Wednesday, 20 November 2013

A Forgotten Trans Pioneer

Remembrance is a time when we bring forward in our minds our knowledge of the lives and deeds of people no longer with us. It can also be about people who have been truly forgotten and then rediscovered. This is the subject for today’s Transgender Day of Remembrance. As we remember the victims of transphobia who have lost their lives solely because of who they are it is important to remember the pioneers whose stories are vanishing.

One such forgotten transgender pioneer was brought to my attention by one of my brothers who read an article about Roberta Cowell. It wasn’t a name on my database or on major trans lists. It may have taken many months before I stumbled on her story. A quick Google search revealed Roberta has had a Wikipedia page since 2006, though there was little information on it.

Outside motor racing Roberta Cowell is remembered by few. So few, in fact, that her death in 2011 wasn’t noticed until this summer. After 1980 she withdrew from public life and lived as a regular pensioner. She had a handful of friends and she died alone at the age of 93. Only 6 people attended her cremation. Even her 2 daughters were unaware of her death until October.

This autumn the Vintage Sports Car Club found out about Roberta’s death and ran an obituary in their quarterly magazine. In October the Independent on Sunday newspaper picked up the story and published an article on her. From there Roberta’s story spread across the internet.

Roberta was one of the 3 children of Maj.-Gen. Sir Ernest Cowell, a distinguished surgeon. Registered and baptised as Robert she realised from an early age that she felt more comfortable in the company of girls than boys. At school she joined the motor club and spent a lot of spare time in local engineering workshops.

Roberta’s experiences on an actual race track sounds like something from a comedy spy film. At Brooklands track she walked up to the gates in dirty overalls, carrying a bucket of water, and walked straight past the guard who didn’t ask for ID. Roberta spent several days working with any engineer who needed help. No-one challenged her, and she wasn’t even old enough to drive legally.

In 1935 Roberta joined the RAF. Unfortunately she was air sick every time she flew and was quickly invalided out of the force. Not all that concerned, Roberta was glad of the opportunity to start her motor racing career. Her first race was at Brooklands in 1937 when she was just 18 in a single seat Austin, followed the next years in a 2-litre sports Alta.

When World War II was declared Roberta joined the Royal Army Service Corps, though she was eager to become a fighter pilot, despite her earlier experiences. Shortly after being commissioned Roberta married Diana Carpenter, whom she had met while studying engineering at London University in 1936.

Roberta was transferred to the RAF, combating her airsickness by sheer will power, and she saw active duty over the skies of England. I’ll leave the rest of her war service for next years in my Remembrance series.

After the war Roberta dabbled in business before returning to the motor track for a while. It was in these years that she realised her marriage was not a happy one and it ended in divorce in 1952. Roberta didn’t recognise the reason for this unhappiness and subsequent depression until she underwent therapy. This brought to light her unconscious mind as being predominantly female. She has somehow felt this, and resisted it, all her life. It was time to stop resisting.

The first step to reassignment was hormone treatment. After two difficult years Roberta went to specialists who declared that she was undoubtedly female and she immediately began  the process of having her birth certificate legally re-registered. She also began a series of final gender reassignment operations.

In 1954 Roberta “went public” by writing her autobiography, chronicling her life and emotions during her extraordinary journey through life. Legally female, she was denied the opportunity to return to Grand Prix motor racing, though she was able to continue in other races, winning the 1957 Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb.

In 1958 Roberta began plans to fly across the Atlantic in a De Havilland Mosquito. Unfortunately, she was declared bankrupt and nothing came of the project. After an aborted attempt at another book in the 1970s Roberta largely withdrew from the public eye and lived her remaining years as an ordinary pensioner.

Roberta’s life is one of the forgotten stories in early transgender heritage.

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