Content warning: discussions of transphobia.
“Sex Education” was a wild ride from start to finish. It opens with a cast of silly, stereotypical teen-drama characters and a raunchy premise: What if a high school virgin began a covert sex therapy clinic on his school campus? Each season has its own feel as we watch the charmingly all-thumbs characters grow up and become more complex, with a cast that has expanded each season: Season one has a razor-sharp wit in its portrayal of these absolutely awful teens beginning to explore their changing bodies and sexualities; season two runs with the offbeat nature of the show, escalating all the way to an avant-garde “Romeo and Juliet” musical about sex; season three sees the students embracing an enthusiastic and healthy outlook on sex as they come together as the “sex school.” Finally, season four introduces Cavendish College, a new setting overflowing with positivity, inclusivity and naive idealism.
The show is insightful in exploring themes around sex: Different types of relationships are explored, and heavier, potentially distressing topics are given the compassion and dignity they deserve. The show also proudly shows indecency in every scene it can, not just for shock value, but to show all kinds of sex: slow sex, fast sex, bland sex, oddly specific sex, exciting sex, awkward sex — “Sex Education” has it all.
In the last 10 minutes of “Sex Education,” we see a 20-second scene of a trans couple having sex, and I think that’s wonderful. I felt that we, the audience, got to see a little more than the surface of these two trans characters — Abbi (Anthony Lexa, debut) and Roman (Felix Mufti, debut) — throughout the season. We see their relationship take on the strain and emotional distress from transphobia in the outside world, and we see them speak with clarity to each other about their intimacy issues. Season four, and this scene specifically, shows us a trans relationship that is grounded, relatable and ordinary. It’s not a spectacle held up on a pedestal to tout superficial diversity. It’s not a confusing outlier, where unacceptable, invasive questions are asked about people’s bodies and privacy. It’s not spoken about in hushed tones. With a show so blatant in its sexuality and intimacy, why would it be?
During that 20-second scene — played as part of a final montage — a mellow, emotional piano piece plays in the background. The scene doesn’t carry the humorous tone of other sex scenes in the show. There is no awkwardness about the sex. These are two people in a steady relationship: They know what the other likes and dislikes, and how to safely express their love for each other. The showrunners have a habit of showing sex at its most honest, which can involve various humiliating and mood-killing situations from human anatomy, like performance anxiety or an injury. However, the cultural context in which this scene exists is important; this scene does not involve any humiliation, thus making it one of the most powerful examples of trans representation.
Modern media has a habit of directing disgust at trans bodies. Transgender identity will often have two major negative depictions: as a farce or as a threat. Trans identity as a farce uses humor to highlight gender nonconforming individuals as outsiders of the cultural hegemony surrounding gender expression. Making trans people the butt of the joke eases fears of audience members with a cis-normative worldview. These fears often come from the perception of gender nonconformity as a threat: Since Queerness has historically been falsely categorized as mental illness (which is itself heavily stigmatized), trans characters are unfairly painted as unstable or violent. Humiliation and shame are then used as weapons to combat that fear, creating a harmful environment of bullying and mockery surrounding trans discourse in cis spaces.
Television and film of the past few decades have been riddled with transphobia and bad representation. If you need examples, see Lily Simpson’s YouTube channel. Simpson’s videos are in-depth breakdowns of trans characters or allegories in various TV shows and films from a trans perspective. As I watched these videos, common themes that appeared in the portrayals of trans characters were confusion, disgust and outright fear of trans bodies in heavily gendered or sexual settings. It’s obvious that any time trans people are villainized and reduced to not even their bodies but the disgust cis people feel toward them, it’s done through a cisgender lens — cis writers creating trans caricatures and parading around the “appropriate” cis reaction, which could be anything from well-meaning unfamiliarity to outright anger.
Earlier in season four of “Sex Education,” transmasc Roman is revealed to have undergone top surgery after appearing shirtless at a party. This observation is accompanied by compliments from other Queer characters, and Roman is not expected to cover his body or scars. This openness about the trans experience helps to deconstruct disgust around the anatomy of trans individuals. His surgery is treated as a cause for celebration; his agency is respected, he is clearly of sound mind, and his character is patient and polite.
In this scene, these characters are not written through that typical cis lens. It doesn’t serve as a teaching moment for something unfamiliar to the audience, and it isn’t cause for discomfort or disgust. “Sex Education” has spent its entire runtime teaching us that sex can be a normal part of life, that we can have healthy discussions surrounding safe and pleasurable sex without guilt or shame. In the end scene, Abbi and Roman are just people being people. Because the show has taken so much time to familiarize viewers with the nuances and intimacy of sex, chances at initial shock of this scene are reduced. “Sex Education” was in a unique position to destigmatize trans bodies, and it delivered.
The way in which a person chooses to outwardly express their gender identity is deeply personal, and with the diversity of human experience, those expressions will not always align with an ever-changing gender binary. Many aspects of ourselves — our clothes, our hobbies, our social circles, our words and our behaviors — are influenced by how others perceive our gender because those perceptions will enforce how we fit in the gender binary. But when someone subverts those expectations, they can face hate or harm. When being trans and successfully passing is supposedly deceptive, transphobic words or actions are wrongly justified.
Cis people tend to have a disturbing relationship with trans bodies. Transphobia is often accompanied by a desire to cross boundaries and scrutinize private details that are completely inappropriate to ask about. It’s a sick mixture of fascination and horror at an individual so stigmatized that they are no longer treated as a human being. They become their body and all the ways they “violate” the untouchable, sacred gender binary. Because trans perspectives are so alien to a cis person with little to no interaction with trans people, gender discourse or sociology, their ignorance will manifest in ways that have real, damaging effects on trans people. Trans people often face barriers in their experiences with healthcare and are denied gender-affirming care by anti-trans U.S. legislature, all because cis people are so utterly terrified of trans bodies, something that is none of their business in the first place. If you are curious from a place of compassion, seeking out public trans perspectives on transitioning is a good first step. In personal interactions, however, you do not get to choose what details are yours to know.
As we learn more about Abbi’s and Roman’s lives surrounding their Queerness, they have control over what they get to share and what they don’t. They get to shape their narrative. Stories in which trans characters are victimized and that control is ripped away from them disempower trans audiences. Abbi and Roman have control. Abbi is Christian, and she faced rejection from her community for her gender identity. However, she chooses who gets to learn about these conflicting aspects of herself. She also chooses to surround herself with a community that will raise her up rather than put her down.
“Sex Education” does wonders for Queer representation. It shows how gender-affirming care can be gatekept by money or acceptance and the effects this can have on young trans and non-binary adults. It shows gay and bisexual characters who aren’t emasculated and love every part of themselves. It shows lesbian characters without objectifying them through the male gaze. It shows asexual characters feeling the pressures of love and sex. It respects nonbinary characters and the validity of their identities — because gender exists beyond two checkboxes. At a time when transphobia has become frustratingly prevalent in U.S. and U.K. public perception and politics, it shows that trans bodies are just as normal as everyone else’s. This should be the bare minimum, but unfortunately, this show is a positive outlier.
Living as a Queer man, I learned an empowering lesson growing up that “Sex Education” was eager to remind me of: Our Queerness is none of your fucking business. Trans people are not spectacles to be ogled simply because they dare to defy the gender binary — to oppose a framework that governs the cis way of life at the expense of non-cis people. Their bodies are not case studies to be analyzed by nosy bigots. Discussion of someone’s body or identity is a privilege that is granted when the person in question feels comfortable doing so. Cis people are not entitled to trans bodies.
Daily Arts Writer James Johnston can be reached at email@example.com.