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Sir Ewan Forbes: The respected transgender GP who won a historic court fight
Queer Gaze LGBT+ History Month Trans+ History Week

Sir Ewan Forbes: The respected transgender GP who won a historic court fight

This Queer Gaze is in partnership with LGBT+ History Month in the first of a series based on their ‘Under The Scope’ resources for schools about LGBT+ people who made history in the field of medicine.

I reach under my shirt to touch the scars on my chest.

I am grateful for the medical interventions I’ve been lucky to receive, knowing that this wasn’t always possible. But there’s a knot in my stomach. 

Despite all the advancements in gender-affirming healthcare and understanding of trans and non-binary identities, we are still facing huge setbacks to our rights within healthcare. This is particularly acute for disabled, working-class trans people.

You might not have heard of Ewan Forbes. This LGBT+ History Month we are celebrating LGBTQIA+ pioneers in the field of medicine and healthcare. Forbes was definitely one of them. His story is one of perseverance and one of love. 

He was a trans man from Scotland, born in 1912, who knew he was a boy from a young age. 

He had the support of his mother, who travelled across Austria, Germany and France to find him gender-affirming treatment. A mother who homeschooled him, knowing that a girl’s boarding school was not where he belonged. 

Forbes’ experience with his doctor was a positive one; he received hormone treatment and counselling support during his transition. Perhaps that was why Forbes himself chose to train as a General Practitioner. He knew that GPs could play a significant role in trans people’s lives. 

After his parents’ death, he changed his name and birth certificate to reflect who he truly was. In the 1950s, all he needed was his own self-identification and the sheriff to sign off on it.

He put an announcement in the local paper so everyone knew his name and he continued his happy marriage with his wife Isabella. He continued to practise as the local GP and became a respected member of his town’s community. 

However, Ewan’s legacy is also a dark reminder that trans people have not always been celebrated. 

Despite his new gender being accepted by many, he was still taken to court by an angry cousin. It was all over whether he counted as the next man in line to inherit the family aristocratic title. The cousin tried to prove his gender was not legitimate, beginning a three-year interrogation and ordeal.  

Of course, not all trans people will find themselves defending their privileged class background in court, nor have the privilege of an accepting community to support them. 

It’s hard to know how to understand this slice of history, knowing the reality of trans people’s lives today. We don’t all have privilege to protect us, and when things go wrong we can lose much more than just a title.

Still, his story offers hope for the battles we’re fighting now because Ewan won his fight, and kept his title and his pride. 

Right now, the waiting times for gender-affirming healthcare on the NHS are years long - and are getting longer.  

I remember standing outside the court with my organisation, Gendered Intelligence, one of the intervenors on the Bell v Tavistock case in 2021, holding trans pride flags high and waiting tentatively. 

I never thought we’d be there having to defend our access to the healthcare we deserve. But we persevered and came together - both cis and trans people with all those who love us. 

We also won.  

But we need more wins. We need more people in our lives who give us space to self-identify, who can hold our hand, find the environments we will be safe in, and take us there. 

We need people to come with us to help us find the gender-affirming treatments we need and be our advocates. 

We need medical professionals in power to care about us, believe us and support our wellbeing. We need people who don’t understand us to educate themselves. To stop acting from a place of fear. 

This is the power of history. History reminds us that trans people have always been here, fighting for their rights in healthcare and in name. History empowers us to celebrate moments of trans joy and victories like Ewan’s.

History gives us hope that trans futures are possible.

Get the Queer Gaze in your inbox each week with our free weekly newsletter or pitch to write an edition for us now. This edition was created in collaboration with LGBT+ History Month. This year the theme is 'Under the Scope', a look at LGBT+ heroes in the field of medicine. Each article in the series is created using the Schools Out resources on this year's five official history heroes.

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