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07 June 2022

A Rereading of Bodyshock: the truth about changing sex , 1987

Part I: life

Part II: book

  • Liz Hodgkinson. Bodyshock: the truth about changing sex. Columbus, 1987.

The book is dedicated to Judy Cousins.

The term ‘sex-change’ was then in common use, and will be used in this review as it is used in the book.


This book was written for the general public in 1987. Statements like "But there is no doubt that a certain proportion of people do want to change their sex, and will go to literally any lengths to achieve this" may seem otiose today, but that was not the case at that time.

Hodgkinson makes a boo-boo on p9: "Since the first operation, which was performed by Dr Christian Hamburger .. .". Hamburger was of course the endocrinologist, not the surgeon. Nor was it the first, and on the next page, she does mention the earlier surgeries by Harold Gillies, but not the pioneering surgeries in Berlin the early 1930s.

She dismisses the idea that one is trans because mother wanted a child of the other sex, and the dominant mother/passive or absent father aetiologies. She prefers the foetal hormonal wash theory -- a theory that is still in favour 35 years later without much extra evidence to support it.

She emphasises that generally trans persons are not mentally ill, but if they are treatment is refused. "Most of the people whose stories are told in this book are positive, happy, life enhancing people -- at least, after the operation. All have remarkable, sometimes barely believable, stories to tell, even when they have not become famous in any way. There is no danger that anybody can 'catch' transsexuality from coming into contact with such people. The condition is not hereditary and does not run in families. It is something which seems to come out of nowhere and there is no blueprint for it, no set of circumstances that would predispose to the condition."

With an extra 35 years of research, we could niggle and quibble with that statement, but it is still basically true.

She gives the one in 10,000 estimate for transsexuality. Again this was 1987. This is one aspect where we do now have much better information.

Chp 1: What is Transexxualism?

This chapter is mainly an account of trans across the centuries to show that transsexuality is nothing new. Hodgkinson mixes myth and history, Venus Castina and Tiresias. From the Bible she takes only eunuchs -- she also uses the term 'eunuch' for the gallae who castrated themselves in devotion to Cybele. This conflates the voluntary and the involuntary and is confusing. She finds a quote in Philo, and tells of Sporus (again involuntary). A quick mention of the hijra in India, and then she is on to DeChoisy and d'Eon ("who allegedly posed as a serious rival to Madame de Pompadour for the favours of Louis XV" -- really?) She has one sentence on American Natives, and repeats the old saw about Elizabeth Tudor having the "heart and mental powers of a man" - but says nothing about the Bisley Boy hypothesis. She presents Pope Joan as historical.

When she mentions Man into Woman the unreliable autobiography of Lili Elbe (GVWW), she maintains a healthy skepticism: "The whole story is vague and highly suspect". However, on Roberta Betty Cowell (GVWW) she uncritically repeats Cowell's claim that her sex was wrongly assigned at birth and that she is not really transsexual. How she was able to father two daughters is not mentioned -- presumably because Liz knew her personally by that time. She does correct this in her 2015 article for The Telegraph.

After brief mentions of Christine Jorgensen, Georgina Turtle and April Ashley and their autobiographies, Liz laments that there were no autobiographies by trans men. However there had been Robert Allen's But for the Grace, 1954 and Mario Martino's Emergence in 1977.

Birth Certificates

I really must disagree with the paragraph on p23: 

"Their true sex remains, for legal and biological considerations, what it was at birth. It was this factor which led the British government, in 1970, to stipulate that a person's birth certificate can never be changed, unless a genuine mistake was made at birth. Roberta Cowell's birth certificate has been so altered, because doctors were convinced that a mistake was made. But usually a transsexual must live with the fact that his or her birth certificate can never be changed."

So no mention here of Corbett v. Corbett (but see Chp 4 below). Cowell, despite not having been subjected to such a mistake, was able to have her birth certificate amended in 1952 -- before vaginoplasty -- because:

a) This was 18 years before Corbett v Corbett changed the law

b) She was able to afford a Harley Street doctor

c) She had lots of class privilege. Her father was one of Britain's foremost doctors, and she was able to use personal contacts.

April Ashley, on the other hand, who should have applied for her birth certificate to be revised when she returned to England in 1960, didn't have the legal and medical advice, and didn't know that it could be revised.

I have previously commented

"On p74 of April Ashley's Odyssey, we find: "Both these cases [Forbes and Cowell] were the result of ambiguous genital formation at birth, resulting in incorrect sex identification. They are not to be confused with cases like my own, those of transsexualism, which so far as doctors have determined are primarily of psychological origin (abetted to a greater or lesser extent by physiological factors according to each individual case) and therefore, as the law stands, do not entitle one to a change of birth certificate."

I don't know whether it was April or her ghost-writer, Duncan Fallowell, who wrote this. I suspect Fallowell as the section does not appear in April's second autobiography, The First Lady. In either case the paragraph is quite problematical. Nothing in the available material on either Evan Forbes or Betty Cowell suggests that they had ambiguous genitals. All three, Forbes, Cowell and Ashley appear to be transsexual and not intersex.

