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Review – “BBC America Reveals: Sex Change Soldier”

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.

Captain Ian HamiltonThe 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”.

Jan Hamilton“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…”

Captain Ian Hamilton and Prince EdwardSo 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.

Jan Hamilton in Ian's dress jacket“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.”

Jan Hamilton after her FFSAfter 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.”

Jan Hamilton - glamour shot“Yes, I am a woman now, and I’m happy.” *sniff* “Truly, I’m truly happy.”

24 Responses

  1. There was so much in reading about this that struck me deeply that I was able to relate to. I really need to find this somewhere since I don’t get BBC America and watch it myself. Thank you for taking the time to do this.

  2. Well, in the UK, no they didn’t blur out the genitals on Suporn’s laptop 😉

    Jan’s story is inspirational and salutary I think. She has fairly recently been awarded a large sum from the British Ministry of Defence for the abuse she received, and only one scumbag tabloid headline went into melt down about it. At last I hope she is able to get on with her life.

    I don’t know her (though I know some who do), so it’s difficult to comment on the veracity of the programme really. I recognised so much of it myself – especially the bewildering rejection. They tell you that many will just despise you…you can’t quite believe it…why would they? But they do. And when those people are close to you too, that’s unspeakably hard.

    I think one of the particular difficulties Jan faced was that the manner of her coming out to the army was very unfortunate. A paper was about to ‘out’ her and she rushed to tell her story with a rival – before fully squaring it with her employers. So it all started very very badly, and got worse. The army were then unspeakable to her – her CO told her that she had gone “from hero to zero overnight”. It isn’t an excuse – the army should not have behaved as it did at all, and I recall from the show, Jan talking about the hundreds of abusive messages she read on some service website etc.

    Thankfully, though, there have been cases where the British armed forces have responded to someone transitioning with more understanding and empathy. I know of one officer serving in Germany who has the full support of her Regiment, and I recall her moving story of the first day she went to the Mess as the new ‘her’, to be greeted with great humanity and care by her fellow officers – many of whom wanted to dance with her to show their support.

  3. I am so jealous (laughs) you look stunning and you are extremely happy. Every chance I get I like to express my utmost glee when I hear another person finding their way home. You have come a long way and welcome to sisterhood.
    Hope to hear more stories like this.


  4. I hate the phrase “have her genitals removed.” It presents a biased and inaccurate picture of SRS that is often used by those who seek to limit our access to appropriate healthcare, including surgery, by accusing us of mutilating our bodies. In fact, very little tissue is removed during SRS on a MTF transsexual. Even if this is a quote from the program, which isn’t indicated here, I would never use it and hope it isn’t used here in the future.

  5. My apologies, Abby. It was indeed a quote from the program, and I was unable to get the post edited until now in order to make that clear. I included it in order to show that the narrator was still, even at this point, not completely educated on ‘all matters transgender’ and thus prone to some of the slip-ups that cisgendered people will make from time to time.

  6. Whilst this was a fairly sympathetic portrayal of a transwoman’s journey, it inevitably contained much of the slightly wide eyed, open mouthed amazement in its tone that all documentaries made by cisgendered people for cisgendered people contain. Without gender dysphoria, it is 99% impossible to grasp how obvious, and straightforward the need for surgery might be, how we do not regard it as a Massive Big Deal (necessarily), simply the last piece of a jigsaw. The world out there is OBSESSED with the whole ‘cutting your penis off’ thing, I think because it is – for them – the only point where they can start to understand that we MEAN this! (Though of course, we meant it from the very start – though they didn’t believe us – and the authenticity of what we are doing and being isn’t affected whatsoever by whether we ultimately have surgery etc). Hence ‘removing her genitals’, as well as being utterly factually inaccurate – she was reshaping them – is entirely typical of the inability to grasp the reality of the experience.

  7. Nicely written review.

    The big media love to show the soldier in to woman scenario I think because of the perception that they are opposites. The same bravery that got her through a war is the same bravery that allowed her to finally make her life complete.

    I hope some day her parents get a clue.

  8. This review is much better than the last time Capt. Hamilton was mentioned on this blog, where she was hit with lies and slander, and blamed for her own transphobic physical assault.

    Good job.

  9. As far as I know Jan was not the first British soldier to transition, she was the first officer to transition. The media hype highlighted by the fact she also the first paratrooper to transition, so a double whammy.

    She is a marvelous lady in my view, and I hope that she finds the happinness she has always sought. I like her, lost all of my family when I transitioned, I hope she and her family do reconcile sometime in the future. Just to show how warm hearted she is, on saturday, she congratulated me on my GRC.

  10. I try to watch as many of these types of shows as possible, to get a better perspective of how the media is portraying us. For the most part I have to say that this one was done in fairly good taste. Sometimes I wonder why there needs to be scenes of the trans woman either dressing or applying make-up, almost as to suggest that the make-up and clothes are of significance. But perhaps I nitpick about that more than I should.

    I did sympathize with Jan and found myself nodding in agreement with some of the feelings she expressed, at times fighting back tears as I reflect on my own situation and the fears of what I will eventually face. My hope is that there can be lessons-learned from others as I make my way towards being full-time and considering similar surgeries.

