1954: Roberta Cowell, pioneer trans woman

Roberta Cowell

In 1954, the Daily Telegraph reviewed Roberta Cowell’s Story, the autobiography of the first British trans woman to undergo gender affirmation surgery. Roberta was also a racing driver, fighter pilot and WWII prisoner of war.

“It’s easier to change a body than to change a mind.”

Roberta Cowell

Another snippet of queercentric news from Australian history.

Roberta Cowell

Roberta Cowell enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Her father was an honorary surgeon to King George VI. She attended an exclusive private boys’ school and then enrolled in an engineering course at University College London. In her spare time, she embarked on a career as a racing driver. After the outbreak of WWII, Roberta joined the army, then transferred to the RAF and trained as a fighter pilot.

She married in 1941. But just after the birth of her second daughter in 1944, she was shot down over Germany and imprisoned in a POW Camp.

Stalag Luft I

Roberta wrote that she felt conflicted about her gender from a young age. She spoke of trying to compensate for her feminine characteristics with mannish pursuits like football and car racing.

But she felt she’d failed when she was mistaken for a gay man during her time as a POW.

“As usual, the homosexuals took it for granted that I was one of their number.”

After the war, Roberta Cowell suffered depression, eventually leaving her wife and children to sort herself out. Her daughters never saw her again.

“It became quite obvious that the feminine side of my nature, which all my life I had known of and severely repressed, was very much more fundamental and deep-rooted than I had supposed.”

Roberta consulted psychiatrists, and began hormone therapy.

She then met Michael Dillon, a medical student and the first trans man to undergo phalloplasty. Wanting to help, but confronted with legal prohibitions against gender affirmation surgery, Michael Dillon secretly performed preliminary surgery on Roberta which enabled them to obtain a document declaring she was intersex. Roberta could then proceed with vaginoplasty.

Roberta Cowell continued her motor racing career and enjoyed a degree of media notoriety. After the publicity given to Christine Jorgensen’s sexual reassignment surgery in 1952, newspapers were hungry for similar content.

Christine Jorgensen

However, Roberta Cowell was no fan of Christine Jorgensen.

She denigrated Christine in her book, dismissing her as a transvestite — a man with an urge to wear female clothes.

Roberta insisted her own transition was primarily a natural process in contrast to Christine’s ‘artificially induced’ femininity.

In an interview in 1972, she expanded her criticism to include nearly all other trans women, claiming that she was intersex and that justified her transition.

“The people who have followed me have often been those with male chromosomes, XY. So they’ve been normal people who’ve turned themselves into freaks by means of the operation.”

Sadly, it seems in her desperation to feel accepted, Roberta Cowell blinded herself to the fact that everyone’s journey is different… and valid.

Read also:

Transgender pioneer Lili Elbe.

The sordid history of gender testing and the Olympic Games.

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