There's a good chance you may have not heard of Julia Grant, but in 1979 she was a household name on the small screen.
She wasn't a rival of the cook Delia Smith's or an entertainment winner of Opportunity Knocks, but was one of a very small number of people who had the bravery to be authentic, open and honest about their true gender, not just in her community but weekly in front of 20 million people in what, back then, was a very dark time for transgender people.
Julia's transition from male to female was documented in a BBC 2 documentary series called George to Julia - A Change Of Sex which followed her story over several years, firstly in 1979, and by the time they got to the 1990s update of her story, I was then old enough to watch it, and by doing so it changed my life.
Now you might think that this is a bit over the top, but you have to realise that before the Internet, you couldn't just Google stuff, giving you instant comfort that you were not alone. Back then there was literally no way of getting information about how someone like me was feeling. Having the courage to speak to the family GP was off limits as I was under 16, and the only thing I had by any way of knowledge was a book by the model and Bond girl Caroline Cossey who had been outed by the press and had since written about her experiences which I constantly borrowed from my local library.
Recently I was in Manchester at the LGBT Foundation's Sparkle Weekend, I'd been invited to talk on a panel about how Trans people are represented in the media. My friend Annie Wallace who plays Sally St. Claire in Hollyoaks was also on the panel, and happened to reference Julia Grant, who she went on to point out in the audience.
As soon as I saw Julia, a huge shiver went down my spine and goosebumps appeared on my arms. This absolutely knocked me off my kilter. Before me was one of the women who showed us that we could be our true selves and I was instantly transported back to being in my bedroom during the early 90s, watching her bare her soul on my little portable telly, with the quietest of volume on so as not to let my parents hear what subject of documentary I was watching.
The panel took a short break and I immediately headed over to Julia to introduce myself and had the most wonderful chat with her. She's now happily retired and devotes her time to helping the LGBT community. During the 2nd half of the event I asked that everyone give her a huge round of applause to show our admiration & respect for what she did to help educate the public all those years ago.
Watching those early episodes you have to remember that back then her pathway was a tricky navigation and her fortitude in the face of disdain & hostility from clinicians was fearless & heroic. Things have changed hugely for the better, although it still can feel like a battleground during the many psychotherapists and specialists those transitioning meet during their journey to happiness, constantly in the early days, feeling like you have to convince people that you are suffering from Gender Dysphoria. Partly that is for good reason due to the occasional charlatan, but it can still be very soul destroying when you've told your story to many different specialists in the chain for what feels like a 100 times.
It's shocking to know that specialists and doctors once treated this as a serious mental health issue and were prone to prescribing electroconvulsive therapy in which small electric currents were passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. Their theory was that this would reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses, thus erasing the any feelings of gender confusion. Luckily Julie escaped this kind of treatment, but many in the 1950s & 60s didn't.
Of course we now know that it's biology at play - during pregnancy when we are in utero the brain is one of the first things to form and is hugely sensitive to hormones, which can have a significant impact on its hard wiring. This causes it to form as the opposite gender to what we come out looking like, resulting in a huge discord between mind and body, presenting the onset of gender dysphoria as we grow and become aware of gender.
Meeting Julia reminded me that it's vital that we do not forget the ones that went before.
The game changers, the boundary breakers, ones who stood up proud and said this is ME, regardless of the consequences.
These days broadcasters would kill for an audience of 20 million in this over saturated media battleground, and for Julia to have put herself in living rooms weekly to lay the foundations for the acceptance and understanding we have today, is absolutely unprecedented.
Thank you Julia & to all who helped pave the way for where we are today.
YouTube clip of Julia in 1979.
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