As we get ready to wave a tearful farewell to Coronation Street’s Hayley Cropper, Alan Lambert celebrates the first trans character on a serialised drama in the world.
In January 1998, over a year before Channel 4 aired Queer as Folk, Coronation Street viewers met a new character in the form of Hayley Patterson, a shy supermarket worker who was introduced by colleague Alma Baldwin to Roy Cropper. It was not long before Hayley (played by Julie Hesmondlaigh) surprised Roy and viewers alike by announcing that she was in fact pre-operative male-to-female transgender.
While initially unable to deal with this fact, Roy realized that Hayley’s friendship meant more to him than any other factor. He followed her to Amsterdam to bring her back to the street and so began the story of the first permanent transgender character in serialised drama in the world.
Now, almost 16 years later, Hayley Cropper is about to hang up her anorak in what’s expected to be an emotional farewell to an unexpectedly popular character.
When Hayley was first introduced, telling her secret seemed to be part of a comedy storyline. The bumbling Roy had placed a lonely hearts ad in the hope of finding love, and had gone on one disastrous date after another. It seemed that the writers thought it would hilarious that his first date would be with a man dressed as a woman.
While the trans community were vocal in their disappointment that a real trans person had not been cast in the role, at the time the British tabloid media had a field day making no end of ‘witty’ jokes at the character’s expense, and there was seemingly no PR person at Corrie available to support the character or the trans community from this torrent of abuse.
Hayley Cropper disappeared from the street after she revealed her identity, returning from Amsterdam with Roy after her operation had been completed, getting a new job in the factory. Backstage at Coronation Street a new advisor on real trans-issues was appointed. Once the writers put some effort in to the character and her storylines, Hayley became a firm favourite with viewers who became completely absorbed in her blossoming relationship with Roy and fumed at the abuse she received from Mike Baldwin, Les Battersby and their ilk, who cottoned on to her secret.
This character was brought to life through a perfectly timed and award winning performance from Hesmondlaigh, who was originally told that if she wanted to understand the character she should go off and read some books. Since then she has worked closely with an unnamed transgender consultant who has also contributed to her storylines.
Soap opera may be seen as second-rate drama, but it plays a very important role in society – a good storyline about an issue affecting a member of a disenfranchised minority has the power not only to change hearts and minds, but also to affect actual progressive change. In 1999, Coronation Street ran a story about Roy and Hayley’s wedding. A tipped-off press was waiting at the chapel and the couple cancelled the nuptials, not wanting to cause trouble for the vicar who had agreed to perform their ceremony. They eventually had their blessing in Roy’s Rolls, prompting viewers who’d been invested in the couple’s romance to write to their local MP’s questioning why the these characters couldn’t be married and be happy. This lead to Home Secretary Jack Straw forming a committee to investigate the possibility of amending British law, which eventually culminated in the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
One of the most important aspects to Hayley Cropper is that she is not a trans character – rather, she is a character who happens to be trans. Not every story revolves around her gender identity. She has had whimsical and happy storylines involving ballroom dancing to major storylines involving fostering children, dealing with Roy’s suicidality, meeting the son she didn’t know she had, and, of course, her current battle with pancreatic cancer, which has led to a ‘right to die’ storyline that’s also dealing with taboos in our society.
There was never be 100 percnet acceptance for Hayley Cropper in Weatherfield, with comments from Blanche like: “I don’t care what you call yourself, I’ve never trusted a man who wears woman’s underwear”, and this is reflective of real life, but thanks to this amazing, groundbreaking character and portrayal, laws have been changed and acceptance and understanding of the humanity and dignity of trans people is at a higher level than ever was before.
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