Professor Arthur Sullivan reviews a classic about Transition

Dear Sir or Madam ( A Journey from Female to Male) by Mark Rees;, reviewed by Arthur Sullivan
About half way through this account of his journey from female to male, Mark Rees remarks that “[t]he most important part of the role change is the transsexual person’s acceptance by society”.  As well as his own personal journey, this book chronicles the journey which society has made towards understanding and accepting trans people over the past sixty years or so, and the not inconsiderable contribution which Rees himself made throughout that period.  As such, this is not just a book for professionals, nor only the families and close friends of trans people or those experiencing gender dysphoria.  It deserves a much wider readership amongst those in society who will come across trans people at some point in their daily lives – which is to say all of us.
The early chapters provide a very real sense of what it feels like to experience gender dysphoria, in a manner which I have not come across elsewhere.  This is something most of us will never experience, yet it is key to understanding and therefore respecting what drives a person to undertake the trans-gender route.  Rees also graphically describes the reactions of his loving family during his childhood and adolescence, as their concern moves to a perception of “cussedness” on his part, and the guilt which this engenders in him at disappointing their expectations.  He does not flinch from recording the degree of selfishness that was required, over and above his determination, in changing gender roles.  Later in the book, family reactions will turn to bewilderment, then acceptance and finally support from his mother, but ultimate hurtful and incomprehensible rejection by his sister.
Beyond the family group, Rees describes the reactions of teachers, doctors and officialdom and explains how many of those who knew him as a young girl recognised that this was not his proper role, and the support which this gave him.  As he prepares with trepidation to return for the first time as a man to the village where he was brought up, he meets his former French teacher.  “’But what about the neighbours, Madame’ I… asked her.  ‘Bugger the neighbours’”, she responds in what might have become a mantra for a more selfish person.  In fact, the neighbours and the people of the village where he was brought up become strongly supportive of him in later life, even though the younger generation – aware of his story – continue to torment him.  Here, perhaps, the book shows most clearly that schools and individual teachers still have a role to play.
Nonetheless, the book does show how far society has advanced since Mark was young in the 1950s, particularly as far as gender stereotyping is concerned.  As well as this, advances in medical understanding of, and responses to the condition are chronicled alongside the much more hard-won changes in the legal position of trans-gender people.  Initially surprising is that Rees’s own role, in challenging the government in the European Court over his right to be recognised as a man, and his founding of Press for Change, the trans-gender campaigning group, are not given greater coverage in the book.  These momentous events, the personal effort which must have been involved, and the eventual passing of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004, are covered in a few short chapters.  Alongside his obvious personal modesty, this becomes more understandable as he describes his efforts to find an identity beyond his role as a campaigner for trans recognition, by writing on wider topics, and pursuing a career first in medicine, then as a teacher and ultimately in the church.
One difficulty which many readers may experience is the centrality of belief, and the Anglican Church, in Rees’s life.  His faith sustains him in early life and he finds what many of us would feel a surprising level of support from individual priests, nuns and other religious.  Where there is less support is at the higher reaches of the Church.  His wish to pursue a career in the Church is dashed by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself declaring that, as he is legally a woman, he cannot be admitted to Holy Orders.  This is yet another example of how gender matters have changed over the past thirty years.  However he notes that the attitude of many senior church members, as well as organisations like the Evangelical Alliance, remains unambiguously hostile.  If there is any group for whom this book should be required reading, it is those who aspire to leadership roles in the church – of whatever denomination.
Although, towards the end of the book, Rees declares that his faith is wavering and that he considers himself an agnostic, it is difficult not to see him as remaining very much a part of the Anglican Communion.  It is thus not surprising that, in 2005, he organised a service of thanksgiving for the passing of the Gender Recognition Act at St Anne’s Church in Soho.
In an important passage earlier in the book, Rees writes of his stay in hospital whilst undergoing a mastectomy:
“… perhaps I was too grateful, somehow feeling exceedingly obliged to anyone who treated me as normal, as a person.  It took some years to realise that it was wrong to feel amazement and fawning gratitude because someone was being accepting and caring to me, a person who happened to be transsexual…”
One unsympathetic reviewer has remarked on the almost obsessive name-checking throughout the book, as though Rees feels it necessary to acknowledge personally almost everyone who has ever shown him a kindness. This may stem from the lack of sense of self-worth which he records here.  Certainly in his report of the service in 2005, one feels that almost everyone who attended or sent a message of support is mentioned by name.  Perhaps it is his achievement that we have now passed the point at which it is necessary to validate the experience of trans-gender people through the list of their prominent supporters.
One final and important legal advance has come in the area of employment rights (although of course the church remains exempt from many provisions).  Unemployment, rejection and false starts run through the latter half of the book. Early on Rees comments that the joys and torments of a ‘normal’ childhood and adolescence were stolen from him by his condition.  One cannot help but feel that it also deprived him of a fulfilling career, and society in general from benefiting more fully from his experience.  The feeling that his sense of self-worth is significantly undermined by his failure to find such a career, despite his achievements as a campaigner, is overwhelming.
This is a very moving, personal, honest and direct account of the life of a very modest man of great integrity and I am glad to have had an opportunity to read it.  It is also highly readable, and seldom do I feel I have learnt so much on a complex subject with so little effort.  I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone – no matter how slight you may believe your interest to be in the topic, for it is ultimately a testament to the need to treat with respect all those we encounter in everyday life – for we cannot know their back story.
Dear Sir or Madam, last published 2009 ISBN 978-0-9562734-0-6