A right to be Mr and Mrs

July 19, 2002

The European Court of Human Rights has just ruled that a British transsexual can marry. Adam James spoke to Stephen Whittle, the lecturer fighting for UK transsexual rights

Transsexual people have good reason to sense that a momentous watershed in their lives is not far away. Last week, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the UK had discriminated against Christine Goodwin, formerly a male bus driver. By failing to recognise her new identity, it stated UK law had breached her rights to privacy and marriage.

Britain is one of only four European countries that does not allow transsexuals, or trans-people as they prefer to be called, to change their birth certificates.

The ruling will have implications for a forthcoming House of Lords case when Elizabeth Bellinger, a 55-year-old transsexual, appeals against a High Court decision that her 20-year marriage is invalid because her birth certificate states she is male.

It will also be top of the agenda of the government's interdepartmental working group on trans-people, which it decided to reconvene last month precisely to work out ways of allowing trans-people's birth certificates to be changed.

Among those who are cautiously optimistic about the latest turn of events is Stephen Whittle, reader in law at Manchester Metropolitan University.

Over the past decade, Whittle, himself a female-to-male trans, has been a workhorse for the rights of trans-people in their battle against victimisation.

He has provided the behind-the-scenes legal expertise that has helped trans-people win dozens of discrimination cases in the courts.

In the process, Whittle, now advising Bellinger's lawyers and a key adviser on the government's working group on transsexual people, has helped trans-people have a strong political and collective voice.

Largely due to campaigning group Press for Change, which Whittle helped found in 1992, many trans-people are now out and proud.

In April, for example, their protest outside a Royal College of Psychiatrists meeting led to the shelving of proposed new guidelines that trans-people should behave in their new gender role for up to eight years before being given "gender reassignment" surgery.

Whittle's book, Respect and Equality: Transsexual and Transgender Rights , due out in September, will re-examine the advice he has given in the dozens of high-profile discrimination cases he has taken part in.

It will also be testimony to the private and professional battles he himself has had to win to get this far.

Twenty-five years ago Whittle was a stocky 19-year-old "lesbian" working for an insurance company.

He was eager to work in a university because of academia's reputation for the kind of tolerance that he believed would enable him to go through the gender transition process without losing his job.

In fact, Whittle admits he lied about his work experience and qualifications to get a laboratory assistant job at Manchester Metropolitan University's metallurgy department.

When he confided to his laboratory supervisor, Ray Peters, that he wanted to undergo hormonal treatment, Peters made sure all Whittle's work colleagues would accept his new name and identity.

Whittle remembers: "Ray made other people feel that it was OK for me to be trans. I remember the head of department calling Ray and I into his office and suggesting I look for another job.

"Ray just said this would not happen. He put himself out to give me back my life. I was very close to killing myself at the time. Back then it was extremely difficult to get any kind of treatment, particularly for male-to-female transitioning. The whole system was designed to stop me from doing it, and the whole thing had become a mental and physical toil. So I feel I have a tremendous debt to pay back to Ray."

When Whittle later embarked on a geography degree at Sussex University, he kept his previous identity as a woman secret until an alert dean spotted he had put "Withington GS" on his CV as being his secondary school.

He had been a pupil at Withington Girls School in Manchester; and had gambled that "Withington GS" would be understood as Withington Grammar School.

To Whittle's dismay the dean was himself from Manchester, and the embarrassed student had to explain the anomaly.

When word got around the campus that Whittle was trans, the slurs followed.

"When passing me in the corridor, one member of staff would make jokes about people coming from Middlesex," recalls Whittle.

After Whittle graduated, he returned to Manchester and took on a number of jobs, including one working in a skill-sharing project for unemployed people.

Not long after, he was unceremoniously sacked when the group's coordinator learnt of his past.

"We could not possibly have someone like you here," were the words with which Whittle was shown the door.

This was Whittle's first taste of workplace discrimination, something many trans-people are familiar with. He also got bricks through the window of his home.

Determined to address the injustices he and others were experiencing, he embarked on a part-time self-financed law degree.

"I had become aware that the legal issues surrounding my life were complex, yet so fundamentally unjust. Other people could seem to throw my life away," Whittle says.

He thrived in the academic environment and went on to apply to study a PhD on transsexuals and the law.

Remembering his first meeting with his supervisor, Whittle says: "He agreed with me that the topic was interesting but suggested it would be impossible to do because I would never get to meet transsexual people.

"So I thought I might as well blurt it to him that I was one!"

After completing his PhD, Whittle worked for the Open University and did part-time teaching before landing a full-time lectureship. He has never looked back.

He has since authored or co-authored five books on trans issues since 1994, plus 16 book chapters, conference papers and journal articles.

Not only has he carved a name as the UK's leading authority on transsexuality and the law, his passionate commitment to his work has ensured support and respect from colleagues.

This was particularly important in 1997 when Whittle had his biggest personal struggle against bigotry.

Some of his neighbours were trying to evict him and his family from the neighbourhood and had organised a "public meeting" in a pub to discuss how to get rid of them.

But Whittle's university colleagues were among the dozens of other supportive neighbours and activists who turned up at the pub, together with a television reporter.

It proved a force large enough to scatter the bigots.

"The whole incident made me incredibly upset," Whittle recalls.

"But it was nice that staff turned up to support me. A couple of them had also brought along students from their part-time evening class. The very fact that my colleagues and neighbours were prepared to stand up for me was quite amazing."

Because Whittle has been unable to change his birth certificate, it means he has been unable to marry Sarah Rutherford, his partner of 21 years. His four children, conceived by artificial insemination, are therefore officially fatherless.

All the more reason for Whittle to await with anticipation the government's next moves on the birth certificate issue.

But despite the discrimination he has faced, he is positive about his experiences: "Coming out as trans was the best thing I have ever done. Being trans has been a privilege because I have met wonderful people and have done wonderful things. And I have also been at the forefront of a new political movement that has really challenged the issue of body fascism.

"If we can win the one about trans bodies, then we can win on all the other battlegrounds surrounding the body - whether it is to do with being fat or thin, able or disabled, black or brown, male or female."

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