To begin our week of daily articles, we have decided to look into the life of the transgender doctor Sir Ewan Forbes. Forbes was born into a noble family, and later in life gained the title of baronet. And from a young age Ewan was not interested in conforming to gender norms. Through most of his childhood Ewan was able to avoid acting and dressing as Scottish society expected him to and was only seen in traditionally female clothing on special occasions. And most of his life had that pattern easiness that followed around most people who were born into the privileged family like he was.
After finishing his education at home to avoid a girl's boarding school, he was accepted to the University of Aberdeen as a medical student and in his time there he continued wearing clothes that matched his gender without incident. In addition to a lack of resistance of Ewan’s gender expression there was a level of acceptance that is surprising to find in the 1930s. Ewan was not without friends, or without successes. He had founded a dance company called “The Dancers of Don” with Isabella Mitchell - who would later become his wife - and was accomplished in many avenues including the harp and public recitations, the latter of which he had won contests in. And though his father had not supported his pursuit of a degree in medicine after his death Ewan was left with 1,300 acres of land and more than enough to cover his expenses.
Life seemed to remain relatively easy for Ewan, he was able to obtain his degree in 1944 and was quick to be named as a Senior Casualty Officer, and then become a general practitioner in Alford, Aberdeenshire. His success was not wholly in the professional field either, soon after his placement as general practitioner he talked to the local sheriff and changed the gender on his birth certificate to the correct one, making him legally male. And only a short time after that he was also able to marry Isabella Mitchell, and even published in a local newspaper that people were now to refer to him as Ewan Forbes in replacement of his dead name; which was an announcement that went shockingly smoothly. Everyone seemed to accept this change without question and Ewan was able to live his life as a good doctor to a small community and a good husband to his wife. It was only when his older brother died did trouble truly start for Ewan.
After his father had died, the title of baronet had been passed down to Ewan’s older brother, but passing it along to Ewan is where things became more difficult. It seemed that Ewan’s cousin John Forbes-Sempill believed that the title and inheritance was owed to him as at the time women could not inherit what Ewan had. John then decided to take legal action to prove that the re-registration of Ewan as a man was not legitimate and make sure the inheritance would be passed down to him instead. The following lawsuit was kept quiet by the courts for a long time to protect the family’s reputation throughout the three year long legal battle. But now the records have been released to the public and we can see an approximation of what happened.
Though it was true allowing Ewan to have the inheritance if he had in fact been born with genitals society believed to indicate womanhood would have not been legal the re-registration would have to be voided for that to be confirmed legally. And the re-registration was only permitted if:
“the sex of a child was indeterminate at birth and it was later discovered ... that an error had been made"
Which was what Ewan claimed, and leads to a possibility we want to present, that Ewan Forbes was born as intersex. A theory that would also explain why he was seen by twelve doctors and they came back with the verdict that evidence to Ewan’s gender was inconclusive. It would also make sense of Ewan’s own explanation of his gender to the press:
"...a ghastly mistake. I was carelessly registered as a girl in the first place, but of course, that was forty years ago ... the doctors in those days were mistaken, too ... I have been sacrificed to prudery, and the horror which our parents had about sex"
Regardless of the state of his genitals, the judge ruled in Ewan’s favour, letting him inherit what was rightfully his and allowing Ewan to live the rest of his life quietly with his wife.
And here we find something we rarely get to see in our history, someone very ordinary. Ewan was all around very normal man except for the dispute over his gender.
He lived a normal life as a doctor and husband, and never really did much more than that. He was not an activist or an artist, and he wasn’t even an especially exceptional doctor, his life was not a very remarkable one and that is actually what makes his story so noteworthy. Ewan had a quiet life and it is said that his patients and wife were wholly supportive of his gender. Even the press didn’t make too much of a fuss over it. Although partly because they were silenced during the trial, we have to look at the fact that before that point he had been incredibly open with them, and no one seemed to mind.
He stayed as doctor of his town, and while there were probably individual cases of conflict there was never an incident large enough to be held on record. Ewan just lived as who he was and the court case was the only large incident in his life. He was allowed to live in peace with his wife and that is something the community often forgets about. Not every queer person wants to change the world, and that’s okay.
Some of us just want to get by with quiet lives and make ourselves homes, friends, and family, but don’t need anything beyond that, and it is important to remind those people that having that life is entirely possible. A Scottish man managed it in the thirties and you can now. While the world can seem a daunting creature, the people on it can be much easier to live with than we think sometimes.