Roberta Cowell

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* 8th April 1918 in London, today UK

† 11th October 2011 in London, today UK

Roberta Elizabeth Marshall Cowell was a British racing driver and fighter pilot during the Second World War. When she was born, she was assigned the “male” gender.

At the age of sixteen, Cowell joined the Royal Air Force and began training as a pilot. She was forced to abandon her training because she suffered from motion sickness. Cowell studied engineering at University College London. There she met Margarete Zelma Carpenter, who she later went on to marry. Besides that, Cowell also got involved in motorsports, winning her first race in 1936. Three years later she took part in the Grand Prix Antwerp.

After the Second World War began, Cowell was called up for service and flew aerial reconnaissance missions. Her plane was shot down while flying over Germany. She was captured and spent five months in a prisoner of war camp.

Cowell left her wife and two daughters in 1948. After the divorce, she began to take estrogen and to live as a woman. She got to know Michael Dillon, a trans* man who worked as a doctor. Although such operations were forbidden in the UK at this time, Cowell convinced him to remove her testicles.

Following this intervention, she had a gynaecologist confirm that she was intersex. Thanks to this confirmation she received a new birth certificate, on which her gender was listed as “female”. Due to the fact that her gender was now listed as “female”, Cowell was no longer able to take part in the Grand Prix.

When Cowell underwent gender confirmation surgery, she sold her story to Picture Post magazine. The comprehensive coverage meant that it was then difficult for her to find permanent employment. She continued to be active in motorsports, but mostly stayed out of the public eye.

Roberta Cowell was the first British trans* woman to undergo gender confirmation surgery. She described herself, however, as being intersex.

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