By Elizabeth Bowley.
Following our recent blog post on The Danish Girl, we discovered that we have another early transgender pioneer in the archive – Roberta Cowell, Britain’s very first transsexual woman to undergo gender reassignment surgery.
Born Robert Marshall Cowell, Roberta had a keen interest in motor racing and engineering from an early age. As Robert, she became a celebrated racing driver – even competing in the Belgian Grand Prix – and was also a keen pilot, clocking up many flying hours before seeing service in the Second World War. 1941 saw marriage to Diana Carpenter, a fellow student at UCL who shared a keen interest in motor racing. They had two daughters together, born shortly into the marriage. Roberta, still living as Robert, was transferred to the RAF in 1942 and became a spitfire pilot. However, while on a flight over Germany, her plane crashed and she was captured by German troops and taken to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft I. Roberta spent 5 months at the camp, until it was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. It was here that some of Roberta’s gender confusions began to be revealed. Although she spent much of her time there teaching fellow inmates automotive-engineering, she was also offered the role of a woman in a camp theatrical production. However, she turned it down as she thought this might have made her appear homosexual to the other prisoners. She also stated that while there, some inmates exhibited situational sexual behaviour, and they would often proposition her, thinking that she would partake.
Following the war, Roberta continued with her love of racing, even competing at the Grand Prix at Rouen-Les-Essarts. However, Roberta described this period as one of great distress. Not only was she dealing with the trauma of the war, but she had much deeper issues regarding her gender. In 1948, Roberta left her family; she was suffering from depression and decided to seek help. It was gradually revealed to her that her “unconscious mind was predominantly female”. She was even examined by a sexologist who believed that she possessed many female physical qualities, such as wide hips and narrow shoulders. Roberta came to realise that she had been severely repressing the feminine side of her nature her whole life, attempting to cover it with what some would see as an excessively masculine lifestyle.
In 1950, Roberta struck up a friendship with Michael Dillon, Britain’s first female-to-male transsexual and a physician, who believed that individuals should have the right to change gender. Roberta had been taking oestrogen, but she was still living as a man. It was Dillon who secretly performed an illegal inguinal orchiectomy on Roberta. This allowed Roberta to obtain a document from the gynaecologist stating that she was intersex. She was then able to have her birth certificate reissued, changing her sex to female. For this to be true, Roberta would never have been able to father children. Therefore she chose to deny their very existence, maintaining that they were a product of her ex-wife’s affairs. It was in 1951 that she underwent a vaginoplasty.
When the news of her gender reassignment came out, it generated a great deal of public interest. Christine Jorgensen’s widely-publicised story meant that the idea of gender reassignment was becoming much more prominant in the public mind. However, reports tended to conflate the concepts of gender identity and sexual orientation. Therefore, in the public mind, transexuality became associated with homosexuality, which was still at the time a very taboo subject. However, Roberta challenged preconceived notions of transexuality as she had been married, fathered children, was a war hero and a racing driver, which were perceived as strong indicators of masculinity.
Roberta justified her transition by stating that she had been born intersex, with a chromosomal abnormality of XX male syndrome. She also condemned those with XY chromosomes who had followed in her footsteps and undergone gender reassignment surgery, claiming that normal people turned themselves into “freaks” by having the operation.
Despite some later financial difficulties, Roberta continued motor racing and flying throughout the rest of her life. She died in 2011 with just six people attending her funeral. According to a close friend of Roberta’s, she used to always state that she was not a eunuch, she was unique. Something which cannot be argued with. Although we may question some of her decisions, like the choice to disown her children, when you consider the great internal conflicts she struggled with, it is very hard to comprehend just what she must have been going through. She displayed relentless bravery throughout her life not only through her war-time experiences, but through her decision to transition into her true self. There is no doubt that Roberta was an extremely remarkable woman.