to a typical British woman of an older generation. When the woman leaves the store, Jan quietly wonders if she “scared her off”, showing her lack of confidence and doubts about interacting with others.
Jan moved to Blackpool after walking out of her 20-year marriage, due to feelings of confusion and dysphoria, knowing she could never be the spouse that her wife Morag needed. However, she was still two years away from transition, and her new girlfriend Rachel was not fully aware of her new “boyfriend’s” eventual goal to become a woman. During an interview with the two of them, Rachel shares that even after six months of Jan going full-time, she is still struggling to come to terms with it. At the beginning of the relationship, Jan was living part-time and going to work as a paratrooper. Although Rachel could see what was coming, she was in denial and when she was forced to face the truth of the situation, she felt like someone had punched her in the stomach, and knew they could not continue in a relationship. Jan cut in, “We had to find a way of ending that part of the relationship” and gave Rachel the freedom to move on in life, despite still loving her very much. Jan says “It would be nice if Rachel were a lesbian”, and they both laugh nervously. We can tell that’s not the case. Rachel tells us that every guy she dates now, she can’t help thinking “But you’re not Ian”. The couple still live together, and the feelings between them are intense as Jan takes Rachel’s hand and says “We have our ups and downs”. After a pause, Rachel responds “I pretend that Ian died…”
So why did Jan seek out the horror and violence of war? It was a final stab at saying “No, I’ve got to be a guy because everyone wants me to be.” Her military career obviously meant a lot to her – she has a picture of the time that she received a medal from Prince Edward, along with a humorous anecdote about how she still doesn’t have possession of the actual medal itself. She tries on the jacket from her dress uniform, and shows how she’s lost about 4-5 inches from the circumference of her arms. It was a near-death experience during her last tour that made Jan realize she had to transition. She “didn’t want to be unhappy” for the rest of her life, and knew time might be running out.
“My dearest wish is to blend and be accepted as a woman. But that will never happen in the army. The hierarchy, my comrades, they all rejected me.”
However, this pain is nothing compared to what came next. Her parents sent her a letter that said she was no longer their child. Jan’s tears fall with increasing frequency as she blurts out “I am not a freak. I was just born different, that’s all. My body came out wrong – it’s nothing to do with sexual gratification in any way. I am not a transvestite, I am not shemale, I just want to be a woman, what is wrong with that?“
Six days later, Jan is in Thailand for her facial feminization surgery. She spent months researching on internet, looking for the right doctor and has settled on the well-known Dr. Suporn. We watch as Jan details the features she likes and the ones she hates. She brings out a picture of Sophia Loren, “This is who I’d like to look like”. I can see it – her features are already not too far from those of the famous Italian beauty. Dr. Suporn chuckles and nods encouragingly.
The narrator says she is shocked to hear the gruesome details of surgery, although Jan already knew what was to come. The surgeon will take off her forehead, reshape it and screw it back on again. He will give her breast implants, reshape her lips, split and sew her eyelids into an almond shape. He’ll even break her nose and reshape it into a more feminine profile. Ian’s face will be gone forever. A little sadly, Jan says, “This is the last time I will ever look at Ian. The world will never again see me as a man. The world will see me as a woman until the day I die. Ian has been wonderful to me, but no – he needs to go. But I’ll always remember him.”
In Jan’s hospital room, there are cards from friends, but nothing from her parents or girlfriend Rachel. But there is a card from her ex-wife Morag. Somewhat surprisingly, Jan says, “She has known me the longest, and has been the kindest … Rachel couldn’t really deal with this.” Just before she is wheeled into surgery, she says, “I never had a doubt. I have doubt in that I am scared, yes. But doubt about the decision, no. I never had that.”
“Like jumping out of an aeroplane. Green light go.”
After the operation is over, when she comes round, there is no one there she knows except for the documentary-maker. Jan has spent twelve hours on the operating table and can barely talk to the nurses. She has to wait for thirty-six hours to know if the surgery is a success. Then the bandages will come off.
Nurses gently swab the incisions on her face and finally Dr Suporn gives her a mirror. As she examines her new features, the doctor explains to her how to manipulate her breast implants to ensure their flexibility. Jan says she feels “really good” that she doesn’t look like she used to look.
She returns home three weeks later, looking like the sister Ian never had. “Never a strong man around when you need one, is there?” she grumbles, struggling with carrying her luggage up the stairs. Rachel has now moved out, and for the first time, Jan is alone. “Welcome home, eh?”
Now, Jan has to make a new life with friends who have only known her as a woman. We’re there as she meets with two male friends in a coffee shop. They trigger my gaydar, but their sexuality is not discussed. Jan shows off her new silhouette to them, and all three talk and laugh about the details of the surgery she has just had.
