Tributes have been paid to an ‘incredibly brave’ transgender pioneer who fought against the odds to change public perceptions and was influential in developing some of the world’s most celebrated Pride events.
Julia Grant, who was the first male-to-female transgender person to appear on television in 1979 and played an active part in running the world-famous Manchester Pride and Benidorm Pride parades, died at St Catherine’s Hospice on January 2, aged 64.
Her sister, Shirley Wilson, from Longton, has told Julia’s inspirational story as she praised the specialised care of the Lostock Hall charity.
“Julia was a very special lady,” Shirley said. “She had so many different sides to her life, and she had such a positive impact on a lot of people, encouraging them to live the life they wanted.
“She was very peaceful and comfortable at St Catherine’s. The staff are so caring and lovely, and she was very settled for the week she was at the hospice. We visited her every day; it’s such a beautiful place.”
Julia, who was born George William Roberts in Fleetwood and was known as Billy, had a difficult childhood, and along with his seven siblings was cared for at the Harris Children’s Home in Preston after their mother became ill.
“He managed to ‘escape’ the care system at 17 by joining the navy for only six weeks,” Shirley said. “Billy then moved to London and worked his way up to become the manager of a hospital kitchen by day and a cabaret artist and drag act at night, which was outrageously rude and funny – unless you were the target of his jokes!
“At the age of 24, after making the decision to have transgender surgery, Billy arranged a family visit and turned up as Julia – with a film crew!
“She told us that she had always felt that something wasn’t quite right; that it dawned on her that she was a woman living in a man’s body, and from then on, I had a sister instead of a brother.
“As a family we supported her decision although we were shocked, especially as she was there with the film crew from the BBC who were making a documentary about her decision and the sex change.”
The documentary ‘A Change of Sex’, was one of the first programmes to cover transgender issues, and became a multi-part series following Julia for the next 20 years. Nearly nine million viewers watched the first episode on BBC Two in 1979, titled ‘George and Julia’, as she became the first transgender person to share her story on television. The BBC received bags of letters from viewers in support of the show.
“Nobody talked about things like that back then,” Shirley said. “She was so incredibly brave. She had to see a psychiatrist first who thought she had a mental illness. It was just so shocking for people and they didn’t understand. To prove her intent was genuine, Billy had to live as a woman for a year before he would even be considered for any surgery.
“It was a very difficult time for Julia and in the end, she decided to fund the surgery herself through a private consultant. To pay for the surgery Julia wrote her first book, ‘George and Julia’ – she got in trouble with the tax man for that! But she managed it and as always did it her way, and a second book ‘Just Julia’ followed later.”
Julia went on to live in Yorkshire for a while working in a ceramic studio during the day and as a DJ at night. She moved to Manchester in the 1990s and became an activist of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community, helping arrange events such as Mardi Gras to raise money for LGBT charities, which is now known as Manchester Pride.
It was during this time that she met her husband, and the couple moved to France where they set up a ceramics studio and ran painting sessions.
“They enjoyed a more sedate lifestyle of coffee mornings and French lessons,” Shirley said. “When they separated, Julia moved to Benidorm in Spain and in 2011 she bought the Queens Hotel, which was known for being a safe space for gay people.”
She was also instrumental in setting up Benidorm Pride with the help of friends, which has developed into a week-long event which now attracts 15,000 revellers.
In 2015 Julia moved back to England to be closer to friends and family after experiencing health problems. She was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2016 and spent the last 12 months in Penwortham.
She underwent dialysis and suffered a heart attack whilst waiting for a kidney transplant; she decided to stop treatment and spend her final days surrounded by her loved ones.
She added: “Julia helped organise her own funeral, and chose one of her favourite songs, Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I am what I am’ to be played. She used to perform it during her cabaret days and it’s the LGBT anthem, so it was very fitting for Julia after everything she fought for to be who she wanted to be, and was very meaningful to a lot of people who attended her funeral who she had helped and supported throughout her life. It was an incredible turnout, it was standing room only.
“We covered her coffin with a flag I’d made using the gay pride rainbow colours, and her hearse was in pride colours too. Her friends brought a special flower arrangement in the shape of a huge purple Vimto bottle because that was her favourite drink – which was donated to the hospice with family flowers and donations collected – so the whole occasion was a real celebration of her life and was very colourful. She will be greatly missed.”