  11. i saw this last night on demand. i felt so bad for jan and that she had no one there for her. i am a mother of four and no matter what they are my children and i will love them no matter what. it is her life and she should be able to live it the way she wants to. by the way you look gorgeous and i am happy for you.

  12. Just watched the episode and was truly touched. Jan has such courage to go through what she has. All things happen for one reason or another and those who you thought were your loved ones were really never there. Your body may have changed but you still remain who you were on the inside. The world just gets to wrapped up on the packaging. By the way, you look so darn gorgeous! Life will go on…if it doesn’t work out for you in the U.K., I’m sure you’ll be welcome with open arms in New York. Take care.

  13. I just watched the “Sex Change Soldier”. Jan you have more conviction and strength than any human being I know. I am very proud of you and hope you have all that you want from life.

  14. Well, I am also Scottish and now living in USA. I was ofcourse very interested in watching this documentary for many reasons, one being Jan is Scottish. I agree with everything that people have said on this website, you should be so proud of yourself. That is what is wrong with our society today, people do what other people expect them to do, not what they really want to do. There are not many people out there to have the guts to do what you did, to live life the way you wanted. I can guarantee by doing this, you are going to be so happy, on your own or not. I hope your parents will change their mind. You know what older Scottish people are like, very set in their ways, they are ignorant and find it hard to change. Never the less, never look back, you look absolutely stunning. I wish you all the luck in the world, be happy and healthy. Here’s to a great Hogmany and a wonderful New Year to you :0)

  15. Khyri posted on my web-site and suggested I read the comments on here. It’s my first time looking at this site and I just wanted to say “thank-you” to all of you for writing such kind words.

    I never expected my wee film to travel as far as it has, or to resonate with so many people. It is lovely to get mail from as far away as the US and New Zealand. There’s lots wrong with the film – I was unhappy at the concentration on surgery, for example, and all the counselling ended up on the cutting room floor. It did succeed, though, in showing a portion of just how much I lost for this.

    Life goes on and, although it continues to be a lonely and a hard one, I have never regretted my decision, only society’s reaction to it. I am sure there will be a happy ending, though. There’s no right or wrong way to do this and i’ve made plenty of mistakes but I really didn’t have a choice in my decision, so I don’t agree with the “being brave” part, that accolade probably belongs to the people who came to accept me.

    In all honesty, I see this condition as a bit of a curse – it causes so much unhappiness. However, I do think that programmes like mine, and others who come forward, will continue to nip away at prejudice, which always comes from ignorance. Hopefully, the next generation will be free to make their own choices – and be respected for them.

    God Bless

    Jan X

    • I was moved by your story, and I wish you well. I can’t imagine the hurt you must feel as a result of your parents’ response to your situation.. You are obviously a much finer person than either of them. You deserve to be loved and appreciated for what you are: a courageous, honest and determined human being who has much to offer others. God bless.

    • Jan I hope you get read this. You are an incredible lady and I sincerely hope that you have found someone to truly love and a they truly love you.
      I only wish I could have been that friend you so desperately wanted at the time you went through the most firghtening times in you life and during your surgery.
      When I saw your documentary and saw the fear just before you went in to have you final suregery it tore my soul apart that you had to do that alone. I will never forget it.
      I would have been honored to be your friend and be there during that traumatic time. I know this all sounds very deep but I cannot believe that such a beatiful and couragoues lady had to endure this pain the world has alot to answer for when it comes to acceptance of very special people.

      I wish you all the love and happiness and please know that you are just and incredible amazing lady.

      Gary Sydney Australia

  16. Hi Jan! Your story came yesterday in finnish television. You are a brave and positive person. I hope you all the best in your life.



  19. Jan wishing you all the happiness and I can only say that your life journey hasnt ended for you, look after yourself Liz x

  20. No matter how many nasty comments you get from people just say to yourself i will get through this,life has its ups+downs but its when youre hardest hit that u must not quit,dont let those buggers get u down,you are a strong person hold your head high you havnt done anything wrong.All the best for the future take care.From Paul.x

  21. Hey Jan. Hope you´re reading this…
    Me and my Girlfriend have seen your Story this evening in the TV and we´re proud of your decision and the way you go your life.
    We wish a good luck and hope that you´ll make your way.
    Greetings from Germany(Sorry for my English)

  22. Jan I hope you get read this. You are an incredible lady and I sincerely hope that you have found someone to truly love and a they truly love you.
    I only wish I could have been that friend you so desperately wanted at the time you went through the most firghtening times in you life and during your surgery.
    When I saw your documentary and saw the fear just before you went in to have you final suregery it tore my soul apart that you had to do that alone. I will never forget it.
    I would have been honored to be your friend and be there during that traumatic time. I know this all sounds very deep but I can believe that such a beatiful and couragoues lady had to endure this pain the worl has alot to answer for when it comes to acceptance of very special people.

    I wish you all the love and happiness and please know that you are just and incredible amazing lady.

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