In 2003, Rebecca Root was delighted to win a part in Casualty. She would play a transgender woman who longed to have a child with her male partner, and Louise Brealey – now famous as Molly in Sherlock but then best known as Casualty’s Roxy – would be their surrogate mother.
Two of the four episodes in which the plot line would run had been filmed when Root got the call. Her part was being scrapped: the story was rewritten to feature not a transgender character but an infertile woman. Casualty executives were very sorry but offered no explanation.
“I was devastated,” Root, who will be appearing at the Radio Times Festival to discuss transgender people in television, recalls. “I’d hoped it would be my breakthrough. The producers promised they’d make it up to me. Well, I’m still waiting!”
As we discuss her new sitcom, Boy Meets Girl, about a relationship between Judy, a 40-year-old trans woman and Leo, a younger man (played by Harry Hepple of Misfits), Root is tentative. The six-part series is in the can; the first episode is warm, acutely observed, touching and funny and yet she can barely trust it will happen.
“Fingers crossed,” she keeps adding nervously, as if expecting this success to be snatched away too. This is a groundbreaking age for transgender people. American actor Laverne Cox is the celebrated US star of Orange Is the New Black; Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner emerged in glory on the cover of Vanity Fair as Caitlyn; there’s even been a trans girl character in Hollyoaks.
But nothing could challenge Britain’s preconceptions better than a BBC2 primetime sitcom with the first line: “I need to tell you something; I was born with a penis.”
Before we speak, I watch Root at the photoshoot; she is initially uneasy about wearing dresses selected by the stylist. When she first transitioned as a woman, she says, she’d looked forward to buying skirts and pretty tops, “but I had some rather unpleasant experiences, nasty comments. I just thought I’m going to protect myself and wear jeans and that kind of stuck.”
The ever-present threat of humiliation and rejection is a mighty transgender burden. Root, 46, has carried it all her life. She was born Graham, but even as a child knew, “there was something inherently wrong with my physical attributes as they were”.
Her parents – her father worked in a bank, her mother was a university administrator – were perplexed: they wouldn’t let her wear female clothes to school, but let her sometimes dress up at home. When she was 11, the family moved from more diverse, urban Woking to the Cotswolds, where “I really, really stuck out like a sore thumb – it was awful, absolutely awful. I hated it. I was very awkward socially, I didn’t know how to make friends, I just felt very isolated.”
At school she was picked on – most people assumed she was a gay male – and then puberty hit and she was furious with her body’s unwanted changes: “I went off the rails, started drinking a lot.” She wishes the hormone treatment now prescribed to gender-confused teens – which stalls secondary sexual characteristics – was available for her.
“People say, ‘Oh, it’s too young to change their bodies.’ Well, the fact is, they’re just blockers and if you come off them, the body then catches up and you have just delayed adolescence in your natal gender. But if you decide to complete the transition then you’ve got a head start – for example, young transgender women won’t have the bone density that testosterone gives you, so it’s brilliant.”