The world was a different place when Graham Linehan’s IT Crowd, which turned to IT support for comedy inspiration, was first broadcast by Channel 4. But last week, Channel 4 told Linehan they would be turning off one of his episodes and not turning it back on again. The Speech, originally shown in December 2008, which features the well-known ‘internet in a box’ plot, also includes a transwoman and – worse – makes light of the situation.
In brief, sex-crazed Douglas Reynholm falls for April Shepherd, a journalist who is writing a feature about him. When she tells him ‘she used to be a man’, Reynholm thinks she ‘used to be from Iran’. This isn’t a problem for Reynholm – ‘I don’t care where you‘re from; I’m very modern,’ he later boasts – and their passion for each other overflows. When he finally does learn the truth, his insecurities take over and the episode ends in comic violence as April gives as good as she gets.
Behind the juvenile humour there is a serious message about acceptance of ourselves and others. But that of course did not impress the modern-day transgender lobby who had been moaning about the episode to Channel 4. Following ‘numerous complaints’, the TV company caved into their demands and decided it was no longer suitable for their on-demand service, All 4. As they explained to Linehan,
‘it is fair to say that transphobia has grown in public awareness since this episode was made in 2008; attacks on trans men and women are rising and their place in society is vulnerable and some way from being legitimised. Whilst this episode is undeniably a feat of great comic ingenuity and it is clear that the prejudices of the character Reynholm sabotage his own happiness, the view of myself and others is that the episode ultimately risks appearing to endorse the view that trans women are in fact men and, more seriously arguably legitimises violence against them.’
In other words, transgender people are too vulnerable to feature in comedy, and any suggestion that transwomen might once have been men is verboten.
How this helps transgender people like me is hard to fathom. We have spent years campaigning to be treated as equals; not wrapped up in cotton wool, too fragile to contribute and compete. Moreover, the view that trans women are in fact men, might actually be the truth; it certainly needs to be debated, not condemned as hate-speech and censored from view. What, indeed, is wrong with being a man? Nothing, as long as the word describes our sex, and not the associated sexist stereotypes and expectations that we call gender.
I spoke to Linehan to get his view. He accepted that, ‘Channel 4 are totally in their rights to remove the episode’, and, ‘if they had said it was a cheap joke, I would have said “fair enough”’, though he added wryly, ‘they might then have to delete half my output’.
What upset him was not the cancellation but that ‘we are being forced to accept a religious belief that men can become women. It causes harm and leads young people to think that people like JK Rowling hate them.’
Linehan entered the trans debate in 2017, when ‘It seemed to me that women were being bullied, being called bigots and transphobes – and the bar was very low – just for questioning things like cross dressers being women. I was bullied in school, and I hate bullies. I have nothing against cross dressers, but they are not women.’
‘I know religion when I see it; I grew up in Ireland. My first 22 years were under the Catholic Church with its iron grip on society.’
The grip being applied by the transgender thought police today seems no less repressive. As Linehan explained in his reply to Channel 4, ‘if you start bowing to the demands of extremists, you will never stop.’
Debbie Hayton is a transgender teacher and journalist.