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The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes

And the Unwritten History of the Trans Experience



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About The Book

The life story of an aristocratic Scottish trans man and the secret 1968 legal case that provides “a fascinating look into the changing landscape of trans rights” (Library Journal) throughout history.

Ewan Forbes was born to a wealthy, landowning family, holders of a baronetcy, in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, in 1912. Assigned female at birth, his true identity was nevertheless clear even in childhood—and so, with the support of his mother, he was taken to European specialists and eventually treated with early preparations of synthetic testosterone. Raised as a boy at home but socially obliged to present himself as a girl in public until his official coming out to the Queen, Ewan grew up, became a doctor, and got married. (This required him to correct the sex on his birth certificate, which was possible at that time without much fuss.) For decades, he lived a quiet life as a husband, doctor, and a pillar of the local community.

But in 1965, Ewan’s older brother died unexpectedly—leaving Ewan, the next oldest man in the family, to inherit the baronetcy. When his cousin John—spurred on by Ewan’s sister—contested the inheritance he was forced to defend his male status in Scotland’s supreme civil court, where he prevailed.

This hugely important case would have changed the lives of trans people across the world—had it not been hidden. The hearing was conducted privately, the media were gagged, and those involved were sworn to secrecy. The case remained unknown until 1996 and is at last described here, along with the life of Ewan Forbes, for the first time. Enlightening and galvanizing, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes is a “remarkable…vital historical reference” (Booklist) for transgender history and the ongoing struggle for trans rights.

About The Author

Photo by Sara Hannant

Zoë Playdon is the Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London and a Council member of the Association for Medical Humanities. She holds five degrees, including two doctorates. Zoë is a former cochair of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists [GLADD] and cofounded the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity in 1994. She has thirty years’ experience of frontline work in LGBTI human rights, including supporting and advising on UK and European legal cases.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (November 2, 2021)
  • Length: 384 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982139469

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Raves and Reviews

"[A] remarkable story ... Readers are engaged in the life of an early-twentieth-century transgender man and the struggles and pitfalls that came with accessing affirming legal documentation and medical care ... Especially since where materials regarding Forbes' life are lacking, Playdon thoroughly contextualizes his story with transgender history throughout the twentieth century, ultimately creating a vital historical reference."

"A fascinating look into the changing landscape of trans rights in the United Kingdom. Recommended for readers interested in the evolution of modern trans rights."
Library Journal

“Playdon marshals a wealth of scientific and legal detail and paints a sympathetic yet evenhanded portrait of Forbes ... The result is a valuable contribution to trans history.”
Publishers Weekly

"Zoë Playdon shines dazzling light on the case of an early trans pioneer, a man whose dignity and courage remain an inspiration to a new generation of trans people, and those that love us. Abundant with compassion, clarity, and meticulous research, Ms. Playdon ensures that Ewan Forbes’s case will remain hidden no more. Urgent, generous, and wise.”
—Jennifer Finney Boylan, author of She’s Not There and Good Boy

"A detective story featuring bitter family conflicts, secret legal battles, and a deep dive into the history of sexology, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes is a compulsive page turner as well as an enlightening, ultimately sobering, journey through the most intricate corners of LGBT history. Moving from baronial estates in Scotland to the permissive world of 1960s swinging London, Zoë Playdon deftly weaves together multiple narratives of transgender history to brilliantly place Ewen Forbes’s story and struggle in historical context. A gripping and important book."
—Michael Bronski, Professor of the Practice in Activism and Media Studies of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Harvard University

"Zoë Playdon has written a formidable book which is unputdownable. The more I read the more I wanted to know... A breathtaking story, magnificently researched and told and which lays bare how rights are fought for, [how they] are always under attack, and the human suffering discrimination perpetuates. I was moved, fired with anger at the injustice and thankful that Zoë had dedicated years of determination to unravel and reveal this heartrending story. It is a wake-up call; until we are all equal, none of us are."
—Lord Cashman, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, actor, writer, politician

"In this meticulous, fascinating and empathetic account, Zoë Playdon takes the reader within a series of established institutions -- from biological science and medical practice to courts and aristocracy -- as they wrestled with often novel questions of gender identity before they became constrained by the ideological framework of today's political debates."
—Sasha Issenberg, author of The Engagement: America's Quarter Century Struggle Over Same-Sex Marriage

Awards and Honors

  • ALA Stonewall Honor Book

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