Actor, campaigner and Patron of Humanists UK
“‘Living a good life without religion’: there are many, many people out there who want to live a full, meaningful and moral life without the mumbo-jumbo. And the wars. And the systematic oppression of women and children and gay people…”
Born in Accrington, Lancashire in 1970, Julie Hesmondhalgh wanted to be a social worker before she got bitten by the acting bug and auditioned for London drama college LAMDA. After she graduated in 1991, Julie set up a theatre company and worked on and off on TV in programmes like “The Bill”. Unable to get much paid acting work, she also supported herself as a cleaner, but in 1998 she joined the cast of ITV’s long-running soap “Coronation Street” as transsexual Haley Cropper, a role which has brought her controversy as well as fame.
Julie’s strong social conscience has involved her in using her fame and popularity to support many charities and good causes as well as Humanists UK. She is a vice president of DebRA, the national charity working on behalf of people with the genetic skin blistering condition Epidermolysis Bullosa, and a patron of The Albert Kennedy Trust, a charity providing foster care and supported lodgings services to lesbian, gay and bisexual youth. In 2004 she helped the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) to launch its Open4All Campaign to promote disabled access, commenting: “It’s great to hammer home the DRC’s Open4All campaign message and Hayley’s doing her bit to knock down barriers in her café…” She was a patron of Exodus Onstage Refugee Theatre Season in 2006, saying “Theatre has always played its part in creating a voice for the unheard, telling the stories we have little access to and encouraging informed debate. I’m really proud to be supporting the Exodus Onstage Refugee Theatre Season; dedicated to cutting through the lies and myths around asylum issues and bringing cutting edge theatre to the people of the North West.”
Her many activities on behalf of the marginalised and her opposition to fascism led to her being targeted in an intimidation campaign by far-right groups. Speaking at the launch of Unite Against Fascism, a coalition aimed at stopping the BNP from winning seats in council and European elections, she said: “It’s a bit of intimidation. I’ve been getting offensive stuff and letters. The worst things are always anonymous… I would rather stay at home, but I feel I have a responsibility. I have just got to carry on…”
Julie helped to bring Humanism to people who were unlikely to hear of Humanism otherwise when she spread the message to festival goers at a very muddy Glastonbury in July 2007. She reported:
We couldn’t have wished for a more perfect setting in which to spread the humanist message to the masses, with every possible variation of human being there, all living life to the fullest, helping each other out in the mud, smiling through the well-if-hell-existed-it-would-have-better-toilets-than-this communal experience, and standing for hours in handy easy-to-leaflet shower queues, practically crying out for life-changing reading material! We were quite overwhelmed at the response. After nervously testing the waters on the first morning, we dared to spread beyond the comfort zone of our well-to-do camper-van field after a heartening response from our neighbours who had never heard of Humanists UK but for whom our fantastic leaflet struck a chord: ‘This is exactly what we believe!’ came the cry, one of the many moments that made the whole thing worthwhile. I found that people reluctant to take reading matter from bedraggled mad looking northerners in wellies were quickly ensnared by my off-the-cuff ‘Humanism in a nutshell’ slogan, which I proudly bequeath to you now, BHA, at no cost: ‘British Humanist Association – living a good life without religion’, reinforcing what we all suspected: that there are many, many people out there who want to live a full, meaningful and moral life without the mumbo-jumbo. And the wars. And the systematic oppression of women and children and gay people. And so on. Glastonbury was like a microcosm of a world I’d like to live in (albeit with better bogs), a lot to do with joy and culture and making the world a better place – and it was the ideal place to promote Humanists UK.