The spitfire pilot and racing driver
Roberta Elizabeth Marshall Cowell (1918-2011) is, as far as we know, the first British male to female transsexual woman in the modern (hormonally and surgically assisted) sense, undergoing genital surgery at the hands of pioneering Harley Street plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies in 1951. She wasn’t the first person to transition by far. Beginning in the 1920s, there were examples in other countries, such as the Danish Painter Lily Elbe, and many people changed the other way in Britain during the thirties and forties. Nevertheless, with the sale of her story to the Picture Post in 1954, she was assured a place in trans history.
Prior to transition Cowell had been attached to a front line Spitfire squadron during the war and, afterwards, established a racing car engineering company. The company folded not long after her transition but she remained active as a driver and gained further publicity by winning the 1957 Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb.
The historian and journalist who climbed Everest
Jan Morris (1926-) worked for many years as a journalist for the London Times. As a man Morris gained fame by accompanying Hillary and Tenzing’s expedition to conquer Everest in 1953 and descending to report the team’s success on the day of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. During a long and successful career Morris also made a name for writing many successful historical and travel books.
But Morris is best known — certainly among trans people — as the first person to write an autobiography about the process of gender transition — a process begun in 1964 and which culminated with surgery in Casablanca in 1972. Conundrum (1974) filled a void for British trans people. Prior to the book’s publication the only sources of information about gender transition were the stories that were becoming the stock-in-trade of the country’s Sunday tabloids. The focus in papers like the News of the World was on shock value and titillation. Morris showed how one would find the way.
The trans woman who transitioned on television
Julia Grant (1954-) is another trans woman remembered for the very important role she had in signposting the way for ordinary trans people to find help and transition successfully. Starring in the 1979 BBC fly-on-the-wall documentary series ‘A Change of Sex’ viewers were able to see the obstacles she faced in transitioning at work and trying to navigate the scarce clinical services available at that time. The series’ accompanying autobiography, ‘George and Julia’ filled any gaps.
It is hard nowadays to convey how important this contribution was for trans people in Britain at the end of the seventies and early eighties. Newspaper coverage and the one available biographical account by Jan Morris gave an impression that transition was for highly unusual people and involved a trip to far-away Casablanca. Working class Morris showed graphically how more ordinary trans people could find help and (most importantly) have control over their own destinies.