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Liz Hodgkinson

An interview with Liz Hodgkinson

Wednesday at Oxford Literary Festival sees Liz Hodgkinson and Diana Cowell discuss the first sex changes from within the Bodleian’s Divinity School
The first picture of Michael Dillon (taken in 1944)

"People tend to think that transgender people are not quite right in the head but they are, they’re perfectly normal, they just feel that they’re in the wrong body."

Liz Hodgkinson is the writer of From a Girl to a Man: How Laura Became Michael. It tells the story of Laura Dillon, the first woman to go through a female-to-male sex change, thus becoming Michael Dillon. First published in 1989, as Michael née Laura, the book has been through quite a change itself, updated with new material and images; it has inspired an appearance by Liz at Oxford Lit Fest.

Born in 1915, dying in 1962, Michael Dillon was an Oxford student. “It was always his favourite city,” Liz says. “Laura (as Michael was in those days) was one of the first people in the Oxford Women’s University Boat Club. He got the peculiar distinction of winning a Blue as both a woman and a man.”

Sir Harold Gillies performed 13 operations on the then Laura turning her into Michael. “Gillies was a very famous plastic surgeon of his day,” informs Liz. “He worked on very badly wounded men from both World Wars using techniques he adapted to sex change operations later. These sex change operations were illegal and done in secret.”

Michael would then fall in love with former spitfire pilot Robert Cowell, who later was the first British man to have a male-to-female sex change, becoming Roberta Cowell. Before her surgery Roberta was married with two children, Anne and Dianna, the latter of whom joins Liz at Oxford Lit Fest.

Laura Dillon aged 23. By now the 'poker face' had become her standard expression


“After the operation, when Robert became Roberta, she completely cut off contact with her family, she denied they even existed,” tells Liz.

Liz talks of the sadness Dianna Cowell has felt all her life from not knowing her dad, who died in 2011. “She tried and tried to contact Roberta,” she says of Diana. “She found out where she was living, wrote to her, and never got any reply.

“She has no memory at all of her father. What she’s doing now is trying to fill in a huge gap in her life. So having her at the festival will add a lot to it, she’s really the only living link with the whole story.”

Roberta’s story actually became a worldwide sensation in 1954, so that’s been something else for Diana to get her head around.

Liz is clear about the ambition of the pair’s festival appearance. “One of the things we’re going to do is try and get to the bottom of what it’s all about,” she says. “There’s still a lot of confusion. People tend to think that transgender people are not quite right in the head but they are, they’re perfectly normal, they just feel that they’re in the wrong body.”

The First Sex Changes: How Laura Became Michael and Robert Became Roberta takes place on Wednesday 6th April, 4pm at Bodleian’s Divinity School

Available from quartetbooks.co.uk, From a Girl to a Man: How Laura Became Michael is optioned for a Hollywood film and was the basis for a Channel 4 documentary called The Sex Change Spitfire Ace.


- Sam Bennett


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