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Known as one of the world’s first transgender models, Caroline Cossey has paved the way for the trans community.
At the age of 17, she began living as a woman. After travelling the world as a showgirl, Caroline embarked on a successful career as a model appearing in major fashion and pin-up magazines. And all without revealing her background.
In 1974, Caroline went through her final gender reassignment surgery. A few years later, she became a Bond girl in the 1981 Roger Moore film, For Your Eyes Only, and was swiftly outed by a tabloid newspaper. Despite being devastated by her private life appearing in headlines, Caroline set out on a mission to gain equal rights for transgender people.
Her activism continued for many years, eventually leading to the European Court of Human Rights recognising her as a woman and giving her the right to marry.
Now at the age of 62, she lives a quieter life in Atlanta with her husband David Finch. Her life has had more than its fair share of love and loss but she is all too happy to continue speaking out for the rights of the LGBTQ community.
Ahead of International Women’s Day, Caroline tells us her story and delves into the importance of a supportive family, a surreal meeting with Hugh Hefner and just how far we have to go until trans people are fully included in society.
Growing up, I was a little bit of an embarrassment to my family. I was more inclined to do girly things and so I was often bullied and ridiculed at school. Boys games were alien to me. I knew something was definitely wrong when we had sex lessons at school. I realised I was attracted to boys so alarm bells started going off. Not fitting in was frightening. School is an important time – and I spent most of it hiding and feeling isolated.
When I left school, I found the gay scene. It was an area that I felt more comfortable in because the people were different and unusual. I just assumed I must be gay. But I liked to grow my hair, put make-up on and make myself look as pretty as possible and that wasn’t acceptable in the gay world.
I didn’t know transition was possible until I moved to London. In the building I was living in, someone was going through transition and I had no idea. I thought she was a cis woman. I had found somebody who shared my feelings. It was wonderful finally feeling like I had a direction to go in in order to feel complete.
I didn’t set out to be a model. I was actually studying to be a beautician but somebody asked me if I wanted to become a showgirl. And that was my lucky break. A lot of the showgirls in Paris were transsexual so it wasn’t an issue. And it was great money. I had two left feet to begin with but it was a good boost to be working as a woman and sharing a dressing room with other girls. I wasn’t billed as transgender or transsexual or whatever. It was fabulous.
But I wasn’t complete. A man loved me as I was and whisked me off to paradise in Kuwait. He told me to never have surgery because I was unique but I was still coming to terms with myself. It was an important phase for me because I had love, security, everything most women want. Yet there was still a big chunk missing. I needed surgery so I left.
To fully transition and have surgery on the NHS, you had to live for two to three years in when they would call your “new” gender. It takes a long time on the NHS, but I had been saving my money working as a dancer. My psychiatrist told me that I’d never be complete, that I’d never be a real woman. I would be close but I’d have to accept my situation. In the end though he referred me to a surgeon so I didn’t have to go to Casablanca where most people were going at the time.
I worked for seven years as a successful model. I thought, well, I’m tall and thin so why not give it a shot? So I went along to an agency and got signed. I worked in a cross-section of industries: not just fashion but glamour, advertising and pin-up. And that’s where the biggest problem came.
Someone tipped the media off. It was a friend’s boyfriend who used to offer to take pictures of me to make some money off the fact I wasn’t 100% woman. I had been on a few TV shows and was soon bombarded with newspapers asking to see my birth certificate. I was harassed for four years. It was horrendous. But they never had concrete evidence so I carried on working and auditioned for the 1981 Bond film, For Your Eyes Only. I landed it but unfortunately, it activated the media again. One paper got hold of my medical records and it all came out.
I was devastated. People are different today, but back then I was a model and was booked on face value. If I had a nose job or whatever, that’s private and up to me if I want to discuss it. I know it’s a bit more drastic having gender reassignment but to me, it was purely cosmetic.
I get my strength from my father. I had an offer to do a book so I had more control over My Story (also available now as an audiobook). But the whole thing took a different direction as I got into activism. Being a victim and vulnerable like that wasn’t right. So I took on the British government for the right to change my birth certificate and the right to marry and to undo what the April Ashley (Corbert vs Corbet) case had set as a precedence. Prior to that case you could have your birth certificate changed. I fought a seven-year battle and won on both counts but sadly, lost on the appeal because the church was so strong back then and it was all about procreation.
Fortunately, laws did change. It made no sense to me that the government would acknowledge my condition and give me free surgical help but then leave me in legal limbo where I had no rights as a human being and as a woman. So that’s why I fought and fought. It just took a few cases to chip away at the old establishment because in 2004, the Gender Recognition Panel was set up.
Playboy was the number one platform for my activism. Playboy’s readers were the type of people that needed to be educated; the type of people that gave people like myself such a hard time. I was offered the cover of the magazine but was devastated when I learned it had been shelved due to one of the advertisers threatening to pull his ads if I was featured. But I continued being an activist. Then I was invited to the mansion to meet Hugh Hefner. We had a long chat and I explained how important it was to change society’s perception of transgender people. He agreed. I was featured in the American edition (although not on the cover) and was on most of the covers around the world. It opened a lot of doors.
Times are different today. Back then, there was so much hostility so you just had to get on with your life. Now, there’s a lot of wonderful successful people who are openly trans. And that’s great. We come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. We’re lawyers, we’re surgeons, we’re actors, magicians, comedians. We’re just blending into society now and being open and out. There’s nothing to be ashamed of. With so much visibility and awareness, it’s a trans revolution.
Trans women should be included. Some of the comments that people like Germaine Greer have come out with have horrified me. Not including us is very hurtful. I’d like to see these attitudes change so that we can have the respect we’re deserving of. As for general women’s issues, I’d like to see women gain more equality like equal pay and opportunities and in third world countries, I’d like to see them get more respect and have access to an education for starters. Issues with abortion also have to be rectified. A woman should always have the right to terminate a pregnancy within a restricted timeline. It’s her body, it’s her choice.
I wish I had my time again. But things have fallen into place. I’ve had letters saying: “If it wasn’t for you, I’d have killed myself.” When you know you’ve saved lives and you’ve helped someone to feel better and purposeful, it’s all justification.