Book Review: The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes And The Unwritten History of the Trans Experience By Zoe Playdon
The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes, written by Zoe Playdon, is a semi-biography of the Scottish landowner Ewan Forbes. A trans man, Forbes had his masculine identity affirmed by a court in the late 1960s to settle an inheritance dispute. This case, which would have had significant ramifications for transgender rights around the world, but it was instead stricken from the record. The book uses Forbes’ life as a jumping off point to discuss wider movements and moments within transgender history in really fascinating ways.
While Ewan managed to win the case through falsified evidence, the case remained hidden. The ramifications were deemed to be too huge if it entered case law. It was decided that all those involved would be sworn to secrecy to protect primogeniture. Shortly after the case closed, April Ashley would lose her famous court case, Corbett v. Corbett. The decision in her case ended up being the opposite of Ewan’s; it set the precedent for trans rights around the world.
With April Ashley comes the other side of the book, a telling of trans history through the Ewan’s life. Ewan’s transition began at the same time as trans medical history, allowing for that history to be plotted alongside him. As a doctor, Ewan would have also been aware of how the medical landscape was shifting when it came to transgender patients. But it is not just medical history that the book tells. It also brings trans voices out where it can, addressing who was out and who was vocal at the time, with figures like Lili Elbe, Roberta Cowell, and Christine Jorgensen. The ways that Playdon managed to weave these histories together is rather enthralling.
Ewan’s case serves as an outlier amongst everything else discussed within the trans history narratives portrayed in the book. It was a success, one that could have charted a whole different direction for 20th century trans history. But with its erasure, it was prevented from being the wave of the future. Instead, the book shows how the Ormrod decision in Corbett v. Corbett came to be how trans people were viewed in the law for the following decades. This gives way to examining how trans history continued to be shaped in less and less trans-positive ways as the years passed with less focus given to Ewan and his family. The penultimate chapter ends with Ewan’s wife passing away, leaving the final chapter to explore the landscape that we find ourselves in today for transgender rights. At this point, it becomes less about Ewan Forbes, and more about the implied legacy he could have left, had the case been permitted to be used in case law.
The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes was a fascinating read. There was a lot I enjoyed about it, and also a lot that I found somewhat questionable. Let’s begin with what I appreciated.
Long time readers will know I enjoy thinking about how narratives are constructed (see my posts on Nuts! and PhilosophyTube to read some more of my thoughts), and so I found the use of narratives in this book to be highly intriguing. It is well known that, for many decades, trans people had to tell a very specific story in order to be able to medically transition and not just be institutionalized. Features of this narrative included always knowing from a young age, have been confused for another gender as a child, and strictly straight to the point of homophobia. Playdon charted the history of this narrative to Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 textbook Psychopathia Sexualis. Most interesting, however, is the way that this narrative is developed in Lili Elbe’s Man Into Woman. The book makes the claim that Elbe’s biography served as a covert way of informing other trans people how to navigate the medical world, what to say and what to avoid. With these features brought to the forefront, the book almost seems to question its authority as a biography, bringing to the reader’s attention how closely Ewan’s early life matches up with these templates. While the book does not linger on this thought too long, it allows for interesting cracks to develop within the telling of history that I greatly appreciate.
The book is very skilled when it comes to discussing class. Ewan was very wealthy, and that afforded him opportunities many were not able to access. The book is very aware of this, and does not try to hide it. Further, it makes it very clear that there was different levels of acceptability for different classes of people in the UK. The obvious example is between Ewan Forbes and April Ashley, but the book also uses Roberta Cowell and another trans woman to highlight this dichotomy. Cowell presented an alternative narrative from that of Elbe and Jorgensen; she was not an effete child and she did not always know. Instead, Cowell claimed that a harsh moment forced her feminine side to spontaneously be released into the world. This succeeded for her, largely because she had the wealth and influence. It would not succeed for another trans woman in Perth, Scotland in 1957, who had ger request to be recognized as her gender denied. Not only was it important to have the right narrative, but you also had to have the right connections.
A major aspect of the book is the inferences it makes about what Ewan knew and how he felt about the evolving landscape for trans people. Ewan did not leave behind any written works discussing his thoughts, so the book had to get creative about how it bridged his life and what else was going on. While at first I really appreciated the way that it admitted uncertainty (I have previously written about this in queer museum spaces in How Do We Talk About Transgender History), it started to feel like a crutch. There are moments where it is clear where it came from, like with arguments in the British Medical Journal, which Ewan had a subscription to. Other times, it comes across rather tenuously. It is a necessary technique when there is not so much to historical record to rely on, and I would say it serves as an excellent example of uncertainty that does not reject a queer reading, but I cannot help but feel like more could have been done to tie it in with Ewan’s life in certain places.
In conclusion, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes is an excellent telling of a history that has for so long been concealed from the world. It offers a glimpse at what else could have been. In its place is a history that has made lives much more difficult for trans people around the world. Zoe Playdon does a great job telling both Ewan’s history as well as a history of transgender politics. While it stumbles in certain ways with the ways it admits uncertainty, it offers an excellent example of how to present that uncertainty in ways that still allow for a wide range of possibilities. The use of narratives and how they were constructed was fascinating to me, as it put many of these that I had comes across before into a brand-new light. The book is an excellent read, and one I would highly recommend for anyone interested in transgender history.
Trying to bridge the gap between transgender studies and museum studies.