Today SBS showed the first episode of the latest series of Australia’s Who Do You Think You Are? The episode featured Barry Humphries, who died in April, providing viewers with the opportunity to see a rather different kind of biographical account of a recently deceased celebrity to the usual clip show retrospective. I had a small part in this programme, as Humphries’ family history involved an episode that touched on drink history. His death has, however, led to right-wing British and Australian newspapers running a series of stories about his comments about trans people, and I wanted to reflect on that. My work has led to other forms of public engagement, and those haven’t always gone according to plan, but I think talking about how these things work and how they can run away from you can be helpful.
When a request for help came via the Drinking Studies Network, I was keen to take part. My mum loves the British version of Who Do You Think You Are? I watch it. I know quite a few academics who’ve been on it, or on similar things like A House Through Time, and it always looks like they’re having fun. There’s no fee for doing it, but of course you offer your work in exchange for other forms of academic capital. And I am fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes of television production, from the recording of noddy shots and closeups of hands folded on a table to break up a dull talking heads segment, to the skilled editing that turns my incoherent rambling into relatively articulate discourse.
But when I agreed to do that work I didn’t know who the ‘talent’—the celebrity whose family history is the focus of the episode—would be. If you haven’t seen the programme, the way these family histories are narrated for their audiences is meant to be a surprise for audiences, just as they are for the person whose history this is. Even after you find out who the focus is you’re meant to keep their identity secret until the episode is broadcast, so that you won’t be expecting drink to feature in an episode if you know I’m involved.
Of course I eventually found out that Humphries would be the focus of this episode. And it wasn’t hard to find out that he’d said some stupid things about trans people, which made me wonder whether I wanted to continue with the programme. I’ve turned down invitations to take part in other programmes before where I’ve had similar reservations, though with those the red flags have been much, much more obvious. Humphries’ comments struck me as unpleasant, but—unfortunately—not surprising for a man of his age and identity. Smarter people than me will be able to unravel the politics of Dame Edna’s drag, but it never felt to me like Humphries was really trying to unsettle anything to do with gender and identity with that character. Anyway, saying yes to these things always brings a certain nervousness… if you agree to speak to Milkshake Duck, they will almost certainly turn out to have a shady past. And it’s not as if British academia—including my own institution—doesn’t produce far more extreme transphobia, and I can’t really boycott that.
So I agreed to do the programme, and of course when Humphries died last month the papers starting amplifying his comments about trans people in manufactured and posthumous outrage on his behalf. It’s funny that having respect for the dead doesn’t seem to cover repeating the controversial things they said. Inevitably some people are going to be disappointed that someone they liked had stupid views. But that’s the culture war for you.
My part of the programme was recorded in July last year, in the middle of a heatwave. Humphries was every bit as mischevious as I had expected him to be, and my closeups clearly show me wrestling with the giggles. I think I was also a little thrown by the sense that I was shaking hands with the man who shook hands with Napoleon – or at least with the Beatles, everyone in British comedy, the Spice Girls, several Bonds, Cher, Betjeman, Sigourney Weaver, etc etc… and through his fourth wife—the actor Lizzie Spender—to Stephen and Natasha Spender, and through them to Auden, Eliot, Isherwood, and others (including, possibly, Martin Shaw and Lewis Collins of the Professionals.)
Anyway. I just want to reiterate that obviously trans rights are human rights, transphobia looks to me much like arguments for Clause 28 did when I was growing up, and transphobes are either hateful idiots or bad faith hateful idiots. Australia is, of couse, full of kind and supportive people doing their best to counter the arguments of those people, and to solve the problems faced by trans Australians. Here are some of those fantastic organizations and charities. I’ve made some donations; maybe you could do the same.
- Zoe Belle Gender Collective
- Rainbow Health Australia
- The Gender Centre
- ACON and TransHub
Thanks to academics in the UK and Australia for suggesting these organizations.