A review of a fascinating book I have read through NetGalley today (and of course also a NonFiction November read), this covers a shocking 1960s legal case that was hushed up and suppressed, even though it continued to affect English and Scottish law for the next few decades.

Zoe Playdon – “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes”

(14 October 2021 – NetGalley)

Zoe Playdon is Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London and co-founded the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity with Dr Lynne Jones MP (my old MP!) in 1994. She worked for 30 years on the front line in LGBTI human rights, including working with Baroness Helena Kennedy QC; it was during her working life that she came across the case but only in her retirement that she had the time to research and present it. The book hinges on the case of Ewan Forbes, a Scottish member of the aristocracy who was born female but identified as male, lived a happy outdoor life, got his birth certificate changed in the 1950s, as you could then, and married and was practising happily as a doctor when a series of deaths in the family with no adjustment of wills meant that his cousin suddenly challenged him for his titles and land on the basis of him not being born male.

This turns out to be all to do with primogeniture, the arrangement by which only males could inherit titles and land – seen to have been changed by the Queen regarding Royal Succession, where now the oldest child whoever they are inherits. But at the time, it put the wind up the Establishment, as it seemed to show that gender was mutable and there was no such thing as a clear man or woman. So the case was not only found in favour of Ewan, but on a very narrow basis, but was then suppressed by what we’d call now a super-injunction, having a knock-on effect on the April Ashley case and between them making it then illegal to change the gender on a birth certificate.

I’m not a legal expert, but English and other UK law is based on precedent, and that precedent is recorded publicly. Here, precedent was based on a suppressed, invisible case which Playdon had to get dug out of the archives by the highest legal authorities in England. She then studied the case and Forbes’ life and has in this book placed it within the context of 20th and 21st century trans people’s lives and liberties. As Forbes didn’t name himself a trans man (he left a memoir which had a narrative of always being male) and there are few records about him, Playdon did have to fill in a few gaps with “he must have felt this” and “he must have felt that” which left me a little uncomfortable. But her work setting this within the context of the way trans people had to conform to medical narratives, the way the medical establishment in the UK and US (here, pathologised in order for psychiatrists to make money back from medical insurance, among other motivations) and abominable treatment of trans people in the law and society is impeccable, even exhaustive, following it back to then and right up to date with the moves forward in legal protection and the backlash from some trans-exclusionary radical feminists.

I was aware of quite a lot of this history from other books on trans history I’ve read recently (although I was not aware that the notorious Charing Cross Hospital gender identity clinic gatekeeper, John Randell, was a secret and guilt-harrowed cross-dresser), but it’s a good thing to have these narratives presented with different perspectives and focuses. The book also reminds us that a narrative of pushing for accoutrements of their correct gender from a very early age and the obsession with trans people having operations to correct their bodies are constructs, not truths, created by a medical profession that sought to control and gatekeep, often very much not in the best interests of trans people themselves.

Thank you to Bloomsbury Publishing for making this book available to read via NetGalley. “The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes” was published on 11 November 2021. It’s formed part of my NonFiction November reading.