Why my daughters can at last be our bridesmaids

Originally appeared in Transgender Tapestry #102, Summer 2003.

After more than three decades of governmental hostility towards British transsexuals, there?s good news. Recent decisions by the European Court of Human Rights have forced the U.K. government to grant certain rights to transsexuals. The battle is far from over, but things are at long last looking up. This is primarly due to the efforts of the pressure group (i.e., lobbying organization) Press for Change, of which Stephen Whittle is a principal. ?Ed.

Why My Daughters Can at Last be Our Bridesmaids

by Stephen Whittle

The decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the ?transsexual? case of Goodwin & I versus the U.K. government is not before time. It has been 33 years since L.J. Ormrod, in Corbett v Corbett (1970), effectively took away the mechanisms that existed for transsexual people in the United Kingdom to have their birth certificates amended to reflect their new gender, and which, for all practical effect, enabled them to marry. When Ormrod decided that transsexual woman April Ashley?s marriage was void, his ruling
condemned transsexual people to be always of the sex that had been written down on their birth certificates. This was to sentence them to a life of secrets, constant fear, and an embarrassing position in law that left them unable to safeguard their partners and families financially and socially.

The decision in Goodwin marks the end of a long battle to reverse Ormrod?s decision. Transsexual man Mark Rees made the first application to the ECHR in 1979. Mark?s case was to be the first of five to be brought by transsexual people over the last 23 years. At the time, Rees said, ?There are others waiting in the wings...they will carry on the fight??as indeed they have done. The ECHR cases have been accompanied by a series of legal applications made here in Britain and the European Court of Justice. Although far more cases have been lost by transsexual people than won, the wins have been significant, ensuring job protection (P v S and Cornwall County Council [ECJ 1996]) and access to gender reassignment
treatment on the National Health Service (A, D, & G v NW Lancashire Area Health Authority, [CA, 1999]).

The Goodwin & I decision at the ECHR will make a significant difference in the daily lives of transsexual people. Transsexual people can now rely on the principle that they are afforded privacy rights under the convention, and if those rights are compromised, for example, if they apply for a job or a student loan where their birth certificate has to be shown, they can bring a claim under the Human Rights Act and claim damages. Similarly, they can now get married and argue that they have not committed perjury by declaring themselves to be of their new gender. The marriages may still be open to question as to their validity, but if a couple separate and seek a divorce or if a pension company refuses to pass on benefits on death on the basis that the marriage is void, then the transsexual person and partner can rely on the Goodwin decision. Older transsexual women facing retirement should now be able to claim their state pension. In fact, the Inland Revenue have recently used their discretionary powers to award pension rights at 60 to a transsexual woman who was born in New Zealand, as she had been able to change her birth certificate to reflect her new gender. Several transsexual women who were forced to give up work at the age of 60 or face disclosure of their past, yet who received only social security benefits rather than a pension, could also now make a claim for the lost income and hurt they suffered. In families like ours, where a transsexual man has been refused permission to register as the father of their partner?s children by donor insemination, the couple could now marry and jointly adopt the children. Those starting families in the future should be able to register as the father of the child.

The decision in Goodwin is not, however, the culmination of the campaign?though it could be said to be the beginning of the end. The bureaucratic mess will continue until the law is clarified to ensure that transsexual people in the U.K. can have their birth certificates amended to reflect a change of sex, and that the change is valid for all legal purposes. Without that, the courts may not regard a new birth certificate as final, leaving the sex of transsexual people open to further challenge. This has already happened in the U.S., where some transsexual people have found new birth certificates were not recognised in court. This should not be too difficult in the U.K., though. The transsexual lobby group Press for Change has drawn up detailed proposals for legislation, which would draw on the best aspects of legislation from other countries. The ECHR?s decision means that it is now time for the government to make a clear commitment to legislate for change. The government?s Interdepartmental Working Group on transsexual people would do well to make sure they use the transsexual community?s expertise, ensuring that the sort ofhalf-cocked legal mess that exists in the U.S. is not re-created in the U.K.

Transsexual people in the U.K. have proven themselves to be capable of great staying power, personal bravery, and organisation in this fight. In the last 10 years, they have created a climate in which legal change in these areas was bound to come. In the meantime, as a transsexual man in an unmarried, yet very successful relationship of 24 years, I have to debate whether to risk it all by getting married to her. Perhaps marriage would lead to an early divorce. Yet, it would provide pension benefits to my partner, and it would provide security to our children. Maybe, in order not to tempt fate, we should just sneak off to the registry office with a couple of strangers from the street. But I think our three daughters would kill us; they are desperate to be bridesmaids.

Steven can be reached by email at st.whittle@mmu.ac.uk or by phone at his office in the U.K. at 0161 247 6444.