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  • Jenny Duong

Roberta Cowell

For years, the LGBTQ+ community has continued to break barriers and create a new future for the next generations to come. The month of June is known as Pride Month and celebrates the accomplishments of the LGBTQ+ community. To end this year’s Pride Month, Roberta Cowell’s story will take the lead.

Roberta Cowell was the first known person in the U.K. to reassign her gender from male to female, with her transition including hormone treatments and surgeries despite the contemporary laws during 1950s Britain. As marked in her autobiography, Cowell announced “Since May 18th, 1951, I have been Roberta Cowell, female. I have become woman physically, psychologically, glandularly, and legally.”

Roberta Elizabeth Marshall Cowell was born April 8th, 1918 in Croydon, South of London. Throughout childhood, Cowell often questioned her sexuality and struggled with bullying from her peers from being overweight. By the age of 16, she left school to work as an apprentice engineer until joining the Royal Air Force in 1935. She dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, however, she was a victim of air sickness and flying became just a dream for her. To compensate, she took up racing to feel the need for speed without being in the air and fell in love with the sensation.

Once the Second World War was approaching, Cowell once again found herself in the skies by being commissioned into the Royal Air Service Corps in 1940. By 1944, Cowell was flying with the No. 4 Squadron RAF by 1944, a front-line Spitfire squadron assigned to aerial reconnaissance. These planes were unarmed and unequipped so Cowell wasn’t actively fighting at the time. However, this made her trips over German-occupied territories even more dangerous since she could not fight back if needed.

As the year went on, the need for combat outweighed the need for information, resulting in Cowell going on a low-level sortie near Bocholt, Germany. Cowell managed to hit some ground targets before her engine was attacked by German anti-aircraft fire. This made Cowell’s only option was to try and pull off a dead stick crash landing. After crashing, she was unharmed and was able to contact members of her squadron before being captured by German troops. When captured, Cowell attempted escapes twice before being put into solitary confinement and eventually was transferred to the prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft I, where she stayed for five months.

Cowell came home as one of the many scarred and displaced veterans after the war. Suffering from traumatic flashbacks, Cowell found it difficult to go back to the family dynamic with her wife and two daughters. She decided to go back to racing and found a team to compete in events all over Europe. Although she was with her family and was racing, something inside her still felt empty, and the feeling of hopelessness started to consume her.

By the year 1948, Cowell filed for divorce from her wife and started seeking therapy, where she discovered that “her unconscious mind was predominantly female.” Cowell’s therapist brought light upon the fact that all the hyper-masculine activities Cowell immersed herself in were forms of repression. Since the current era she was living in looked down upon homosexuality, it would be difficult to live as a trans person. After some tough decisions, Cowell decided to cut all ties from her ex-wife and children in hopes of sparing them from the inevitable criticism.

In the 1950s, Cowell started her journey into fully becoming a woman. Claiming that she was intersex in order to get gender reassignment surgery- since that was the only legal way to get the procedure done- she denied the children she had fathered, claiming that they were a result of an affair her ex-wife had when she was at war. After successfully becoming the first person who had a male to female procedure done, it was difficult to continue racing. She still had dreams to soar in the sky, but by the 1990s, she was living alone in an apartment where she withdrew from society.

Eventually, she passed away in her home by herself in 2011 at the age of 93.

Although most of her aviation achievements were conducted when she was identifying as male, her story can also be relatable to those who are questioning their gender. Before slipping away from the public eye, Cowell sold her story to be told to the public. Even if her racing and aviation career was stopped short after her transition, Roberta Cowell still made the world a little more diverse and made the racing and aviation world more open for future transgender people.

Is there a person or figure outside of the aviation world that inspires you? Let us know in the comments!

Happy Pride Month!

Want to know more about Roberta Cowell? Here are some links!

Want to know how to support the aviation LGBTQ community? Check out this organization:

Jenny Duong is a newly recruited Social Media Volunteer at Hera Aviation Group. She currently studies Global Business and Marketing at Southern New Hampshire University.

Jenny enjoys traveling and often visits family in Vietnam during the summer. She also enjoys spending time with her dog, Macie, often binging reality TV together. Their current guilty pleasure is the Bachelor franchise! Her biggest inspiration are her two older siblings even after all the teasing.

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