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23 September 2018

On Reading Christine Burns. Part III


Part I: Introduction
Part II: 1950-1980
Part III: 1980-2004



1980-2004: A Question of Human Rights

  • Christine Burns.  “A Question of Human Rights”. “The Social Challenge”.  In Christine Burns (ed) Trans Britain: Our Journey from the Shadows.  Unbound, 2018: 119-134, 249-261.
Burns emphasises the division between transvestite and transsexual interests in the 1980s.   She spends 1.3 pages on the Self Help Association for Transsexuals (SHAFT) (half of that an image of the SHAFT newsletter).   Twice she stresses her dislike of the acronym (and it is true that Judy Cousins, the founder, was notably insensitive to other meanings of the word), but tells us nothing of what the group achieved.   It did bring together Judy, Rachael Webb the future Lambeth Councillor,  Brenda Lana Smith, Stephen Whittle, Alice Purnell and academic Richard Ekins.   Donations from SHAFT members established the Ulster Trans-Gender archive.  

There were two major books on English trans persons published at this time.   

  • Duncan Fallowell & April Ashley. April Ashley's Odyssey.  J. Cape, 1982.
  • Liz Hodgkinson.  Bodyshock: The truth about changing sex.  Columbus Books, 1987. 
The first is great fun and of historical importance.   However, cavorting with the rich and famous in France and Spain is not going to happen to most trans women.

Trans Britain mentions Hodgkinson’s biography of Michael Dillon, Michael née Laura, 1989, but not her earlier book, Bodyshock, which features Judy Cousins, Rachael Webb (lorry driver and the first elected trans person in Britain), Michael Dillon, Mark Rees, Adèle Anderson and Stephanie Anne Booth.  Yes the book largely focused on SHAFT, in a similar way to which Men in Frocks had focused on the London TV/TS Group. 

Later, Richard Ekins spent much time with Beaumont Society members and produced Male Femaling, 1997.  He and Dave King also edited an anthology Blending Genders, 1996.  The later was influential and much cited.   However Burns mentions neither book, and Ekins not at all.  
Burns lists the steps preceding the formation of Press for Change (PFC) in 1992 which led to the passing of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) in 2004.   She mentions several of the English people who appealed to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) especially Mark Rees, Caroline Cossey, Rachel Horsham.   I would have mentioned the international aspect as trans persons in Belgium, France, Switzerland, Portugal etc made similar appeals against the laws of their own countries, all of which contributed to the ECHR finally ruling in our favour. 

Around the turn of the century there were apparently a few unpublicised cases, mainly of trans women in the military and intelligence who were recognised as female, even without divorcing their wives.  This was to stop these persons appealing to the ECHR, and it was insisted that they were one-off exemptions and did not set a precedent.   Petra Henderson, the best known of these cases, says that PFC did know of these cases and used them in negotiating for the GRA.  However, both here and in her two Pressing Matters books, Burns says nothing of this.  This is therefore another area of trans history that is badly documented.

She says nothing of the bureaucracy that came out of the Gender Recognition Act, the Gender Recognition Panel, located in Leicester.  I was very put off by their paternalistic attitude and almost gave up my application.    The man I dealt with seemed to have no feeling for what transsexuality is, and I had to explain to him that it is neither criminal nor shameful.    I would have liked a discussion about any many trans persons were employed by the panel, especially in the more senior roles.   Was the number greater than zero?   Why is this information not in the book?

On p249, Burns summarises what had happened prior to Press for Change: “we have seen how trans people began to form a community among themselves about fifty years ago, with the founding of the Beaumont Society in 1966.  Many contributors have referenced the legal case (Corbett v Corbett) which stripped away key rights for transsexual people shortly after that in 1970, and we’ve seen how it took over twenty years before a legal and political campaign emerged in 1992”.   

This can act as a statement of how Burns and I see English trans history quite differently.    

Burns keeps over-emphasising what the Beaumont Society achieved and minimises what the other groups achieved.  Some of the groups, the Gay Liberation Front Transvestite, Transsexual and Drag Queen Group,  those run by Charlotte Bach and Della Aleksander, the TAO are not mentioned at all; SHAFT is dismissed simply with slurs about its name; and Yvonne Sinclair the leader of the London TV/TS Group is dismissed as ‘opinionated’ – almost all the leaders of trans groups in that period were opinionated - perhaps necessarily, but only Yvonne only is so put down.

Likewise with earlier histories of English trans people.   Men in Frocks is dismissed as “primarily concerned with the London drag scene”, when it is so much more than that.   Hodgkinson’s Bodyshock is not even mentioned, nor are the Richard Ekins books.   Come to that, nor is this encyclopaedia - which would have corrected some of Burn's errors if she had consulted it. 








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