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Hayley Cropper

Hayley Cropper is a fictional transsexual woman, introduced to the long-running soap Coronation Street in early 1998. The character is played actress, Julie Hesmondhalgh, who is assuredly not transsexual herself. Why then should this fictional character have a place in any list of famous or influential trans people?

Certainly, when created as an unusual dramatic pairing for quiet man "Roy Cropper" (David Neilson) the producers and script writers seemingly had no idea of what they were playing with as a concept. Practically no initial research was undertaken by the storyliners to find out if their off-the-shelf stereotypes of transsexual people were accurate, and the advice given to Julie herself was to maybe go and find some books to read. The result, initially, was a poor parody of a real trans person's life and personality. The trans community were understandably worried.
A lobby was mounted. Granada TV was beseiged by letters, calls and emails from annoyed and concerned trans people -- all demanding only that the production team should get themselves some proper education and consider their responsibilities in portraying something they knew nothing about to one third of the nation. (Coronation Street's audiences often top 18 million viewers).
To their eternal credit, the production team responded to the criticisms in an immensely positive way. An anonymous trans woman with a strong passion for "Corrie" was found and a relationship was established between her and the programme's researchers, story planners and scriptwriters. The result was a string of powerful story lines in which many of the routine problems and prejudices encountered by real transsexual people could be developed and played out for the understanding of the viewing public. It was, in many ways, a priceless piece of PR.
The advisor has chosen to this day to remain anonymous. Her identity is known only to the Coronation Street staff and a handful of trans campaigners. Her contribution was immense, however. Not only did she provide the whole Granada team with a real image of a trans woman to learn and copy from, she gave Hayley a complete life history, and the actress a mentor to study with. They remain good friends to this day. Actress Julie Hesmondhalgh herself became increasingly passionate about what she learned from playing Hayley. A few months after beginning, she became a Patron of the Press for Change campaign and even received Parliamentary congratulations for her character, in the form of an Early Day Motion approving the portrayal.
One year after the introduction of Hayley as a character the anonymous adviser penned this historical account of just went on behind the scenes.
The story doesn't end there, however. Hayley was yet to deliver the strongest message of all.
As soon as Hayley became a firm fixture in the Coronation Street cast the question of her long term relationship with Roy needed to be addressed. The result was a long term story plan to develop the romance between the two characters, working towards the ultimate objective of a big marriage highlight.
For a real Hayley, of course, marriage was not a legal prospect at that time. Viewers already knew that Hayley was still "male" in the eyes of the law and, as a result, was in no position to do any more than countless trans people had done in reality over three decades since the law's attitude was defined by a divorce case in 1970. There could be a blessing. Hayley and Roy could have gone abroad for a wedding that had no legal validity back in the UK. A marriage in the usual straightforward sense was not feasible, but the dramatic (and campaigning) potential was correspondingly huge.
The Hayley and Roy romance .. a tentative, innocent, almost virginal affair .. captured the imagination of the viewing public over several months of 1998, heading steadily towards the plot's climax in spring 1999. The eventual audience topped previous records for a climax of this kind and became a national talking point. Viewers wrote to their MP's. People were asking, "Why CAN'T they be married" because, presumably, they too wanted to see the couple be happy. We love happy endings as a nation.
Maybe it was a coincidence. Maybe not. However, in the week that the story came to its lovely and highly emotional ending among the ham sandwiches and pasties in "Roy's Rolls" the then Home Secretary, Jack Straw, suddenly announced the formation of a committee between no fewer than 12 Government departments to spend a year investigating the feasibility of overhauling a state of law that had been in place for 29 years. It was the start of a process which eventually culminated in the passage of the Gender Recognition Act in July 2004.
So Hayley Cropper really does have a place in trans history as a first rate campaigner of influence. And a bloody good character actress too.
Christine Burns
October 2005
See also "To have and to hold", the story of THAT wedding :

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