Nor have I read that changes of birth certificates were restricted, before 1970, to intersex excluding transsexuals. What Forbes and Cowell, and Michael Dillon and Georgina Turtle Somerset did have that April did not was considerable class privilege. While we know of other British transsexuals before 1970 who were of working class origins, I have not found a clear statement that any one of them had their birth certificate amended.

Hodgkinson, in claiming that Parliament, as opposed to the legal system, stipulated on the issue, was probably thinking of the Nullity Of Marriage Act, 1971, the draft version of which did not mention the sex of the parties, but such a clause was added during the report stage, after the publicity re Corbett v. Corbett. This was the first time in British law that marriage was actually defined as being between a man and a woman.

Chp 2: Why Should Anyone want to Change Sex?

Hodgkinson talks of the difficulties, the pain of the operations and of electrolysis and of the financial costs (about £3000-£4000 for vaginoplasty in the late 1980s) and then “Yet, if you asked any transsexual whether the ordeal had been worth it, you would get an unqualified yes”. Well, yes. Is that not part of really being a transsexual?

She refutes the notion that trans people become traditional stereotypes of their acquired gender, or that it is a kinky trip. She discusses H-Y Antigen which at that time was being touted as the biological identifier of trans persons, but realises that the research is too recent - and of course it was a line of research that did not lead anywhere.

She finishes the chapter by bringing in Janice Raymond’s opinion of Jan Morris - that Morris having already lived his best years as a man and facing inevitable decline, gained a new lease of life be becoming a woman in middle age. Almost every book on transsexualism in the 1980s quotes Raymond one way or another. In fact if considered as a career move, transition did work very well for Morris, but that is hardly true for the vast majority of late transitioners. And try proposing such a career move to a regular cis-heterosexual …

Chp 3: Surgical and Hormonal Procedures

This chapter contains a lot of detail about the nitty-gritty of a sex-change that is only too well known to readers of this encyclopedia. The autobiographical accounts by Jan Morris and April Ashley of their experience of Dr Burou’s clinic in Casablanca are quoted in some detail - enough to put off anyone who is not truly transsexual. Almost all the chapter is about Gender Identity Clinics, and Russell Reid’s practice that helped so many to get around the road blocks (including me) is not mentioned at all. Hodgkinson made up for this omission with an article for The Independent in 1992 which was mainly about Dr Reid and his patients.

Chp 4: Transsexuals and the law

There have, of course, been significant legal changes since 1987, and to that extent this chapter is inevitably out of date. However we need to be reminded of how things used to be.

Hodgkinson does here mention Corbett v. Corbett which she had ignored in Chp 1. She says that transsexuals cannot marry or remarry in their new sex - meaning heterosexually, but does not mention that trans women could and did marry cis women, trans men did marry cis men and trans women did marry trans men - they were pioneering queer marriage long before gays and lesbians were able to. Also some UK trans persons did marry outside the UK - as I did.

She naively asserts: "no doubt the birth certificate ruling is intended to stop people passing themselves off as somebody else - a fear that is virtually groundless". She certainly does not see Corbett v Corbett as a show trial to assert aristocratic privilege, as more recent writers have done.

Chp 5: How Transsexuality Affects Others

This chapter is about parents, spouses and children.

Hodgkinson says that she did not locate any “female-to-male transsexual who was married in the original sex”. I mentioned above that she had missed Robert Allen’s 1954 autobiography, and Allen did have a brief marriage to a man.

“Nor have I located any female-to-male transsexual who became a mother before the change-over.” The 1980s were before pregnant trans men became common in the media.


There are eight pages of photographs. Two photos of Christine Jorgensen, and one each of April Ashley and Renée Richards even though none of these are featured in the following biographical chapters. Before and after photos of Rachael Webb, Judy Cousins and Melanie Martin. Two pages, nine photos of Michael Dillon. Four photos of Mark Rees.

Chp 6: Male-to-female Transsexuals

Despite the book’s dedication to Judy Cousins (GVWW) and four photographs of her, she is surprisingly missing from this chapter except for a single paragraph on p105 about how when still male, Cousins considered female golfers to be an irritation - an attitude she came to regret after transition. However Hodgkinson also published a profile on Cousins in The Sunday People around the same time that the book came out.

Nor is Roberta Betty Cowell (GVWW) found here despite Hodgkinson's personal acquaintance. Cowell had mainly been discussed in Chp 1 re birth certificates.

April Ashley and Jan Morris had been discussed several times in previous chapters, and are not in this chapter.

There are multi-page sections on:

Rachael Webb (GVWW) the lorry driver turned borough councillor;

singer Adele Anderson (GVWW);

Dora, a computer consultant;

Alison, a publican who is accepted by and has stayed with her wife and children;

Melanie Jane, an artist, previously into heavy metal and a biker;

Stephanie Anne Booth (GVWW) who ran the Transformation shops for trans women;

Anna Heming (GVWW), an ex-sailor who had completion surgery in 1959.

Chp 7: Female-to-male Transsexuals

The chapter opens with passing mentions of Joan of Arc and James Barry (GVWW). "But were people like Joan of Arc true female-to-male transsexuals?". She says nothing of “female-husbands”, nor the many born-female persons who fought in various armies and were completely taken as men.

