Trans in 1970

You know you are the opposite sex. You know this is mad, and shameful, and no-one must know. You think you are the only one. But brave people are making paths, and transition is becoming possible. Government and society are tolerant if contemptuous. You can be you.

The case of Corbett v Corbett or Ashley decided in England that a trans woman, even after an operation, could not marry a man, and that decision stood until the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which had certain insulting restrictions. However, it says something about what it was like to be trans in 1970, when it was decided.

It wasn’t easy. First, you had to hear that other people were like this too. In her teens April Ashley had attempted suicide and been admitted to mental hospital, where she said she wanted to be a woman. In 1956, aged 21, she went to the south of France where she met and joined a troupe of female impersonators from the Carousel club, Paris. She was taking oestrogen.

In 1961 April was working as a model, until this was reported in the press. In 1962, the News of the World published a series of articles about her, telling her life story in considerable detail. Reporting was exploitative, but it was out there. Jan Morris’ book Conundrum was published in 1974. I found it unreadable, too close to my experience, and it was written to explain us to educated cis people rather than to ourselves, but it was there.

In 1961, April changed her name by deed poll, and obtained a passport in her female name. “The Ministry of National Insurance issued her with a woman’s insurance card, and now treat her as a woman for national insurance purposes.” The doctors had arranged this for several patients. The rules were different, based on the idea that women would marry and become housewives. There was a widow’s benefit but no equivalent for widowers. So the rules were inappropriate if you could not marry, but the thing was done.

In court, her husband’s barrister badgered her over whether she had had erections or ejaculated. The judge, contemptuously, records, “She simply refused to answer either question and wept a little”.

A lawyer in Gibraltar succeeded in getting a special licence for her to marry. So the High Court in London scotched that idea, but some officials would have given it a go.

There was a surgeon, Georges Burou, in Casablanca, who would perform the operation, and April had it in 1960. There were specialists in London who recommended it: Dr JB Randell, at the Charing Cross gender clinic, which had started in 1966, had recommended 35 patients for surgery. Patients had to sign a consent form saying “I understand it will not alter my male sex and that it is being done to prevent deterioration in my mental health”.

Arthur Corbett pressed her to marry, though she knew this was a mistake. Arthur was unhappily married, and had cross-dressed from 1948. They rarely dressed, saying “I didn’t like what I saw. You want the fantasy to appear right. It utterly failed to appear right in my eyes.” A man who had had an amputation told me those turned on by this didn’t last, as they wanted the amputation themselves. So Arthur pressed her to marry, but though April had had sex with others, Arthur could not go through with it. “On several occasions he succeeded in penetrating her fully, but immediately gave up, saying ’I can’t, I can’t’ and withdrew without ejaculation, and burst into tears.” She left Arthur, saying the years since they met had been the worst of her life.

I am not using pronouns for Arthur. I am pretty sure she was trans, and born fifty years later would have transitioned. She felt that, looking like she did, it would have been impossible. While the judge, and probably the psychiatrists, made a rigorous distinction then between “transsexuals” and “transvestites”, the difference is what you see as possible, rather than your true nature.

Lawyers soon began arguing that the Sex Discrimination Act 1970 made it illegal to discriminate against transsexuals.

Transition was even harder than now, but there were pathways, and official recognition, and exceptionally courageous individuals could do it, and make a life.

2 thoughts on “Trans in 1970

  1. “…Government and society are tolerant if contemptuous…”

    If feel there’s a vocal minority who wish those dark days to return. But, despite their venom and, frankly, lies, I am hopeful that as each generation comes along, acceptance and the normality of it all grows.

    I wonder if, when perhaps our children are parents, will they look back at today’s bellyaching of the few bigots and will it seem as alien and as sad as we look to the 70s?

    Like

    • Yesterday’s video from Nicola Sturgeon appears to give evidence for that. She says that young people are leaving the SNP because of the extreme transphobia of members including Joanna Cherry MP, who is the party’s Westminster spokesperson on the Home Office and Justice departments, both England-only departments. Under her tweet is a roiling cesspit of hate and abuse.

      Liked by 1 person

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