11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
11 Remarkable Transgender People from History

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History

Natasha sheldon - October 8, 2017

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
Roberta Cowell. Google Images

Roberta Cowell

Roberta Cowell was the first British transgender woman to undergo gender reassignment. She was born Robert Marshall Cowell in 1918, one of three children of Major General Sir Ernest Cowell, a prominent surgeon. At first glance, Robert seemed an average boy. At school, he was an enthusiastic member of the school’s motor club and at sixteen became an apprentice aircraft engineer. In 1936, he took his love of all things mechanical further, studying for an engineering degree and starting to race in several Grande Prix.

Cowell’s gender uncertainty revealed itself during the Second World War when she served as a British fighter pilot. By then married, she undertook several raids before being shot down and captured by the Germans. After two escape attempts, Cowell was moved to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft 1. In the camp, many of the men indulged in same-sex relationships; something Cowell avoided. She began to become paranoid about being seen as feminine and would not even play female parts in plays.

Once back home and demobbed, Cowell returned to motor racing and business. By now, she was suffering from depression and trauma. In 1948, she separated from her wife. After seeking help, the second of two psychiatrists helped her to discover how her “unconscious mind was predominantly female” and “feminine side of my nature, which all my life I had known of and severely repressed, was very much more fundamental and deep-rooted than I had supposed.”

By 1950, Cowell was taking estrogen, but still living as a man. Then she read Michael Dillon’s “Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics“. The two became friends, and Cowell realized there was nothing wrong with changing her body to match the sex she identified as. Dillon performed Cowell’s initial castration, and then Robert officially became Roberta, completing her transition with a vaginoplasty in 1951.

Although Cowell enjoyed some publicity, she dropped out of the public eye after writing her autobiography. Then, in 1972, she reappeared when she gave an interview to justify her gender reassignment. Cowell explained it was perfectly acceptable to do so in cases like hers, as she had a chromosomal abnormality, XX male syndrome. However, in the interview she was less than sympathetic to other transgender men seeking to change sex, claiming if they had standard XY chromosomes reassignment surgery, would turn them into ‘freaks‘.

11 Remarkable Transgender People from History
The Presentation after wedding Nov 14th, 1952 Alford Public Hall. Wm McDonald, Sir Ewan and Lady Forbes (Dr Sempill and wife), Mrs Mc Ewan (minister’s wife, Kildrummy). Sir Ewan is the centre, in a kilt. Google Images.

Sir Ewan Forbes

Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar, the 11th Baronet, was born Elizabeth Forbes-Sempill on September 6, 1912. At birth, Forbes’s sex was hard to determine with certainty because he was intersex. His parents decided to designate him as a girl because it seemed the best option for him. However, as Forbes grew up, it was clear this was a mistake.

Forbes preferred to play with his male cousins rather than his sister and dressed in boy’s clothes. He later recorded how he hated being made to dress up for social occasions in grand dresses. He even refused to be sent away to a girl’s school, so his parents had to educate him at home until he was old enough to attend a co-educational institute in Dresden.

After traveling Europe for a time, Forbes underwent one final humiliation- his ‘coming out’ as a society debutante in the late 1920’s. Then, after more travel, he decided to study medicine-which he self-funded as his father refused to pay for his further education, declaring there was more than enough for him to do on the family estate. In 1945, Forbes qualified- and finally began to live as a man.

By 1952, he had re-registered as a man and changing his name. A press release revealed that this strange change of gender was all due to “…a ghastly mistake. I was carelessly registered as a girl in the first place, but of course, that was forty years ago… the doctors in those days were mistaken, too … I have been sacrificed to prudery and the horror which our parents had about sex.

A month after his formal change of name and gender, Forbes married his housekeeper of five years Isabella Mitchell. However, in 1965, his elder brother died- meaning Forbes was now heir to the Baronetcy and a large estate. One of his male cousins challenged the inheritance, on the grounds of Forbes’ original gender. The case was held in closed court to save the family embarrassment but eventually found in Forbes’ favor because the initial determination of his sex was faulty. Ironically, as Forbes never had any children himself, his troublesome cousin eventually inherited his title and lands on his death in 1991.


Sources For Further Reading:

History Collection – 16 Remarkable Historical Figures who were Transgender

Chicago Tribune – The Speedy Evolution of The Term Transgender

History UK – Chevalier D’eon And Gender Non-Conformity in the 18th Century

Them – How This 18th Century French Spy Came Out as Trans

BBC News – Christine Jorgensen: 60 Years of Sex Change Ops

Jalopnik – Fighter Pilot, Racing Driver, Prisoner of War, Transgender Pioneer: The Incredible Story of Roberta Cowell

The Independent – ‘It’s Easier to Change A Body Than To Change A Mind’: The Extraordinary Life And Lonely Death Of Roberta Cowell