Bibliophile | ‘The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes’ by Zoe Playdon

The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes
by Zoe Playdon
Bloomsbury Publishing

Zoe Playdon was with a group of lawyers working for trans equality in the UK in 1996 when her research revealed that trans people had been able to alter their birth certificates in the past without any problems. This had changed in the late 1960s and “trans people’s basic civil liberties disappeared along with it”.

No one seemed to know exactly what had happened as there had been no debate in parliament and no new statutes or regulations. But without a valid birth certificate, trans people could not get employment, could not marry or adopt and if they couldn’t pay their parking fines, they would be sent to the wrong sex prison where raping trans women was common and not classed as rape.

Then Playdon came across reference to a case that had resulted in stopping all birth certificate corrections for trans people. The catch was that all traces of this case had been removed from the public eye and everyone who knew about it was sworn to secrecy. Given that UK law works on ‘the doctrine of precedent’, where judgement in a legal case binds all subsequent similar cases, the deliberate concealment was deeply troubling as it resulted in trans people being stripped of their rights.

As a University of London professor, Playdon had access to research libraries and decided to lead an enquiry. It came as no surprise that the case involved the male-line primogeniture law that says certain aristocratic titles and lands can only be inherited by the male heir. Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar in Scotland, who had been “carelessly registered as a girl” in 1912, corrected his birth certificate in 1952 and married.

Ewan’s brother died in 1965 and he was the next in line for the title but his cousin John lay claim to the title on the grounds that Ewan wasn’t a ‘real man’. Ewan’s sister, who was living in a lesbian relationship and friendly with the Queen Mother, supported John’s claim. While Ewan won the right to the title, the trial was held in private, and it took Playdon two years to get hold of the 500 page court transcript.

Playdon, who has been a front-line worker for over thirty years in LGBTI human rights, writes how most people are unaware that until the late 1960s, trans people lived in complete legal equality with everyone else. The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes reveals how a hidden court case resulted in transgender people becoming socially excluded, legally disenfranchised and alienated by “pseudo-medicine’s bigotry”.

Apart from being a fascinating story, this book is a vitally important addition to history as it tells how freedoms that we take for granted can be lost.

Lezly Herbert

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