Ju­lia Grant Trans­gen­der ac­tivist who was the sub­ject of a pi­o­neer­ing TV se­ries, A Change of Sex

The Guardian - Journal - - Obituaries - David Pear­son

Ju­lia Grant, who be­gan life as Ge­orge Roberts, changed the way Bri­tain viewed trans­gen­der peo­ple in the 1970s. She was the first “trans­sex­ual”, as trans peo­ple were then called, pub­licly to share her story on tele­vi­sion. In five hour-long film doc­u­men­taries, which I di­rected, and which were trans­mit­ted as the BBC2 se­ries A Change of Sex, her story gripped the na­tion, with nearly nine mil­lion view­ers watch­ing the first episode, Ge­orge and Ju­lia, in 1979. The films, in­ti­mate, frank and ob­ser­va­tional, were shown be­tween then and 1999, as new episodes un­folded in her story.

The se­ries fol­lowed her chal­leng­ing at­tempts to be­come Ju­lia in the un­flinch­ing glare of the cam­eras. Be­fore this, the world of trans­gen­der peo­ple had been shad­owy, due to ig­no­rance, prej­u­dice and abuse.

There was lit­tle thought given to al­low­ing them their le­git­i­mate as­pi­ra­tions or a choice to live openly as them­selves. In her life­time,

Ju­lia, who has died aged 64, saw the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity ex­pand and gain ac­cep­tance be­yond all ex­pec­ta­tions, a change helped by her own ac­tivism for greater un­der­stand­ing and bet­ter treat­ment.

In 1978, as we be­gan film­ing,

Ju­lia, then in her early 20s, had moved to Lon­don after a failed mar­riage, en­tered the gay scene and be­come a drag queen – Non, Je Ne Re­grette Rien by Edith Piaf was one of her lip-synch songs. Soon drag did not feel right to her and we filmed her last show. She had de­cided that she was not ho­mo­sex­ual. She wanted to live as a woman.

Ju­lia be­gan liv­ing, work­ing and dress­ing as a woman, a pre­con­di­tion for get­ting treat­ment at the small Char­ing Cross unit that was the main clinic in the UK deal­ing with trans­gen­der pa­tients. She asked me for some sug­ges­tions for a new name. I gave her a long list and she quickly chose. She thought Ju­lia Grant had a “good Scot­tish ring to it”.

I per­suaded the NHS psy­chi­a­trist who ran the clinic to let us film all his con­sul­ta­tions with Ju­lia and he agreed, with the pro­viso that he would not be named or seen on screen. Oth­ers much later re­vealed him to be John Ran­dell. Al­though he was not iden­ti­fied on film, his voice sug­gested a plummy sense of en­ti­tled au­thor­ity, tinged with ar­ro­gance, of­ten ex­press­ing stereo­typ­i­cal at­ti­tudes to­wards women, even by 70s stan­dards.

The week be­fore the first film was trans­mit­ted, some Sun­day tabloids printed sto­ries that were hos­tile to­wards Ju­lia and the films.

How­ever, her de­ter­mi­na­tion to be­come the “woman I want to be”, cou­pled with her gritty hu­mour while over­com­ing her set­backs, and no­tably the way she was treated by Ran­dell, con­vinced many tele­vi­sion view­ers that her cause was le­git­i­mate. The BBC re­ceived an enor­mous post­bag in sup­port of her and of the films. I du­ti­fully replied to the let­ters, and more films fol­lowed.

In her many var­i­ous jobs, which in­cluded be­ing a NHS ca­ter­ing man­ager, writer, disk jockey and ceram­ics teacher, Ju­lia pushed through in her own sin­gu­lar way.

She had a quick wit, a with­er­ingly sharp tongue and, if cor­nered or phys­i­cally threat­ened, was not afraid oc­ca­sion­ally to use her fists.

She was born in Black­pool as Ge­orge, the el­dest son of Phillip Roberts, a trawler­man, and his wife, Jes­sica, and brought up in Fleet­wood, Lan­cashire. Phillip’s re­la­tion­ship with Jes­sica, an al­co­holic, was very chaotic; she at­tempted sui­cide sev­eral times. Phillip was a vi­o­lent drunk­ard who tried to rape Ge­orge as a child.

One of eight chil­dren, he of­ten found him­self look­ing after his younger brothers and sis­ters. There were pe­ri­ods spent in a chil­dren’s home in Pre­ston. As a teenager, Ge­orge pros­ti­tuted him­self to men, as “a mis­guided cry” for the af­fec­tion that he did not find or get from his par­ents. The money paid for sweets.

Con­di­tioned by grow­ing up in the tough fish­ing port, with its hard-drink­ing, di­rect-speak­ing com­mu­nity, which strug­gled with a pre­car­i­ous sur­vival from the dan­ger­ous North At­lantic fish­ing grounds, Ge­orge set forth into wild seas, with a new course and desti­na­tion, as Ju­lia, to change sex and live ex­actly as she de­fined her­self – as a woman.

