Hayley Cropper is one of Coronation Street’s greatest characters and the love story between her and Roy has to be the sweetest in Corrie history. As soon as Julie Hesmondhalgh announced her decision to leave, it was obvious there was only one way that Hayley and Roy could be parted.
Hayley’s exit storyline was scripted and acted beautifully. It was heartbreaking but we will never forget magical moments such as the foxtrot the Croppers took around an empty Empress Ballroom on their last trip together to Blackpool.
Hayley’s very last scenes were moving, and of course, controversial. While pondering the implications of a right to die storyline, I reflected upon Hayley’s legacy as a soap character who had, throughout her lifetime, brought important issues to the attention of television viewers.
Despite Manchester having a thriving gay scene, no lesbian, gay, or bisexual character had made it to Coronation Street until the early part of the 21st Century. With Hayley Patterson arriving in Weatherfield in 1998, the first LGBT character in Coronation Street was trans.
In the mid to late nineties, popular culture and politics enjoyed a symbiotic relationship in Britain against a backdrop of national optimism. Remember Noel Gallagher sipping champagne at Number 10 and the Prime Minister publicly campaigning to Free The Weatherfield One? It was a heady time but I didn’t spend the decade smoking Spider Nugent’s “herbal cigarettes” – I promise you – it actually happened.
But if ever there was a fictional character to have genuinely influenced national debate, that character was Hayley Cropper. Hayley was the nation’s first transgender soap character. The portrayal wasn’t popular with the trans community at first but Corrie soon appointed a consultant to advise on storylines and Hayley Cropper is now listed by LGBTHistory Month as one of the most important people in LGBT history - pretty impressive for a fictional figure.
Hayley was even the subject of an Early Day Motion in the House of Commons, tabled in 1998 by Lynne Jones. The motion congratulated “the scriptwriters, actors and producers of Coronation Street for their sensitive and realistic portrayal of Hayley” and called on the Government to “guarantee transsexual people full civil rights, including the right to correct birth certificates and enter into marriage, so that Hayley and Roy will, like any other couple, be entitled to make a state-recognised, lifelong commitment to one another if they so wish.”
In 1998, when Roy and Hayley returned to Weatherfield from Amsterdam (the transition from Harold to Hayley now complete), it was not possible for them to marry under UK law. When they did have a ceremony a year later, it was not officially recognised.
In fact, at the time, Hayley was prevented from changing her birth certificate, her passport or even her tax credentials to be registered as Hayley Cropper. These practical difficulties were all fed into storylines; Hayley was stopped by immigration officials when returning from Amsterdam with a “man’s passport” and Underworld boss Mike Baldwin eventually found out why Hayley’s payslips were made out to Harold Patterson.
Word soon got round and Hayley and Roy had to contend with the bigots (Les Battersby) and the bullies (Tracy Barlow). But for every Les Battersby, there were many more Weatherfield residents who accepted Hayley for who she was – a kind and decent neighbour, colleague and friend. It didn’t matter to those who knew Hayley what gender she was when she was born.
Viewers felt the same and Hayley soon became a fans’ favourite. People supported the right of Roy and Hayley to be legally pronounced man and wife. Some even wrote to their MPs about it. If it weren’t for Hayley Cropper, many wouldn’t have been aware of the issues faced by transgender people on a daily basis before the Gender Recognition Act came into force in 2004.
As a result of this Act, transgender people like Hayley could, for the first time, gain legal recognition in their acquired gender. Hayley could finally have her union to Roy recognised in law when they married again in 2010.
It is not too far-fetched to argue that Hayley Cropper contributed to the change in law. Soon after Roy and Hayley’s first wedding, the Government established a Parliamentary Working Group to look at how trans people could be granted legal rights. It was this process that led to the Gender Recognition Act. Coronation Street brought trans issues into the mainstream and public support for Hayley helped get legal rights for transgender people debated in Parliament and onto the statute book.
On the day before her funeral was broadcast, Hayley was mentioned in Parliament again. Hugh Bayley MP said: “This week, when Hayley Cropper’s funeral takes place on “Coronation Street”, would it not be a good time for the Government to announce that they are taking further steps to reinforce and implement their transgender plan of action”.
The storyline in which Hayley Cropper left the Cobbles behind is another issue for another time, but given that The Sun commissioned a poll on assisted suicide in the week before her death, Hayley may continue to shape the national debate for some time to come.
Hayley Cropper will be missed but not forgotten and this is why she will always be more than just a character in a soap.By Martin Leay
Follow the Bluenose CorrieBlog on Twitter and Facebook