Interview: My Transsexual Summer’s Drew-Ashlyn Cunningham

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Paris Lees talks with one of the participants of Channel 4’s new reality documentary, My Transsexual Summer.

Tonight’s show focuses on Drew’s story, and her experiences of discrimination, of meeting other trans people – and of love.

So, how’s this past week been?
Drew: Really good, work’s been really good; everyone’s been really supportive to me. I went out with Lewis last night – we got a bit of attention!

Good attention?
It was all good; everyone was really nice, asked for our photos and said that we’d done a really good thing, that they were really inspired and stuff, so it’s quite an honour when someone says that

Were you expecting such positive feedback?
I thought that people would look at me differently and accept me, but I always have, in the back of my head, “What if someone recognised me?” The fact that I’m out as trans openly on telly, they might feel like they have every right to give me abuse. But everyone’s been really good!

What interested you in taking part?
I was working two nights a week in a nightclub and I thought I wasn’t getting anywhere with the job hunting. I thought that, if someone could see I’m struggling, they might give me a chance. Maybe have me work in their bar or in a little shop because they could see that I’m passionate about working. Also to meet some trans people and just feel normal for once.

Looks like you’ve made some friends for life?
Without a shadow of a doubt, they’re the most amazing people I’ve met. I’m always talking to them on the internet; Donna’s always ringing me after work. Everyone’s been amazing and we’ve really bonded.

Are you happy with how it’s turned out?
I think it sticks true to the message of showing us as normal; people get a sense of us and they get to have a laugh with us. In the second and third episode, we touch more upon issues that we face, such as being refused [treatment] on the NHS, being refused employment because you’re transgender. It’s not a case of we’re making people think that – we’re actually showing them.

And you’re working now aren’t you?
I still work at the club, and I’ve got a full time job in a coffee shop as a waitress, so it’s really good. I wanted money to pay rent and also pay to go back into college next year maybe do a makeup course. That’s where my heart is, to get a realistic job, that I can get on my own without using a documentary to get out there.

Were you isolated before?
I had no friends who were transgender before the retreat; I met one briefly, who was a lot older, and she was really mean to me. This was before I started hormones and she said, ‘You need to get your roots done, you need to work on your voice because you sound like a gay man, and you need to wear flowery dresses.’

I said to her, at the end of the day, not all women wear flowery dresses: we all represent ourselves in a different way. It was a bit upsetting that someone from our community could be like that towards me. It seems on the first show that I was quite confident, but I wasn’t. Getting there gave me confidence, like Donna, for one. Her confidence rubbed off on me so much.

What did you make of people’s response to the way that “tranny” was used?
When I first transitioned, I didn’t like that word because I always saw it as something that people use against you, like guys for example would shout “tranny” so they’re using it in the wrong sense; they’re using it against me. As I started my transition more, I came to realise that it’s the context that you use the word. I guess there’s going to be transgender people out there who don’t like it, but for us, what we’ve all said is that we’re trying to reclaim that word. It’s kind of like the n-word.

Is it something you have to be trans to use?
I don’t know if you have to be transgender, but I think you have to use it in the right way. We use it like just as slang, but generally the public would use it against you. It just depends on how the person is using it: if a genetic female used the word, if I knew her sense of humour, or I knew that she wasn’t using it in a bad way, it wouldn’t bother me.

Do you think other people’s mums might look at your mum and think, “Oh, I can support my child too”?
Yeah, I really do. Without my family I don’t think I’d be here. My dad you know is supportive of me. He said that he was really proud of me and that he thinks it’s really good what I’ve done. They’ve stuck by me through so much – every transgender person should be able to have that love from their family, and know that they’re going to be there for them. It was really sad listening to Sarah thinking that if she came out she could lose that family and that support from them. For me, people should just love you no matter what; the world would be so much of a better place if it worked like that. But, obviously, there’s going to be people out there who don’t understand, and it’s a shame.

Finally, Drew, what would you like to see trans people doing on telly?
Before, when I saw documentaries, they focused so much on surgery, and they never got to show the people as just normal people. There’s always the few successful trans people in the media, and then there’s the unsuccessful ones, who maybe don’t pass well, and don’t get the praise they deserve.

People need to realise that it’s not about passing, it’s about being happy.

There needs to be more just showing transgender people as normal people. Then maybe they can get rid of the label of transgender and everyone can just be people!

My Transsexual Summer is currently showing on Channel 4 at 10pm on Tuesdays.