Sunday, October 04, 2009

Dear Sir or Madam – The New Edition

Dear Sir or Madam; ISBN 978-0-9562734-0-6; £13.99; Published by Mark Rees; Order enquiries markrees (at) waitrose.com

Just under eighteen years ago, on Thursday 27th February 1992, the organisation called Press for Change came into existence in a tea shop.

The tea shop is gone now. There is no blue plaque.

Instead, on the site, stands Portcullis House – the imposing steel, concrete and glass building full of committee rooms and the offices for many MPs.

There is no official history of Press for Change (PFC). The tiny organisation was too busy making history to fuss too much about writing it down.

Obscurity to success

In the ten years between 1995 and 2005, in particular, the campaign went from obscurity to a point where its' primary mission had been achieved. It had seen a succession of ground breaking legal cases alter the way in which transsexual people were viewed.

Employment discrimination was outlawed. It became unlawful to operate any kind of systematic bar to NHS treatment for gender Dysphoria. Hundreds of people obtained practical legal advice. A process was created for transsexual people to obtain birth certificates supporting their lived reality. They could marry someone of the opposite gender or have a civil partnership with a same sex partner. Later on, in 2008, discrimination in the provision of goods facilities and services was also outlawed.

It's a remarkable achievement for a few volunteers working in their bedrooms, and of course I'm proud of the small part I played in that, along with others.

Some of the solutions weren't perfect, but that's politics. A job still exists for people to build on those achievements – particularly to rectify the inequities and embed true change in the country's institutions and hearts. I hope another generation will work on that and forgive us for not fixing everything perfectly at the first attempt.

Maybe, one day too, someone will write about the amazing things that went on inside that tiny little organisation with such grand ambitions. In the meantime the organisation's online web archives stand as a record of the events, day by day.

The man who started it

Whatever anyone finally writes about the PFC phenomenon though, we must never forget the story of the man who – more than any other – caused the events which led to it being founded.

Mark Rees is an incredibly polite and self-effacing man considering his achievements. He's really not the kind of character you'd expect to take his country to the European Court of Rights and make the kind of history which would start a movement.

And quiet mens' achievements can so easily be missed and forgotten when history comes to be written. This is why I'm so keen for people to know Mark's story

First edition

Mark published the first edition of his autobiography, "Dear Sir or Madam" in 1996, just as PFC's campaigning in the UK was beginning to pay off.

Sir Alex (now Lord) Carlile QC described it at the time as "A brave and honest plea for justice .. a story of suffering and success". The New Law journal described it as "Not only moving but required reading for anyone legally and medically concerned". It is a remarkable book.

The first edition, promoted by Cassell, told the personal story of Mark's own life from birth in December 1942, through childhood, going to sea, transitioning to male in 1971, taking his case to Europe in the 1980's and making the vital connections that gave birth to a campaign in the early 90's.

All the way through this very personal account, it's clear that Mark was never in doubt about his gender – and neither was anyone who met him.

But the first edition went to press at a time when the legal and social status quo remained implacably unaltered. The book recorded the genesis of Press for Change but, for Mark, the prognosis in late 1995 remained really rather bleak and daunting.

Cassell finally ceased publication of Dear Sir or Madam in 2003 and, oddly, I never got to read it because I was always too busy.

Rewriting the end

Shortly after Cassell deleted Mark's book, Parliament passed the Gender Recognition Act in July 2004. Thousands of people's lives changed as a result.

With bitter irony, however, Mark was in a unique position which meant he couldn't benefit without losing his small state pension.

Eventually, when he was old enough for his pension to be unaffected, Mark thought again about applying for the legal recognition he had sought all along – the quest that laid the historical foundations for eventual success.

Again, with cruel irony, the delay meant that Mark could no longer use the simplified application procedure for legal recognition. He would have to go through the full process. He explains the complexities of all this in an interview I recorded with him back in 2007 and rebroadcast in 2008.








A little administrative matter

Mark describes it as "a little administrative matter" and pays touching credit to the little part I had in finally overcoming the obstacles for him to receive his very own Gender Recognition Certificate and new birth certificate in 2008, thus bringing his story to a new and rather more satisfying place after 66 years.

So it was entirely fitting that Mark should decide to update his autobiography to include the amazing things that had happened in 13 years since the last, and his own altogether happier ending.

Cassell, the original publisher, thought that by now the life story of a trans man wasn't interesting enough to publish themselves. Fortunately, these days, people can publish their own books quite easily though ... which is what Mark has done.

So if you're at all interested in the history of how Press for Change came to be formed, or what it's like to live through nearly seven decades of life as a trans man, this is your book.

Order from the man himself

You'll need to order the book from the man himself. You can email him at markrees (at) waitrose.com. At 67 you'll need to be prepared to deal in old technology. Mark relies on a computer at the local library and old style ways of commerce like cheques and snail mail. In return, however, I'm sure he'll agree to inscribe your book personally. It's a delightfully olde-worlde process.

And if you'd like to help him then I'm sure he'd be happy to discuss how you can buy a handful of copies to sell on to friends.

Above all though, do make sure you read it. Mark has a lovely style of telling his personal story. He describes terrible obstacles but is never bitter. For, in truth, he really has always been a gentleman.

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