There are still massive problems to overcome. Alone and unemployed, Jan is forced to sell the intricate details of her operation to a newspaper, in order to have any income at all. As time goes on, her optimism is stretched. She comes to the conclusion that people don’t see a woman when they look at her, they just see “a good-looking transsexual”. She fears she will only ever be a good fascimile of a woman.
At this point, between her two surgeries, Jan takes us on a journey into the past. She still hopes for a reconciliation with her parents, but doesn’t think it will happen. She grew up in northeast Scotland and goes back to confront issues from her childhood. We hear that she came out to mother by telephone, telling her it would be in the papers. Her parents responded with a letter saying that their son was dead and she was never to contact them again. Jan was struck by how the response was based on how it would affect them. Her father wrote, “How do I go to the golf course to renew my subscription when everyone knows what you’ve done?”. Once again, the tears fall as Jan says, “I no longer have anybody who loves me, and that’s hard … We all need someone to give you that unconditional acceptance.” The film-maker says, “Jan could not take me to meet her parents.”
After a montage of childhood 8mm footage of growing up and playing in a playground, and some old photos, Jan talks about a deep dark secret. She was sexually abused from the age of 12. Talking in a park, she describes how she used to come up there, dressed. She would wander round the park as a girl. “The only way I can stand here is to talk about it.” With a palpable sense of shame, she says there was an “element of consensual sex. I was treated as a woman, and it was quite loving. Then I was asked to do things, or have things done to me, and I would come away with shame, feeling dirty about it.” There was no one to talk to about it. When she was seventeen, she told her abuser “If you ever do that to me again, I’ll kill you” and he backed off. The lesson she learned – “That’s what you do as a man, act aggressive” – that was what ultimately drove her to the army.
There’s a surprise in store. Jan has contacted Morag, her wife of twenty years. Morag has written back saying “I’m just happy that you’re alive”. We watch them as they meet and talk for the first time as two women, and can see that this was very difficult for Morag. Jan confronts her, “When you got angry with me last night, you called me Ian.” They bicker like the old married couple they once were. Morag didn’t want to talk about her life with Ian, and was obviously less sure about the future than Jan, who tried to reassure her. It was a bittersweet reunion, with obvious strong feelings, but no sense of a reconciliation.
It is Remembrance Sunday, when the nation gathers to honor those of the armed forces who gave their lives in time of war. This year, Jan has come to lay Ian, the solider, to rest. “I am really happy with who I am now, and that person is not a soldier. There is no more Captain Hamilton.” And again, the tears fall.
In February 2008, Jan returns to Thailand to “have her genitals removed” (as phrased by the narrator). This is the final stage, we’re told. Genital reassignment surgery. Jan is unnervingly calm and undaunted, and we see her shopping for new underwear. Back in the hospital, Dr Suporn describes the procedure. In deference to US TV censors, BBC America blurs out the photos on the doctor’s laptop. (I wonder if they did the same when the program was shown in the UK.) Jan’s reaction? “Fabulous!” Dr Suporn tells Jan that although she will not be able to reproduce, she will be able to have sex and reach orgasm. To that extent, Jan is no different from many genetic females. “He will take my scrotum and turn that into a vagina … Goodbye to my best friend willy and …”. She laughs. But her emotions are in turmoil. “This time I’m fucking terrified”. When asked about what she’d like her parents to know, she responds “Just to love me, that’s all. They’re my mum and dad, and I need them an awful lot. I’m really happy as a woman. I’m just so bloody lonely all the time.” The tears fall in torrents.
It is the Chinese New Year on the day when she will “get her new genitals and new gender.” The last remnants of Ian will be removed by the surgeon’s knife. As she is wheeled in, she turns to the camera and says, “Tell my parents I never meant to hurt them, if something goes wrong, okay?”
We see her being put under, and after 8 hours of surgery, she is wheeled out. The narrator muses, “Now perhaps she’ll have the future she wants, as a woman called Jan.”
Wrapping up the documentary, Jan talks about the results of the GRS. “Not very pretty at the moment … like a badly-burned donut … Odd to feel like there’s still something down there.” She is proud of the effort she’s put in to become a woman. Was it worth it? “Oh, yes, 10 times, 100 times.”
“Yes, I am a woman now, and I’m happy.” *sniff* “Truly, I’m truly happy.”
Filed under: Commentary, Transgender Tagged: | armed forces, bbc america, Blackpool, documentary, Dr Suporn, facial feminization surgery, FFS, girlfriend, GRS, ian hamilton, jan hamilton, military, newspaper, paratroooper, review, sex change, sex change soldier, significant others, spouse, srs, tabloids, television, Thailand, transexual, Transgender, transsexual, tv, uk, united kingdom, wife