By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly
The faces on the transwomen’s Mt. Rushmore are largely familiar. The likes of Christine Jorgensen, whose transition inspired the then-shocking McCarthy-era headline, “GI Becomes Blonde Bombshell,” 1970s pro tennis player Renee Richards, electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos, and Stonewall veteran and activist Sylvia Rivera, are well documented.
Before the Julia Serano/Janet Mock era of transwoman self-definition, these women, sometimes quietly, sometimes not, successfully carved out visible corners for themselves in an often hostile world.
Strangely, the life of Caroline Cossey, a model, author and activist whose story, in its own way, bridges these periods, has been all but lost to our culture.
Born in the small English town of Brooke, Norfolk in 1954, Cossey had an unhappy, male-assigned childhood, experiencing bullying and social rejection at school. By sixteen she’d left Brooke and moved to London, where she began transitioning the next year.
She worked as a showgirl and a topless dancer, in Paris and Rome, respectively, saving money for her gender confirming surgery, which she obtained in 1974.
Cossey enjoyed a quick ascent as a model, appearing in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and as a Page Three girl in the London paper The Sun, before, in 1978, landing a part on the game show 3-2-1. It was on that show’s set, however, that she was recognized by a photographer who’d known her from earlier in her transition, who took her story to the tabloids.
Hoping to avoid exposure, Cossey exited the show and stuck to modeling, a plan that, in the short tem, worked.
To survey Cossey’s modeling photos from the ‘80s is to be transported to a time when beauty standards were decidedly more adult. Hair is big; tans are dark; expressions are sophisticated, louche, and libidinous.
It was during this period that Cossey filmed a small part in the James Bond movie “For Your Eyes Only,” and became engaged to businessman Elias Fattal.
Concurrently, the tabloid News of the World pursued her story, hounding her family and former classmates, outing her to everyone they met.
Cossey and Fattal returned from their honeymoon to the headline, “James Bond Girl was a Boy.” Fattal had known of Cossey’s past already, but, bowing to family pressure, almost immediately annulled their marriage.
Cossey briefly contemplated suicide in the wake of these events, but soon rebounded and took to the offensive, penning the memoir “I Am a Woman,” and launching what would become a lengthy campaign for the legal recognition of transwomen in England, where at the time they could not, among other things, marry.
She continued modeling, and, ever of the moment, appeared in the video for the Duran Duran spin off band The Power Station’s “Some Like It Hot.” Continuing her practice of marrying up, she next paired with Italian Count Glauco Lasiano. While the marriage was recognized in the Count’s Italy, her efforts to change England’s laws drug on.
At the Count’s urging, Cossey did not work during their four year marriage. When their union ended, however, she returned, appearing, most notably, in a 1991 Playboy pictorial.
Around this time Cossey relocated to Atlanta, GA, and published her second book “My Story.” Her media appearances to promote the book offer a fascinating glimpse into a—thankfully—vanished cultural moment.
With no fear of online petitions or Twitter wrath, Cossey’s interviewers felt free, clearly, to sensationalize both her story and her body.
That said, it’s difficult to parse out the transphobia and the Anita Hill-era sexual harassment when, for example, daytime talk show host Maury Pauvich gazes in smug dreaminess at Cossey and pronounces, “I look at you and I see all woman . . . I assume that’s a compliment.” The same is true of nighttime host Arsenio Hall, who asks Cossey how she was able to conceal her penis when working as a stripper, purely to set up his own feeble joke about how his penis would be too large for him to ever pull off such a task.
On film in these appearances, Cossey projects a regal sophistication, as well as a simmering sensuality, like a Roxy Music album that had anthropomorphized and sprung to life in the form of a gorgeous woman. Quick witted and flirty, she holds her own on the shows, gamely batting away Arsenio’s incessant genital questions by declaring that “men think too much about their penises.”
Likewise, on the tabloid program “Hard Copy,” when the host bizarrely, and apropos of nothing, asks her if she’s romantically interested in Donald Trump, she playfully turns the interview into a video dating opportunity, complimenting the mogul as “cute,” and encouraging him to get in touch. She definitely had a type.
Cossey is elegant and poised in these segments when advocating for trans rights, a topic fairly unheard of in the early ‘90s talk world. She summed up the unfairness of the laws she hoped to change nicely, saying that transwomen were “helped medically” in her native Britain, “but left in legal limbo,” as their affirmed genders weren’t recognized.
Despite her efforts, Cossey was sadly never able to effect the changes she sought in England’s system. Transpeople there would have to wait for the passage of the 2004’s Gender Recognition Act to attain the legal means to change their genders officially.
Following her “My Story” press tour, Cossey disappeard from public sight. Having married Canadian engineer David Finch (sorry Trump), she settled down in the Atlanta suburbs. The development was not entirely surprising, as she’d often expressed the desire to be a wife when she’d concluded with modeling.
She’d likewise made statements suggesting her activism was a short term response to circumstances, rather than a lifelong passion, saying in a 1992 interview, “What happened with the British government . . . just fueled the fire in me. I feel the more people understand, the more acceptance and recognition that people like us get. That’s why I’ve become more public about it. It’s why I’ve agreed to do as much as I can, for as long as I can cope with it, and then I’ll say, you know, well, enough is enough.”
What Cossey did was quite phenomenal, maintaining a successful public career in the face of blatantly transphobic tabloid harassment, and advocating for trans rights with dignity and poise at a time when few others had the mainstream access to do so.
Let’s remember Caroline Cossey, a woman of whom Bond author Ian Fleming might have said, nobody did it better.
She lived a glamorous life, which few in her time might have had the courage to attempt or good fortune to realize, fought for what she believed, and, when she felt the time was right, retired in style. Cheers to her!