A Little Trans History

Recently BBC4 showed a history documentary called “Spitfire Women”. It is all about the women pilots who flew for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) during WWII. They were not allowed to fly combat missions, but equally men could not be spared to move planes about the country (specifically from factories to airfields). Women who could fly, including Amy Johnson, persuaded the government to let them help the war effort by getting this job done. Eventually they got to fly Hurricanes and Spitfires.

I was planning to watch this at some point because it sounded like an awesome piece of feminism. There’s no reason why women can’t fly fun aircraft. A Spitfire is even more fun than a pony. Also a bunch of 80-something women talking about being hell raiser pilots in WWII was guaranteed to be fun (and a perfect appetizer for episode 1 of Agent Carter). But then I got email from Juliet McKenna alerting me to the fact that one of these women was actually a man.

Jonathan Ferguson was born in Lurgan in Northern Ireland in 1915. He was assigned female at birth, and named “Irene Joy” by his parents. By the time he got into the ATA he was already open about his gender identity. Judging from the photos here, there were a few lesbians in the service as well as a few girls who enjoyed their sex symbol status. Jonathan apparently didn’t stand out too much, and the one woman who talked about him sounded very supportive.

Jonathan stayed in the RAF after the war, but must have eventually moved to a desk job because when he transitioned socially in 1958 he was described as a government scientist. I haven’t yet found much news about him online, but the story did make the Palm Beach Post, which wryly noted that Jonathan got a pay rise simply for announcing that he was a man, because men got paid more than women in the Civil Service.

When I get time I intend to follow the story up and see if I can find out more. According to the program, Jonathan has died. I’m wondering whether he got to meet Roberta Cowell, because she flew Spitfires in combat (and ended up a PoW). Not that it would be been much fun for him, if her treatment of Michael Dillon is anything to go by, but maybe their shared love of planes would have helped bridge the gap. If anyone out there knows anything about Ferguson, please get in touch.

2 thoughts on “A Little Trans History

  1. There’s a book too on this subject, Spitfire Women of WW2. I used to have a copy, but I don’t think I shipped it, so there is at least one remaining somewhere adrift in the UK… (Actually, there are v cheap paperbacks on Amazon, I note.) I don’t know if Jonathan made it into the book; it’s one of those I bought for interest/research and then never actually, y’know, read. (Nearly did; I thought it might be useful for House of Doors, but in the end, apparently not.)

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