By 1979, as our film­ing con­tin­ued, Ju­lia was liv­ing with Amir, a refugee who had fled from per­se­cu­tion in Iraq. He ac­cepted Ju­lia as a woman and they seemed very happy. Ju­lia de­cided that, as they wanted to progress the re­la­tion­ship, op­er­a­tions would not wait. In a se­ries of com­bat­ive en­coun­ters, Ran­dell dis­missed Ju­lia’s am­bi­tions.

She was not la­dy­like enough, in his view, and far too pushy. “It is my life,” Ju­lia told me and oth­ers, of­ten with an ex­ple­tive at­tached. She dis­obeyed Ran­dell and found a way of get­ting breast im­plants at a pri­vate clinic. He was fu­ri­ous and it be­came clear to Ju­lia he would not sup­port her wish for full gen­i­tal surgery.

Michael Royle, a pri­vate sur­geon, who, with a col­league, was sym­pa­thetic to Ju­lia’s predica­ment, agreed to op­er­ate. Jok­ing to me as the cam­eras fol­lowed her into the op­er­at­ing theatre, Ju­lia waved and, laugh­ing, said: “Bye, Mum.” The film crew and I found the surgery more alarm­ing than she did and tried to “un­see” what we wit­nessed that day with a lot of wine later that night.

I was with her the next day when she woke up, in great pain but ec­static. The op­er­a­tion seemed to be suc­cess­ful, but time was needed

Ju­lia pushed through in her own sin­gu­lar way. She had a quick wit, sharp tongue and was not afraid to use her fists

to re­cu­per­ate and for some years our film­ing was paused. Ju­lia later told us on film that, a few weeks after the surgery, she had col­lapsed bleed­ing. She was taken to hos­pi­tal un­con­scious and treated for a sus­pected mis­car­riage by doc­tors un­aware of her med­i­cal his­tory.

The surgery was dam­aged and sex be­came out of the ques­tion. Em­bar­rassed to seek help, or tell Amir why she could not have sex, and for once wor­ried about what peo­ple would say, she imag­ined that she would not be able to get any more treat­ment. It was per­haps the low­est point of her life. Things be­came dif­fi­cult with Amir; they split up and he left the coun­try.

The last film picked up with Ju­lia in the late 90s. She was by then liv­ing in Manch­ester, run­ning the busy Hol­ly­wood Show Bar and in­tent on mar­ry­ing her new part­ner, Alan Sun­der­land. She was checked again by Royle, who said he could re­solve the pre­vi­ous sur­gi­cal prob­lem, but Ju­lia de­cided in con­sul­ta­tion with Alan that she would not trou­ble her­self with more surgery. They could be happy as they were. They had a church bless­ing and Ju­lia con­sid­ered her­self to be mar­ried.

After the fi­nal episode was shown, I stayed in touch with Ju­lia. She had writ­ten two books, Ge­orge & Ju­lia (1980) and Just Ju­lia (1994), about her ex­pe­ri­ences. She owned var­i­ous cafes and bars in Manch­ester’s Gay Vil­lage (and fought against plans for the area’s re­de­vel­op­ment) and was ac­tive in set­ting up LGBTQ events there.

Ahappy end­ing seemed to have ar­rived. Ju­lia and Alan moved to France and en­joyed life in the Creuse re­gion, where the lo­cals called her “La Madame Anglaise”, and where Ju­lia suc­cess­fully built up a large ceram­ics busi­ness.

One morn­ing, how­ever, Alan ate break­fast and then left her, never to re­turn. After this, she moved to Spain and ran a ho­tel in Benidorm, where she set up Benidorm Gay Pride.

A di­ag­no­sis of bowel can­cer led Ju­lia to re­turn in 2015 to the UK. She de­voted her­self to help­ing other trans peo­ple and to en­cour­ag­ing im­proved trans care ser­vices, con­tribut­ing to dis­cus­sions at the NHS’s Nye Be­van Academy, which trains health ser­vice lead­ers.

She would point out to those seek­ing gen­der re­as­sign­ment that chang­ing sex would not solve all their prob­lems, and some of her views were con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial by mem­bers of the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity.

Ju­lia is sur­vived by her sis­ters, Shirley, Jeanne, Les­ley, Julie and Bev­er­ley, her brothers, Gary and Danny, and an aunt, Mary. Ju­lia Grant, trans­gen­der ac­tivist, born 21 Septem­ber 1954; died 2 Jan­uary 2019

PETER JOHNS FOR THE GUARDIAN

Grant in 1979. In her life­time, she saw the trans­gen­der com­mu­nity ex­pand and gain ac­cep­tance be­yond all ex­pec­ta­tions

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