Trans activist and subject of pioneering documentary A Change of Sex

Born: September 21, 1954;

Died: January 2, 2019

JULIA Grant, who has died aged 64, was a businesswoman and activist who came to national attention as the subject of the documentary series A Change of Sex, first screened on BBC2 in 1979, which followed the progress of her life and sex reassignment surgery as a trans female. Later, she was instrumental in the foundation of Manchester’s gay village through her proprietorship of the Hollywood Showbar and her enthusiastic encouragement of the city’s gay scene, particularly in the 1990s.

Originally a single episode of the Inside Story investigative documentary series entitled George and Julia (Grant was born George Roberts), which aired in 1979, her televised story began with Grant outlining her intention to undergo surgery, and the process the NHS at Charing Cross Hospital insisted she go through before it, including hormone therapy and committing to live life as a woman for a year.

In an era in which this subject was largely undiscussed and hugely fascinating for a viewing public who knew nothing of a life like Grant’s, the show was a ratings success.

Directed by David Pearson, the episode was so well-received that the story was retold the following year in the full, three-part A Change of Sex series, whose episodes – which respectively detailed the time before, during and after Grant’s operation – were titled The Big Decision, The First Year and My Body, My Choice. The stories caused a minor sensation in the UK at the time, with the third episode receiving an audience of nearly 20 million and knocking Coronation Street from the top of the weekly viewing figure charts.

The films did not soft-soap or hide either the physical or psychological processes involved, and her dismissive treatment by a particularly sceptical psychiatrist were offset by her humorous, down-to-earth and focussed manner. Grant expressed her satisfaction years later with how they had turned out and been received.

“Nobody slated it or slagged it off,” she said, noting that “I think it then opened the door for the trans community,” with referrals to Charing Cross leaping greatly even within the first few months after airing.

Grant’s story lived long and fondly enough in the mind of the British public that Pearson was able to direct two more “where is she now?”-style documentary films about Grant years later; 1994’s The Untold Story and 1999’s Julia Gets Her Man.

By the time of the latter film, Grant had her own enduring local celebrity as the proprietor of Manchester’s Hollywood Showbar. Having returned to the north earlier in the 1990s after 15 years spent largely in London – and Bradford, briefly, where she was a DJ and ceramic maker - she took the opportunity to open a small ceramics shop in a planned ‘gay shopping centre’ in Manchester. Although the shopping centre did not take off, the experiment its manager had tried was indirectly the making of Grant in the city.

When the on-site café was forced to close down, she took it over as the Hollywood Café, and when it stayed open all night serving tea and sandwiches to more than a thousand volunteers and customers of the city’s Mardi Gras festival, it became a cult hit. Later, the Manchester University student union in the same building closed due to lack of funds and Grant took that over as well, converting it into the Hollywood Showbar.

It was through this venue that Grant became something of a grand dame of the Manchester scene, with her controversial “if you’re not gay, you don’t get in” policy – with men invited to kiss at the door, to ‘prove’ they were – becoming the stuff of local legend.

The gay village, based around the city’s Canal Street, had been growing since the early 1990s, and was widely popularised by Russell T Davies’ 1999 television series Queer As Folk. The Showbar was one of the venues at the heart of its heyday, but Grant got out in the early 2000s as the scene became too commercial and ‘straight-friendly’; there were also disputes over the city’s GayFest event, a successor to Mardi Gras.

She later moved to Spain with her partner and helped set up Benidorm’s Gay Pride festival, getting back into the ceramic-making business which she had enjoyed before arriving in Manchester.

Born in Blackpool and raised in Preston and nearby Fleetwood, she had originally travelled to experience Manchester’s gay scene in her youth, and had become a drag performer in London, although she understood from a young age that she was not a ‘traditional’ drag act, and that her desire was to live as a woman.

Julia Grant wrote two memoirs, which were published at the time the shows about her were broadcast – George and Julia (1980) and Just Julia: The Story of an Extraordinary Woman (1994) – and she continued to advocate for transgender people throughout her life, as she had done in helping to reveal her own experiences many decades before.