I have a confession to make: I had never watched a single episode of Married At First Sight until the new season aired this week. As a self-proclaimed slutty, solo polyamorous, bisexual guy, it’s a show that feels pretty inherently “not for me”. However, the best way to get me to watch a show is to tell me that there will be queer or trans people involved. And Season 8 of Married At First Sight UK was set to include the reality show’s first trans bride, so naturally, I plunged into the deep end of cisheteronormative wedding culture and watched the first episode. It’s not an understatement to say that I was terrified.
It’s incredibly hard to be a trans person right now: we’re being branded as groomers, perverts and paedophiles simply for existing and asking for basic human rights. A show based on the premise that you know nothing about the person you’re marrying feels like it could all-too-easily use the reveal that someone is trans as a ‘gotcha’ moment…
For those of you who – like me – aren’t familiar with the format of Married At First Sight, episode one saw the brides and grooms meeting each other at their respective hen and stag parties. I’ve actually never been to a stag party myself. I was my girlfriend’s best man when they married their now-wife in July, but ensuring my girlfriend had a wild “last night of freedom” wasn’t among my responsibilities. Partly because the concept of a hen or stag do makes significantly less sense when both people in the relationship will still be dating and having sex with other people even after getting married - polyamory is cool like that.
Admittedly the rigid gender binary that MAFS enshrines made me uncomfortable, but I wondered if the show’s first trans bride would find her hen night a fun, gender affirming experience. I was on edge as I watched, trying to spot her among the brides-to-be who were introduced. Not from how she looked because spoiler: you cannot tell if someone is trans from looking at them – but from the clips the show used to introduce each contestant and the choice of words in the voiceover used to describe them and their experiences.
To give the show credit, Ella Morgan – a 29-year-old bombshell rocking a gorgeous dress – isn’t treated any differently to the other brides-to-be when she first appears on screen. It’s not made explicit that she is trans until later in the episode, when another participant brings up their family and Ella starts crying.
Which, for someone who cried about my relationship with my parents just two days ago, is deeply relatable. Families are complex, especially when you’re trans. And while Ella doesn’t share why she’s upset with her fellow brides-to-be, there is a lovely moment of solidarity as they check in and make sure she’s ok. Of course, the audience knows something the other brides don’t. Ella confides in the viewer: “I was born in the wrong body. My parents actually gave birth to a little boy, called Evan, but I have transitioned into Ella, who I am now and who I have always been.”
As I watched that moment I wished I could sit down with Ella and ask if the producers asked her to say that. If that’s how she would personally describe her transness. If it is, I fully support her, but increasingly more trans people are talking about being “born in the wrong body” and personally, I think this is just a way of simplifying the trans experience so cisgender people can understand it. I wonder if the show asked Ella to use that language when explaining her gender so cis viewers could understand her experiences more easily.
Even before Ella is introduced, I’ve predicted who she’s going to be matched with. When asked what he thinks his future wife might be like by the other grooms, groom-to-be Nathanial Valentino quickly corrects the assumption that it’ll be a woman he’ll be marrying. He says he’s been out with “girls and with boys”. It makes sense for the show to match Ella with a non-monosexual participant. Two people from the LGBTQ+ community are more likely to share some lived experiences, and Ella deserves a husband who understands enough about transness that his questions for her won’t be about her genitals. But at the same time, matching her with someone who has been with both men and women feels a concession to – or at least an acknowledgement of – the viewers who will not see Ella as a “real” woman. And for the avoidance of doubt, she is a real woman.
I would really like to get through the whole show without any of the other couples discussing Ella’s genitals, I don’t feel like that’s too much to ask for. And watching the first episode, I was nervous about what was to come in this respect. It’s none of my business – or frankly anyone’s business whether or not she’s had bottom surgery. But the conversation between Nathanial and Ella about her body and how she feels about it was actually quite a heartwarming one, and a lot of the public responses to their conversation were really positive, which was a relief.
It’s important – as the show’s dating expert, Mel Schilling, said earlier this week when discussing Ella’s story on Capital Breakfast – for trans people to be included in shows like Married At First Sight because Ella's visibility will hopefully help to normalise transness for a broader audience. But that is a lot to put on one person, especially when trans people are already the target of so much hatred.
In fact, after finishing the first episode, it took me approximately two seconds to open up Twitter and find a handful of transphobic tweets about Ella. Several were asking if the show had let the man who will be matched with her know beforehand, because this information needs to be “disclosed” as it can be “very misleading”. I agree that it needs to be disclosed beforehand, but for Ella’s own safety, not because trans people are “misleading” cis people with our existence.
And safety is the crux here. I imagine a lot of fans of MAFS won’t be familiar with the Trans Panic Defence. This is a legal strategy, one that is still legal in more than half of US states. The definition of this strategy by the American Bar Association is this: a jury will be asked to find that a victim's gender identity is to blame for a defendant's violent reaction. And said “violent reaction” can include murder. This is literally a legally sanctioned discrimination where a man who is attracted to a trans woman before realising she is trans can get his sentence reduced from murder to manslaughter by claiming to have acted in a “state of temporary insanity”. Insanity is definitely present here, but it’s the scapegoating that’s insane.
Trans people know how dangerous it is to be publicly, let alone proudly, trans. Trans people know we might get beaten up even if we use the bathrooms we’re told to use. Trans women in particular know how fragile cis men’s masculinity can be. We tell people that we are trans ahead of time because we risk our lives if we don’t.
In fact, despite tabloid headlines that claim the contrary, the show did tell Ella’s husband-to-be that she was trans before they got married. In the same Capital Breakfast interview, Schilling says that both the bride and the groom got “consent ahead of the experience – which, if I’m honest, left me with mixed feelings. While Ella’s safety – both physically and emotionally – should obviously be prioritised over the format of the show, she doesn’t need anyone’s consent to exist or take up space as a woman.
It turns out that my prediction for who Ella would be paired with was correct. However, the voiceover teasing the next episode filled me with dread: “one bride’s big day is overshadowed by a secret.” I immediately felt anxious that Ella’s transness would be treated as a source of conflict or a big, guilty secret that she would have to confess to the other participants. The next episode actually showed a very positive conversation between Ella and her new husband, but this kind of language is always a little triggering for trans folks. Ella’s transness shouldn’t be treated as a plot point, at least not beyond her own valid worries. Regardless of her new husband and the other bride and groom’s reactions, Ella and every trans person deserves more than their transness being painted as a potential “gotcha” moment – something we've seen time and time again in media portrayals of trans people over the years.
I am absolutely rooting for Ella to find love, and I hope Married At First Sight takes the leap of faith she took super seriously – not just marrying a stranger, but stepping into the public eye as a trans woman looking for love, tenderness and not just acceptance but celebration.
I just hope the show will give Ella the support she’s going to need to handle those watching the show who’ll no doubt be furious that they’re seeing a trans woman dare not only to exist, but to go after love and a relationship. Ella, I hope you know that regardless of what happens on the show, you are absolutely worthy of love. Every trans person is. Get it, girl.
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