“Try putting on some lipstick and holding a handbag and going out there,” she says. “There are two types of trans people: trans people who are lucky enough to ‘pass’ — their lives are pretty much like yours — and people who are identifiable as trans. Their lives are living hell. They cannot go out of the house without being abused. There’s a long way to go and it has to change. People need to feel safe walking down the street.”
Most trans people barely notice everyday harassment. Stephen Whittle, professor of equalities law at Manchester Metropolitan University, still gets stones thrown at the house where he has lived for 20 years with his wife, Sarah, and their four children. He has also been abused in the lecture theatre by students, who have called it an “abomination” that he has children.
“On the whole you can get by in life without too much hassle, which is pretty different to 20 years ago when every moment of life was hassle,” he says.
Whittle, who “transitioned” nearly 40 years ago, was one of three trans men and three trans women who did an unusual thing in 1992: they went to meet Liberal Democrat MP Alex Carlile in Westminster. The unusual element was not the meeting, but the fact that they travelled together — at the time, trans people never dared to because it increased the likelihood that they would be spotted and abused. These six wanted to start a campaign group; Carlile advised them to avoid the word “transsexual.” So, in Grandma Lee’s teashop opposite Big Ben, an anodyne name, Press for Change, was chosen.
The 1980s, remembers Whittle, had been “dreadful years.” As soon as his trans status was discovered he would be sacked; it was the same for every trans person. At the job center, the adviser would call out, “Miss Stephen Whittle.” At his teacher-training medical, the doctor told him they could not have “his sort” in teaching.
“It was very, very hard, not just on us, but on the people we fell in love with and lived with. We felt like we could never, ever win this battle. All these years on, we have sort of won the battle,” Whittle said.
For decades, Ashley’s life itself was a source of some of these battles, as one of the few widely known transsexuals in Britain alongside Jan Morris, who completed her transition in 1974. The annulment of Ashley’s marriage to aristocrat Arthur Corbett (in court he was judged “deviant”; she “a man”) in 1970 was a humiliation for Ashley and a great setback for trans people because it was established that a person must remain their birth gender in law. Before that, trans people were furtively altering their birth certificates, or passports, and accessing medical treatment.
Christine Burns is one of a generation who vividly remembers reading about Ashley in the papers when she was a young child. The existence of someone like her in the public eye was a great comfort for Burns. In the 1990s, when she was chair of the Women’s Supper Club of the local Conservative party association in Cheshire [north-west England], she quietly joined Press for Change. Even then, the new activists dared not be openly trans.