Corrie’s iconic 90s trans character Hayley was much-loved – she’d likely face ‘toxic uproar’ today

Hayley Cropper, wearing a red coat with short dark hair

On 10 April 2024, an X/Twitter user called Diana (@Nevererdofher) tweeted a picture of transgender Coronation Street character Hayley Cropper, played by Julie Hesmondhalgh, alongside a caption that read:

“Remember that time Corrie had a trans character and it caused such a stir people refused to call her a woman, boycotted the programme and the whole country was in a toxic uproar about it. No me either. Simpler times.”

The tweet went viral; it racked up over 1000 retweets and was viewed almost a million times.

Diana was making an important point about the seismic shift in the way trans people, and trans characters like Hayley Cropper, have been spoken about in the media and online over the last quarter of a century.

Although transgender representation on screen was a relative rarity in the 1990s, it also didn’t have the same toxicity associated with it than it does today.

Without social media sites like X (which has become increasingly unsafe for transgender people) to create an online furore, most instances of trans people on screen passed without too much comment.

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Hayley Cropper first graced UK screens in a Coronation Street episode broadcast on 26 January 1998. She was the first trans character to ever appear in a British soap opera and was the first permanent transgender character in the world of serialised drama as well. She married long-running character Roy Cropper in 1999.

Her storylines also highlighted the transphobia that transgender people faced on a daily basis, with hard-headed character Les Battersby regularly referring to Hayley as a “freak” and “a man.”

Hayley Cropper remains a much-loved Coronation Street character. The Coronation Street subreddit recently hosted a thread where people discussed their fondness for Hayley.

“Lovely character, I always liked her. Definitely the love of Roy’s life as well,” posted one user. Another added, “I think she was one of the best written characters Corrie has ever done, her relationship with Roy really reminded me of popping into your mum and dads for a cuppa weirdly.”

Coronation Street character Hayley Cropper
Coronation Street character Hayley (Julie Hesmondhalgh) reveals to Roy Cropper (David Neilson) that she is trans. (YouTube/Coronation Street)

This contrasts with the reception transgender characters have received in recent years. In 2022, transgender Disney Channel actor Juliana Joel joined the cast of hit comedy Raven’s Home, playing a trans character.

When news first broke of her casting, Joel says she remembered seeing a conservative news headline, which said: “Disney’s newest degenerate, Juliana Joel.”

“[There were] all these parents saying: ‘Oh, I’m cancelling Disney, they’re trying to groom our kids,’” Joel said. “What do you think I am going to do on the show? Do you think I am going to get up there and teach kids how to inject hormones? No!”

In 2023, there was a similar “toxic uproar” about a transgender character being added to hit BBC sci-fi show Doctor Who. A new episode, “The Star Beast”, saw fan-favourite duo David Tennant and Catherine Tate reprise their roles as the Doctor and Donna Noble.

Crucially, the cast also featured Heartstopper star Yasmin Finney as Donna’s daughter Rose Noble, with her identity as a trans woman front and centre throughout the episode. The backlash was instant and intense, with anti-trans X accounts sharing their most vitriolic thoughts under the hashtag #RIPDoctorWho.

In contrast, when Hayley Cropper was introduced in 1998, the main backlash was from charities (some of which Julie Hesmondhalgh is now a patron of) who felt the role should have gone to a transgender actor.

On that note: it’s likely that the fact that the character was portrayed by a cisgender actor did mitigate the backlash that Hayley Cropper faced: with Hesmondhalgh saying in a 2020 interview that she worried a transgender actor would have been “eaten alive” by the press at the time.

Would Julie Hesmondhalgh have taken the role if it was offered now?

Coronation Street Julie Hesmondhalgh Hayley Cropper trans
Julie Hesmondhalgh who played trans woman Hayley Cropper on Coronation Street (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty)

No: but only because of the criticism about the fact a cisgender woman was cast in a trans role.

Julie Hesmondhalgh has said that she would not take the role today because she is cisgender, and feels it would be more appropriate to cast a trans actress.

Hesmondhalgh played Hayley for almost 16 years on the soap. In 2020, she said she hopes she wouldn’t be offered another trans role – and said she would turn it down if she was given the chance today.

“I would hope that it wouldn’t be offered to me as a cis woman,” Hesmondhalgh told The Guardian.

“I definitely wouldn’t take it. I left Corrie because it was time for me to go personally, but it was also time for Hayley – a trans woman played by a cis woman – to go, too.”

She continued: “I was about to become an absolute anachronism, because there were then trans actors to play those parts, and even more now.”

Julie vowed to play trans character Hayley Cropper with ‘sensitivity and empathy’

The actress also revealed that she faced backlash from a trans rights organisation at the time for taking on the role as a cis woman.

“There was a really great trans rights group, Press for Change, who were really, really pissed off – and I totally understood why,” Hesmondhalgh said.

“I met them and said: ‘I hear you, but honestly I think the pressure on a trans actor – who definitely would have had a certain amount of vulnerability anyway – would have been unbearable.’

“So I assured them that I was their ally, that I would play the part with as much sensitivity and empathy as I could, that I would listen to them. And, honestly, I think I did a decent job.”

She said her Coronation Street character helped change attitudes

Hesmondhalgh also spoke of the “power” of playing Hayley Cropper, saying “within weeks” of her debut on Coronation Street, attitudes started to change.

“I knew then that something was shifting,” she said.

“If you want to fight prejudice, you put somebody likeable in the living room and people can see beyond what makes them different to what makes them the same.”