Hodgkinson spends several pages on "Probably the first-to-male transsexual of modern times ... the novelist Radclyffe Hall". Hodgkinson seems unaware of other trans men of the late 1920s-early 1930 who were much better candidates, such as Joe Carstairs, Violet Morris, Madeleine Pelletier, Victor Barker, Gluck, Wynsley Michael Swann, Toupie Lowther. It is true that the information on most of these men was not available in the mid-1980s when Hodgkinson was writing. However Hall was never a good candidate to be considered as trans. In my article The Triple-Whammy 1928-9, I quoted Laura Doan on Radclyffe Hall:

"Her haircut was thought to be the most feminine of all the short cuts popular at the time, and she had her hair done at Harrods --- not a barbershop. Even Hall's famous sartorial choices were on the feminine side of what was known as the 'severely masculine mode'... Nor did Hall and her partner Una Troubridge dress in a bizarre manner, wearing, as some biographers have claimed, clothing from a costume shop. The couple studied fashion magazines and built their wardrobes not from men's tailors in Savile Row, but from the most chic of London's department stores for women [unlike Gluck who bought suits from the expensive men's tailors]. Hall always wore a skirt and conducted herself in a completely womanly way - in short, Hall definitely didn't model the protagonist [of The Well of Loneliness], Stephen Gordon, after herself."

Hodgkinson then discusses Michael Dillon , ship’s doctor, "the first female-to-male transsexual to have modern surgery and hormone treatment". And, of course, she wrote a full-length biography of him a few years later.

She follows this with accounts of

Mark Rees who took his case to the European Court of Human Rights;

Karl who transitioned to male in his 50s, and stayed in the same job;

Stephen from Manchester (presumably Stephen Whittle before he became a lawyer);

Richard who changed on the job at a computer company and was processed at the GIC at Guys Hospital;

Tim, a writer living with a common-law wife, was one of the few trans men at that time to have had phalloplasty.

Chp 8: Transsexuals, Homosexuals and Transvestites

As was usual in the 1980s Hodgkinson juxtaposes Transsexuals, Homosexuals and Transvestites. Hodgkinson makes a bad start by jumping from female impersonators such as the 'grotesque' Danny La Rue and Dame Edna Everage to performers who did transition such as April Ashley and Coccinelle at Le Carrousel and straight back to television drag performers such as Benny Hill and Hinge and Brackett. However she quickly separates them by sexual orientation, Ashley and Coccinelle being Transsexuals who married husbands, and Everage/Barry Humphries being the one who is definitely heterosexual. Writing in the 1980s, she is unaware that Danny La Rue will eventually come out as gay. "So it is not surprising that the public mixes the three groups up. Also, most psychology textbooks dealing with sexual deviation tend to lump the three conditions together , or at least try to show that they have a common cause, either biological or environmental. (p155)"

Hodgkinson' major source for this chapter is not the trans persons she interviewed in the previous two chapters but Robert Stoller's The Transsexual Experiment, 1975. This leads her to claim

a) most transvestite men would never want to be women

b) true transsexuals never become sexually aroused by wearing women's clothes

c) all transvestites are male

d) women never dress in men's clothing for purposes of sexual arousal (p157).

From our perspective over three decades later we can see this as cisplaining. Exceptions to all four claims are well documented.

She follows this with an account of a John Colvin who dabbled with transvesting and wrote it up in The Guardian in January 1986. She says that he "cannot be considered a 'true' transvestite ... as he does not appear to gain sexual satisfaction by wearing dresses" (p161). More cisplaining.

Her example of a 'true transvestite' is Gerald/Geraldine the lodger/lover of Monica Jay. Monica wrote up their affair as Geraldine - For the Love of a Transvestite, 1986. This was later filmed as Just Like a Woman, 1992.

Chp 9: Transsexualism and the Battle of the Sexes

“However much pre-operative transsexuals may feel that they are living out a lie in their original sex, the fact remains that when they eventually change over they find that life is very different on the 'other side' - so much so that they often feel they have entered an alien country for which little in their previous experience has prepared them. They frequently find that the 'real' men and women whose world they enter post-operatively are very different creatures from what they had imagined.” …

“Though transsexuals are somehow managing to cross the sex border, and are doing it in ever-increasing numbers, it does not seem that they are enabling the sexes to come together or to become more alike in any way. On the face of it, it appears that transsexuals are a special ultra-minority whose experience bears little relationship to that of ordinary people. But if they can change over, and become very effective 'constructed' men and women, whose secret few can guess, why is there still such a wide gap?”

As you may guess from the word ‘constructed’, Hodgkinson unfortunately turns to Janice Raymond who - of course - explains this by accusing trans persons of exaggerating and perpetuating gender stereotypes, this despite Hodgkinson’s refutation of that idea in chapter 2.

Hodgkinson then completes the chapter with standard 1980s comments re the gender differences, with a few observations from trans persons. Then she quotes, for two pages, a newspaper article by the novelist and journalist Celia Brayfield who passed herself as a man for a day to see what the differences are.

Hodgkinson’s Bibliography

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