Julia Grant obituary: Transgender activist who was focus of a pioneering TV series

Grant changed the way Britain viewed ‘transsexual ’ people in the 1970s

Julia Grant: nearly nine million viewers watched the first episode of A Change in Sex in 1979

Julia Grant: nearly nine million viewers watched the first episode of A Change in Sex in 1979


Julia Grant
Born: September 21st, 1954
Died: January 2nd, 2019

Julia Grant, who was born as George Roberts, has died aged 64. Grant was the first “transsexual”, as trans people were then called, to publicly share her story on television, and changed the way Britain viewed transgender people in the 1970s. In five hour-long film documentaries which were aired as the BBC Two 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. During Grant’s lifetime the transgender community expanded and gradually gained acceptance, a change bolstered by her own activism .

She moved to London, after a failed marriage, entered the gay scene and became a drag queen

In 1978 Grant, now in her early 20s, moved to London after a failed marriage, entered the gay scene and became a drag queen – Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien by Edith Piaf was one of her lip-sync songs. However, she soon realised that drag was not for her, that she was not homosexual, and that she wanted to live as a woman.

Grant began living, working and dressing as a woman, a precondition for getting treatment at the main UK transgender clinic– located at Charing Cross in London. She chose her new name Julia Grant because it had a “good Scottish ring to it”.

The NHS psychiatrist who ran the clinic allowed his consultations with Grant to be filmed with the proviso that he would not be named or seen on screen. Others later revealed him to be John Randell. Although he was not identified on film, his voice suggested a sense of entitled authority, tinged with arrogance, often expressing stereotypical attitudes towards women, even by 1970s standards.

The week before the first film aired, some Sunday tabloids printed stories that were hostile towards Grant and the films. However, her determination to become the “woman I want to be”, coupled with her gritty humour while overcoming setbacks – notably the way she was treated by Randell – convinced many TV viewers that her cause was legitimate.

The BBC received an enormous postbag in support of her and of the films. More films followed.

In her various jobs, which included NHS catering manager, writer, DJ, ceramics teacher and supplier, Grant persevered in her own unique way. Quick witted, with a witheringly sharp tongue, if cornered or physically threatened, she was not afraid occasionally to use her fists.

She was born in Blackpool as George Roberts, the eldest son of Phillip Roberts, a trawlerman, and his wife, Jessica, and was brought up in Lancashire, in the northwest of England. Phillip’s relationship with Jessica, an alcoholic, was 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 looked after his younger brothers and sisters. As a teenager, George prostituted himself to men, as “a misguided cry” for the affection that he did not find from his parents.

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.

In the view of her psychiatrist, John Randell, she was not ladylike enough, and far too pushy

By 1979 Julia was living with Amir, a refugee who had fled from persecution in Iraq. He accepted Grant as a woman and they seemed happy together. In order to progress their relationship, she decided that operations could not wait. In a series of combative encounters, Randell dismissed Grant’s ambitions.

In his view, she was not ladylike enough, and far too pushy. “It is my life,” Grant told the film-makers 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 that he would not support her wish for full genital surgery.

Michael Royle, a private surgeon who was sympathetic to Grant’s predicament, agreed to operate. Joking as the cameras followed her into the operating theatre, Grant waved and, laughing, said: “Bye, Mum”.

After the operation, Grant was in great pain but ecstatic, given the operation’s apparent success. However, time was needed to recuperate and for some years filming was paused. Grant later said she had collapsed bleeding a few weeks after the surgery. Taken to hospital unconscious , she was treated for a suspected miscarriage by doctors who were unaware of her medical history.

The surgery was damaged and sex became out of the question. Too embarrassed to both seek help and tell Amir why she could not have sex, as well as being worried about what people would say, Grant imagined that treatment would no longer be accessible to her. 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 Grant in the late 1990s. By then, she was living in Manchester, running the 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 Grant decided, in consultation with Sunderland, that she would not trouble herself with more surgery. They had a church blessing and Grant considered herself to be married.

She owned various cafes and bars in Manchester’s Gay Village, fought against plans for the area’s redevelopment, and was active in setting up LGBTQ events there.

Later, Grant and Sunderland moved to France, enjoying life in the Creuse region, where the locals called her “La Madame Anglaise”. Here, Grant successfully built up a large ceramics business. One morning, however, Sunderland 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 Grant 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.

Grant wrote two books, George & Julia (1980) and Just Julia (1994), about her experiences. Julia is survived by her sisters, Shirley, Jeanne, Lesley, Julie and Beverley, her brothers, Gary and Danny, and an aunt, Mary. – Guardian