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Famous and Inspirational Trans People: Mark Rees

Mark Rees

Mark Rees (1942 - )


Most of UK trans people's social and political advances in the last decade of the 20th Century can be traced to a series of groundbreaking court cases brought by outstandingly brave and committed individuals. Trans people might still have no job security today had a training manager from Cornwall not responded to her dismissal by taking her employers all the way to the European Court of Justice in 1995. The Government might still be prevaricating over whether to legislate for trans people's legal recognition had two trans women not succeeded at the European Court of Human Rights in July 2002. 



Effective use of the law by trans people has been crucially important because it emerged as the only setting in which the issues we faced could be examined logically, factually and without hysteria. Yet before people would begin to use the law it needed someone to show the way.

Mark Rees is a quintessentially charming man whose greatest misfortune was to have been born in 1942 apparently female. The story of Mark's dawning realisation of his masculine identity, and the struggle to express that, is told through his autobiography, "Dear Sir or Madam" (Cassell, March 1996; ISBN: 0304333948).

After gender transition in 1971 Mark sought to pursue his calling – to offer himself for ordination into the Church of England.  His ambition was cruelly thwarted because legally (if in no other meaningful sense) he continued to be regarded as female. This was long before it became possible for women to pursue such a vocation. And, besides, those would never have been reasonable terms on which to have been accepted. This rejection prompted Mark to begin his determined fight for legal recognition in 1972.


The fight took him through layers of legal process all the way to the European Court of Human Rights – requiring immense courage in his day. The court hearings spelled the end for any vestige of privacy. Mark experienced considerable media attention and some of the consequences of his notoriety were unpleasant. Until quite recently, for instance, Mark had to endure years of taunting from local school children in the village near Tunbridge Wells where he lives. In the end Mark lost his single-handed battle for legal recognition at the European Court in Strasbourg in 1986.


Yet his apparently fruitless fight had not gone unnoticed and sowed the seeds for other important cases to come. He was contacted by the well-known Barrister and Liberal Democrat MP, Alex (now Lord) Carlile QC – a man more recently famous for his defence of Royal Butler Paul Burrell. With the experienced Parliamentarian’s encouragement and support Mark organised a meeting for other concerned trans people at the House of Commons in 1992. The afternoon ended across the road in “Grandma Lees Tea Shoppe”, with the foundation of the trans rights campaign, “Press for Change”. From 1989 until 2001 Mark travelled the length of the UK speaking at local, regional and national Samaritan conferences.  During this period and in spite of being publicly known as a trans man, Mark was elected by the people of his village to serve as a Member of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council from 1994-98.  Although it had initially been a shock to be “outed” by Strasbourg, Mark says he realised that ultimately it had been a blessing, because it enabled him to undertake such tasks without fear of being exposed.  It was no longer news.


Considering the immense energy and bravery required to take on such impossible-seeming odds in his day, Mark Rees has always remained a quiet and unassuming character, whose enduring ambition has been to build bridges and pursue reconciliation with the very people who prevented him from achieving his vocation. Following the passage of the Gender Recognition Act, Mark organised a Christian service of thanksgiving and reconciliation in 2005 – at a time when many trans people still feel only anger and pain at the way they have been maligned and mistreated by others claiming to be Christian. He says, “I knew that all the work the service had involved was rewarded when one of the members of the congregation wrote that she had never believed that she could have felt so accepted”. Another attendee said that, “ the church was full of love.” Although no longer actively involved with Press for Change, Mark continues (in his words) to “politely batter the church,”. In July 2004, in a letter published by the CHURCH TIMES, Mark roundly chastised some of the bishops who had opposed the Gender Recognition Bill in the House of Lords – prompting important debate within the Church and further invitations to write for reputable Christian publications.


Given his track record it is ironic that Mark has not yet felt able to use the Gender Recognition Act to re-register as male, as others can now do.  Having reached sixty before the Act was passed, Mark was granted a state pension as a woman. Were he to re-register and become legally male before his sixty-fifth birthday that pension would be stopped, however. It’s a cruel anomaly which the Government refused point blank to address during the passage of the Act. For Mark it is especially poignant, as the Act represented the conclusion to processes which he himself had set in motion with his own pioneering challenge more than twenty years before. 


Mark epitomises that most important virtue for all people living on the wrong side of society's mindless prejudice -- an ability to be calm and to retain one's dignity.  People are assured of recognition when they shout a lot and make a fuss. Mark Rees shows that there is another way too. In that way he deserves a leading place in trans campaigning history.

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