by Mark Dalby
from Signs of the Times No. 36 - Jan 2010
I first met Mark Rees - as a man - nearly forty years ago when, as a dental student at Birmingham University, he joined the congregation of St Peter, Spring Hill, where I was then the vicar.
But at birth he was registered as a woman, and Dear Sir or Madam is an account of his long and often difficult journey from female to male. His book was originally published in 1996, but so much has happened on the transgender front since then that a new and updated edition is a great boon.
Probably the great majority of us have had no knowing encounters with transsexual persons and, were it not for Mark, I would be one of that majority. As a liberal I hope I would have approached the issues raised by the subject with an open mind and an accepting spirit, but it is good to be able to approach them also with knowledge, and to those who have had no previous encounters as well as to those of us who have Dear Sir or Madam will be an enormous help.
First, there is Mark's personal story. Always thinking of himself as a male, as a child and young person he went through many confusions and much unhappiness despite a loving home. He was saved not least by Doreen Cordell who in the late 1960s/early 1970s worked with the Albany Trust and who put him in touch with a sympathetic psychiatrist. As a result of this, and of subsequent surgery, he was able to express his essentially male identity. But this was not the end of his problems. Socially he appeared as a man and he even sported a beard, but his birth certificate still stated that he was female and he was unable to marry as a man. He could never get rid of his female past.
This brings us to the story of Mark's campaigning. With a group of friends he founded 'Press for Change' and enlisted the support of several parliamentarians, not least Alex Carlile, later Lord Carlile. Their basic aim was to get the law amended so that with proper medical commendation he and others like him could be recognised legally as males (or females if the transition was from male to female). There were many disappointments, and Mark's personal appeal against the intransigent attitude of the British government was rejected, albeit sympathetically, at the European Court of Human Rights in 1986. But eventually the campaign succeeded and, at last, in 2004 the Gender Recognition Act was passed.
How did the churches fare in all this? Mark received much help and support from his local church, from the Franciscans and from the sisters of the Community of the Holy Name. His campaign was also supported by such notables as Desmond Tutu and Hugh Montefiore. But the church at an official level 'didn't want to know', and worse still there was bitter opposition as always from the Evangelical Alliance and from the Christian Institute.
We often hear of the scandal caused to 'traditional Anglicans' by open and affirming attitudes to questions of gender and sexuality. We hear much less of the scandal caused by these traditionalists to those who are often vulnerable and hurt. When, after the passing of the Gender Recognition Act, Mark wanted to arrange a thanksgiving service, he did not get the support he had hoped for from the transsexual community because many were understandably antagonistic towards the church. But the service was duly held at St Anne's Soho, and although nowadays Mark would call himself an agnostic, in my judgement he is more Christian than many Christians!