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. He had cross-dressed from 1948. He was married, unhappily. He 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, he could not. “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 him, saying the years since she met him had been the worst of her life.
While the judge, and probably the psychiatrists, made a rigorous distinction then between “transsexuals” and “transvestites”, I feel that Arthur Corbett, if he were alive today, might transition. 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.