As the ongoing war against abortion rights tells us, people who are not in power have no guaranteed stability of status. When autonomy is granted and easily taken away, whole groups of citizens may experience unpredictable swings in their legal rights, social customs and ability to be heard. Zoë Playdon’s erudite, passionate, occasionally frustrating, yet ultimately persuasive new book, The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes: And the Unwritten History of the Trans Experience, encapsulates this reality by telling three stories at once ... This account is contextualized by a rich and riveting social history of trans people’s rocky road to cultural acceptance in the West, from the early 20th century up to the current day ... she intertwines individual, social and legal history in a manner that is mostly illuminating. And she shows how fluctuations in the rights of trans people evolved in tandem and in conflict with those of gay men, women and lesbians.
There are so many twists and turns in the tale that follows that it sometimes reads like a thriller ... [Playdon] is a skilful storyteller, and her descriptions of the Scottish landscape are so vivid I wanted to leap on a train and gaze at 'the falling sun' making the shadows of beech trees 'a ladder of light' ... What I didn’t find quite so convincing was the polemic ... certainly a point of view. And one of a number of deeply jarring notes in what could have been a terrific book.
Part of what makes this book so admirable is Playdon’s own dedication to the project. Forbes left no personal documents behind, forcing the author to rely on archives, legal decisions, medical literature, media coverage, and the recollections of those who knew Forbes best. It’s clear that there was significant literary detective work involved. As it highlights an individual story that proved pivotal in the fight for contemporary trans rights, Playdon’s biography also adds to the growing body of literature about trans history ... A thoughtful and well-researched historical excavation of an important chapter in the fight for trans rights.