Some thoughts on Ewan Forbes

By Os Keyes

Max recently pointed me to the story of Ewan Forbes, an early trans figure in Scotland, and the book about him that Zoë Playdon just published. Me being me, I immediately bought (and just as immediately read) the book. And, well, I have some questions about how it’s being interpreted, and what common interpretations are leaving out of the material.

Ewan’s Case

Ewan Forbes was a trans man in early 20th century Scotland, and the son of a relatively wealthy family - one with hereditary titles. Growing up, he was provided with early hormone replacement therapy, and in 1952, had his birth certificate corrected from ‘female’ to ‘male’. Doing so, the news story reports, was easy:

At the time, trans people could take hormones, have gender confirmation surgery, and then change their birth certificates. There were no panels of psychiatrists and endocrinologists, as we have today, deciding whether to grant you a gender recognition certificate, which since the 2004 Gender Recognition Act has provided certain legal protections. There was no need; you could simply change your birth certificate and therefore other necessary paperwork.

The problem was that title. In common with many in the United Kingdom, the Forbes titles could only be inherited by male relatives - and so a distant cousin put forward a case arguing that Ewan, well, wasn’t.

Ewan won - but his victory risked a crisis of certainty around inheritance (what if it turns out, potentially after the fact, that a female member of the family skipped over for succession is secretly male? Or the other way around?). The result was that the judiciary sealed the records. When the case came up during the trial of April Ashley, an early trans woman, her lawyers were forbidden from incorporating it into their arguments. And when Ashley lost, on the record, it:

set the legal precedent, blocking legal rights for trans people, preventing the correction of birth certificates, while the opposing precedent was suppressed. It would be decades before any rights were reinstated.

What this reveals, then, is that “trans people were able to enjoy equality – until it was quietly removed to protect male rights of succession”. Or as the newspaper author puts it on Twitter, it isn’t that trans people are arguing for rights we’ve never had, but that we’re arguing for rights we’d always had, at least until they were taken away in the Ashley case. Self-identification isn’t new, it’s very, very old.

Ewan’s Complexity

As mentioned, I’ve read the book - and it’s a really, really good read! My copy is festooned with highlights and sticky notes and things to look up in the future for my thesis. But at the same time, based on my read of it (and all of my other research in the area), the coverage and discussion of the Forbes case smooths out a lot of complexities in both self-identification and what we see as rights.

Self-identification, for anyone who doesn’t know, is essentially the idea that when it comes to changing things like gender markers, you are the authority. Instead of the traditional gatekept process discussed above (in which you have to show up with letters from psychiatrists and doctors and so on, and consequently, be subject to all the gatekeeping, mistreatment and power inequalities that commonly characterise trans interactions with medical figures), you show up with yourself. You make an application to the administrative body, they process it, you get your new ID. We have it in Washington State and it’s pretty nifty (I think. I’m still navigating the closed circle of paperwork to get it done). This is what a lot of activists are pushing for, against widespread transphobic pettifogging; this is what a lot of the coverage of Ewan has claimed was previously possible.

The problem, of course, is that it wasn’t. It’s simply wrong to say that “you could simply change your birth certificate and therefore other necessary paperwork”, as Zoë Playdon notes in the book itself. Forbes didn’t “simply change” anything; he had to bring letters from three doctors and have that evidence pushed through the registry office. If he had been in England and Wales, it would only have been one, but still - not self-identification. Kind of the opposite.

Ewan did just that, but there was a reason he managed to do so - he was a doctor. His three signatures were:

  1. His own assistant
  2. A lecturer from university
  3. A student from the year below him

And the letters he got were then handed off to Dr Sydney Smith, a family friend, who was also friends with the registrar, and spoke to him personally to get the paperwork adjusted. Family contacts and wealth played a similarly important role in his access to HRT, which at the time was quite literally the cutting edge of endocrinology - his mother took him on a tour of continental europe to find a research scientist who would hand it over.

In other words, Forbes’s story is about class in two senses; class expectations leading to the smothering of his case, but class opportunities enabling his transition. He went through exactly the process that iNews piece laid out; “take hormones, have gender confirmation surgery, and then change [his] birth certificate” - but he had the opportunity to do so only because his family was loaded, and he was personally a member of the medical profession. He spoke their language, saw them at parties, and knew how to articulate things to their liking.

None of this is meant to suggest that Playdon’s book isn’t phenomenal: it is, oh, it is! Nor is it to antfuck over precise dictionary definitions of self-identification. It is to say that Forbes’s story is an interesting and good one, but it isn’t the story of self-identification at all: it is the story of someone with financial, social and epistemic resources navigating a process of gatekeeping that would have been entirely inaccessible from the get-go for anyone without the background to know it even existed. In other words, it is the story of almost precisely the situation we have now.

Those resources, that class status, that education - none of this is irrelevant to the question of self-ID. To the contrary, self-ID is partly desired not only because of the fuckery of gatekeeping, but also because that fuckery is differentially distributed. Because people who don’t come from Ewan’s background still can’t make it through. And I worry not only that the coverage of his story is inaccurate, but also that the glossing-over of the advantages he had tells an overly simplified story of the future we desire, and why.

History can be a tremendous resource; it can expose us to roads not traveled and other universes; it can emphasise the contingency of the present and so let us imagine other futures. That, I think, is what the coverage here is trying to do - to recategorise self-ID from something novel and scary to something old and familiar, and therefore unthreatening. But history can also constrain us - it can lead to us simplifying and glossing over differences and contexts that are, as Avery Everhart has so beautifully documented, deeply important for anyone not already at the top of the heap. Indeed, those historical stories we can tell are already shaped by that; by whose diary, autobiography and family records were saved from the get-go.

So: to tell Ewan’s story is good. But to frame it, as the journalist responsible for all of the above has done, as “one of the most important pieces of investigative journalism ever written about transgender people”…well, that says more about investigative journalism than it does about trans people. Because to frame Forbes’s experience as what is desired around self-identification is to miss that Forbes’s experience - namely, the central and crucial role of structural power in enabling it - is what we’re trying to get away from.