`We used to be brother and sister. Now we're women together'

Last week, transsexuals won the right to change sex on the NHS, but what does it mean to the families involved? HESTER LACEY meets a woman who had the operation 20 years ago, and the sister who had to come to terms with it

In 1979, George Roberts, followed by BBC cameras, began a long and painful journey - from being a man to being a woman. This documentary, one of the first "fly-on-the-wall" films, in which George took the first steps towards becoming Julia Grant, gained an unprecedented response from viewers - so much so that two further films were made, and shown between 1979 and 1994. These three are being repeated on BBC2 on Tuesday nights and chart difficult times - a gruelling round of surgery, not all of which was initially successful, a painful relationship breakdown, a period of heavy drinking and drug use, and bankruptcy. The series will be rounded off next week with a new instalment, made 20 years after viewers first met Julia, which finds her in happier times, running a bar in Manchester, with her partner of four years, Alan; the couple were blessed in a church service in November last year, to set an official seal on their relationship.

Julia, now 44, is part of a large family. She is closest to her sister Shirley Wilson, who is a year younger than she is. Shirley's life has followed a more conventional pattern; she is married to Keith. Below, Julia and Shirley chart some turbulent times.

JULIA GRANT

I've got five sisters and two brothers: I'm the eldest, but from the age of about 12, I was a surrogate mother for all of them. My mother was an alcoholic and my father was away at sea, so I did the washing, cleaning, cooking, ironing, you name it. I didn't go to school, I stayed home to look after my brothers and sisters: Shirley was 11 at the time, and the others were aged 10, nine, seven, five, four and two.

There was no feeling at that time that I wasn't happy in my own body. Taking a "maternal" role was purely about being head of the house. It was hard work, and my relationship with Shirley was typical for young siblings. I was the bossy older brother, she was an annoying younger sister. I hated her, there was always conflict and she'd never go to bed when she was told. I'd give her a clip round the ear and scream and shout.

My dad was a fisherman at the time, not earning much, and Mum was drinking heavily. There was no money and we'd take things out of the house down to the pawnshop to get money to buy food. One day I was on my way to school and I went to the park and there was a sign on a door in the gents saying "Young boy wanted, ten shillings, any Thursday night, for fun". I went there every Thursday for weeks and nobody turned up, then I met someone who gave me a ten-bob note for having sex with them. It lasted five minutes and I went to buy some corned beef and potatoes and onions and some cigarettes for my mum on the way home. That became a regular occurrence, I was not only looking after the others, I was feeding them as well. Shirley was older than the others and she appreciates more than most what I was doing, even though she never voiced it at the time.

All the kids were aware of Mum's drinking. She tried to commit suicide several times - she took tablets, cut her wrists, left the gas fire on. The last time they sent her into hospital and a social worker came and said we were all being taken away. We went to the same children's home.

When I eventually left the home, I joined the Navy. I didn't see Shirley or the others for five or six years, so Shirley became the head of the family for a while. All this time, I had never really talked to Shirley about my sexuality. I'd been gay, or so I thought, from 15 or 16, and by 18 I was living the gay lifestyle. Eventually, when I was 21, I realised that what I felt was something different to gayness. And that's when I went to see a doctor. I just did it on my own - I didn't confide in any of the family.

In fact, it was only about 10 years ago that Shirley and I really started talking in any depth. My mum died and that brought us closer together. It was then that we started looking back about how much I'd done as a child. The rest of the family all live round the Preston area now, near where they went into care. I met them to tell them about the operation for the first time on film, and they were quite accepting. Their attitude was "Well, you're still you, whatever you do". I think when the film went out, they understood it a little bit more.

When my dad died it brought the family together. If it hadn't been for Shirley, the bar I run here wouldn't exist. I'd lost everything in my bankruptcy. Me and my husband had the coffee bar upstairs and we wanted to buy the bar here; if Shirley and her husband hadn't lent us the pounds 10,000 to do it we couldn't have. It was a big thing for them, money they'd put aside for a house and it meant a lot that she had that much faith in me. She's always known what kind of a worker I am and she said to her husband, "If anyone can do it, Julia can". We speak on the phone and she keeps me in touch with the family, so I know what everybody's doing and where everybody is. The family's still quite broken up really.

Life is a rollercoaster. At the moment I'm at the top, but there's every chance I could go back down. But I'm the kind of person who'll just dust myself down and start all over again. That's life.

SHIRLEY WILSON

George was always Billy to me, because our dad was called George and Billy was George William. There's one year, one week and one day between us in age.

We fought a lot when we were very small. I remember accidentally giving myself a black eye in the park once and going home and saying Billy did it, and him getting a walloping. I remember the two of us trying to stop my dad hitting my mum, but the thing was, when Dad wasn't there and Mum wasn't drinking, we were very happy. Mum really loved us.

After the children's homes, Billy joined the Navy and we kind of lost touch, there was a big gap - when he came back, I was just leaving school. I was so embarrassed because he looked like a hippie, all long hair and lots of rings, that I didn't want to talk to him.

We didn't have any inkling about the operation before it happened. Billy rang me and said he was coming to Preston and wanted to talk to us all together so I arranged for us all to meet at Dad's. He turned up dressed as a woman, he'd had the breast operation, and he had a film crew with him. I was more upset about the film crew than anything else because I was dressed all scruffily - I wouldn't sign the form to let them show me on the television. It was really weird - Billy had been my big brother and now he was going to be my big sister. She really put the rest of us to shame with her hair and make-up - we were just in jeans and baggy jumpers. None of us thought it was disgusting or anything like that, except our dad. He was furious. He said, "I'm going to sue him, everyone will think it's me". Dad was that self-centred. He didn't want to have anything to do with Julia, there was nothing between them but hate.

The first time round, after the film went out on television, nobody mentioned it much to me because I was a young mum at home. But the last time I was working, and we were all sitting round in the canteen. One of the girls was being nasty about the programme and I just let her finish. Then someone else started and I thought "They're so ignorant!" and I stood up and said "That's my sister you're talking about!" It all went really quiet and this girl's face just turned to stone. But I thought Julia's my sister and I should be standing up for her. I just wanted her to know we are all there for her and that's why I agreed to go on this time.

My daughter is 10 and she still doesn't know that her Aunty Julia used to be a man, but my two sons, who are older, know, and they aren't shocked, they don't shy away from her. Julia is the bravest person I know, and to do all this so publicly is very brave as well, not hiding in corners. And though you might not think it, she's actually a very private person, I've only ever seen her kiss Alan once, just a tender little kiss. She just wants to be loved and to love somebody.

It's taken her a long time to settle as a woman - I think she thought the operation would change everything drastically and there'd be no more loneliness or unhappiness, but it wasn't like that. The first 10 years were up and down. She's such a fighter, even when things were going wrong you knew that in a few weeks she'd be back up on top of things.

I think she's found her niche now, though. It's all been OK since she met Alan. He's so nice and easy-going. I was so chuffed when she asked me to be a witness at her wedding - we all call it a wedding. She's the happiest I've ever seen her. I'm not good with words, but since she's come to Manchester with Alan everything has bloomed for her - she's just like a flower opening up.

When Julia wrote her first book, she refers to me in the first line as "Shirley who thinks herself above her station", but now we get on so well. She can be cheeky - we took the children to Disney and I bought them a globe with snow and music. Julia said it was "typical council house tat". So I bought her this really weird leaded glass thing you hang on the window with a poem about being sisters, to get back at her because it was "council house tat". But she nearly cried over it, because she loves being a sister.

Part three of `A Change of Sex' is on BBC2, Tuesday, at 9pm.

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