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Transsexual Pioneers

The interwar idea of ‘sex change’ implied that sex or gender fluidity was possible, and that individuals might choose their sex. It was not until the 1950s that ‘transsexuality’ became medically possible and eventually available in Britain.

The pioneering trans people were Michael Dillon and Roberta Cowell.

Michael Dillon (1915-1962) was the first person in the world to become a female-to-male ‘transsexual’ man through hormones and surgery.

From an aristocratic family, Dillon led the women’s rowing team to many victories while at Oxford University in the 1930s. Always identifying as masculine, Dillon began using testosterone in 1940 and succeeded in getting his birth certificate changed to reflect his gender in 1944.

Over nine years from 1944, Dillon had genital reconstruction surgery carried out by the leading plastic surgeon Sir Harold Gillies at his hospital, Rooksdown House, near Basingstoke. Meanwhile, Dillon himself trained and qualified as a doctor.

Anxious to protect his privacy, Dillon worked as a ship’s surgeon for several years, but was outed by the Sunday Express in 1958.  

Black and white photo of Rooksdown Hospital
Harold Gillies's hospital, Rooksdown Hospital, near Baskingstoke. Photo: Robert Brown

Dillon was sought out by Britain’s first male-to-female trans woman, Roberta Cowell, in 1949 and medically assisted with her unofficial (then illegal) orchidectomy (removal of the testicles).

Cowell (1918-2011) had been a racing driver in the 1930s and a decorated Spitfire pilot during World War Two. After battling with her gender identity for many years, Cowell consulted psychiatrists in the late 1940s and began living as a woman.

Roberta Cowell
Roberta Cowell at Croydon Court © Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy © Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy

Like Dillon, Cowell sought medical help from surgeon Harold Gillies. Cowell’s transition included Britain’s first surgically-created vagina, undertaken by Gillies in 1951.

In 1954, she sold her story to Picture Post and received publicity across the press. Newspaper sensationalism focussed on her masculine sporting history and wartime heroism. She continued her interest in motor-racing, winning the 1957 Shelsley Walsh Speed Hill Climb.

April Ashley

Transgender lives continued to be sensationalised by the press during the 1960s. The Sunday People outed the model April Ashley as a trans woman in 1961. Ashley was ‘born a boy’ in 1935, and grew up in working-class Liverpool, on Pitt Street and later Norris Green estate.

April Ashley singing into a microphone
April Ashley in February 1970 © Keystone Pictures USA/Alamy

Ashley again made headlines with her annulment from Arthur Corbett in 1971. The judge ruled in this pivotal case that their marriage should be annulled because Ashley was male. The ruling had long-lasting implications for Ashley and for trans people in England. It determined that the legal gender of Ashley, and therefore of all trans people, was the gender they were assigned at birth. This only changed with the Gender Recognition Act of 2004.

Ashley continued her fight to have her gender legally recognised, and was awarded an MBE for her services to transgender equality at Buckingham Palace in 2012.

April Ashley sitting with a grey and white cat on her lap
April Ashley at her home in Fulham, London © Geoff Pugh/REX/Shutterstock

Trans activism

The First International Symposium on Gender Identity: Aims, Functions and Clinical Problems of a Gender Identity Unit, took place at the Piccadilly Hotel in London, July 25-27, 1969. It was co-sponsored by the Erickson Educational Foundation and the Albany Trust of London.

Front cover of the programme for the first international symposium on Gender Identity, 'Aims, Functions and Clinical Problems of a Gender Identity Unit'
The programme for the first international symposium on Gender Identity, 'Aims, Functions and Clinical Problems of a Gender Identity Unit' took place at the Piccadilly Hotel, London in July 1969

In 1966, the Beaumont Society was established as a support group for male-to-female cross-dressers. The society took inspiration for its name from the Chevalier d’Eon, whose full birth name was Charles-Geneviève-Louise-Auguste-Andrée-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont.

This satirical print of the Chevalier d'Eon includes the inscription: 'Hail! Thou Production most uncommon, Woman half-man and man half-Woman!'
This satirical print of the Chevalier d'Eon includes the inscription: 'Hail! Thou Production most uncommon, Woman half-man and man half-Woman!' © Trustees of the British Museum

The Society met for its annual dinner at Broadcasting House, London in the 1970s and 1980s before moving it to New Kensington Town Hall. The group also helped organise the UK’s next transgender conference (sometimes deemed the first) at The University of Leeds in 1974 called ‘Transvestism and Transsexualism in Modern Society’.

Parkinson Building, Leeds University
Parkinson Building, Leeds University. The conference 'Transvestism and Transsexualism in Modern Society' took place at Leeds University in 1974 © Creative Commons/Tim Green
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