Power, family and class: The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes review

With LGBT+ History month just around the corner, it is the perfect time to pick up a copy of Zoë Playdon’s ‘The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes’, the incredible story of a trans man who fought to have his true gender and identity recognised in the face of extreme challenges. 

Born into an aristocratic Scottish family, Ewan Forbes was assigned female at birth but presented as a boy from a young age. His mother, realising that Ewan was unhappy, took him on several trips to Prague, Vienna, Dresden, and Budapest, to discreetly access gender-affirming treatments from ‘sexologists’ of the time, doctors who were providing groundbreaking gender and sexuality-based care. Ewan may have been one of the first trans men to access early and experimental testosterone treatment. 

As Ewan grew his life remained unaffected by his identity and was accepted by his community in Aberdeenshire. While working as the doctor, he met and fell in love with his future wife, Patty. With same-sex marriage outlawed at the time, Ewan requested that his birth certificate be changed so that they could marry. Without the obstacles in place that trans people face today when obtaining a gender recognition certificate, Ewan’s request was approved. The couple lived in blissful happiness at their rural home in Aberdeenshire, before Ewan’s world was turned upside down.

After the death of Ewan’s brother in 1965, Ewan was set to inherit his aristocratic title (the Forbes baronetcy). However, at this time Ewan’s cousin John began threatening Ewan, claiming that Ewan was ineligible for the inheritance having been assigned female at birth. This was motivated by the fact that, in John’s words, ‘Daddy promised me a title’.

Ewan, desperate to live peacefully with Patty and for his identity to be safe from attack, sought to pacify John by handing over the Forbes’ vast estate, including the famous Craigievar Castle, thought to have inspired Walt Disney. Ewan knew that if the court decided he was ‘female’, it would not only result in his personal devastation but also the annulment of his marriage and arrest of his wife for committing supposed perjury. These submissions only held off John’s attacks temporarily, however, who then came back in full force for the baronetcy.

the result of years of research, Playdon writes Ewan’s story with incredible sensitivity

The case between Ewan and John was hard-fought, bitter, and extremely violating for Ewan and Patty, upsetting the peaceful life together they both desperately wanted. Intrusive questions about their sexual relationship and a medical examination of Ewan made the experience particularly traumatising. Ewan finally won the case after managing to persuade the courts that his sex was wrongly assigned at birth. Ewan was able to keep his title, his way of life, and his marriage, despite the huge emotional and financial toll his cousin’s attacks had taken on him. Ewan died in 1991, when John finally inherited Ewan’s title.

The result of years of research, Playdon writes Ewan’s story with incredible sensitivity and thoughtfulness. The reader gains an intimate understanding of the huge challenge that the case presented to Ewan. She expertly portrays his courage in the face of attacks on his identity. 

Playdon’s book is a chronological record of Ewan’s life, with particular focus on the case itself. From the beginning, the reader feels part of Ewan’s journey from his happy moments in rural Aberdeenshire to his mother’s determination to provide the correct medical care for him. The story is also a gripping read, interwoven with tales of power, family, and class, against the backdrop of a fairytale castle. The chapters that cover the case against Ewan’s gender are rigorously thorough, and can sometimes be a difficult read because of the way in which Playdon so sensitively portrays Ewan’s suffering. However, the facts of the case are fascinating, and the ways in which Ewan emerges victorious are both enthralling and satisfying. The book particularly shines in the last chapter, ‘Ewan’s legacy’, in which Playdon outlines the ways in which Ewan’s case has affected LGBT+ rights in the UK: how these rights were subsequently rolled back since his victory, and the state of LGBT+ rights as a result today. 

Ewan’s story details the painful way in which life was made significantly harder for trans people under British law, because of the perceived threat Ewan’s case made to male primogeniture – the structural framework upon which both the British aristocracy and monarchy rely. During its time, the case was extremely hushed, and the successful outcome for Ewan covered up and hidden away. Playdon has truly opened up his case and brought his story to light as an important part of LGBTQ+ history.

Zoë Playdon is a celebrated LGBTQ+ activist and researcher, and Emeritus Professor of Medical Humanities at the University of London. She is a Visiting Professor at the University of Cumbria, and an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck College. Professor Playdon is former co-Chair of the Gay and Lesbian Association of Doctors and Dentists [GLADD], and co-founded the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity with Dr Lynne Jones MP in 1994. She has worked pro-bono defending LGBTQ+ rights for over thirty years, and has acted as an advisor for the NHS, Home Office, and Department of Education and Employment.

Image credit:  B. A. Watson, via Wikimedia Commons

Image description: Craigievar Castle