Mark (nee Brenda) Rees, the sole survivor of premature twins, was born in December 1942 in Tunbridge Wells, Kent. A sister was born in 1946. Although their parents were not active church members, the children were baptised into the Church of England and sent to Sunday school. Both attended the village school which was linked to the parish church and then Brenda moved on to a Church of England secondary school. After two years she gained a scholarship and moved to another school. Although this was not church-affiliated it had a very strong mainstream Christian ethos. It was here that Brenda began to learn about biblical criticism. This prompted an interest that has remained with Mark ever since.
Although Brenda was a tomboy during childhood, it was not apparently considered a problem until early puberty when, unlike her peers, she refused to adopt feminine dress and behaviour. Unlike her fellow pupils, rather than wear the school summer uniform of pastel dresses, she preferred to swelter in the school winter uniform of shirt, tie, skirt and blazer because that was less feminine than a frock. By now she regarded herself as cursed by her female body. Indeed her fervent prayer to God was that she would change sex. In spite of her increasing unhappiness, she continued to believe that God would help her.
As she moved through adolescence she was increasingly in conflict with her parents over career options and training. At this time there was still rigid demarcation between jobs for men and women and Brenda resisted female jobs. In desperation, she left school and started a course at the local art college but from the start her increasingly ambiguous appearance led to countless taunts from fellow students. This added to her already fraught state and at the age of 17 she was eventually admitted to a psychiatric hospital as a voluntary patient. The early period of this three-month stay was a refuge from the abuse and questions she faced so often at the art college and elsewhere. The hospital offered little other relief. Her psychiatrist told her to, “Enjoy being a woman.” With the co-operation of the psychiatrist and her former headmistress Brenda was enabled to return to her old school and take further examinations. It was her haven but she knew that she would soon be thrust into a seemingly unkind world.
Very reluctantly she left school and took a clerical post but resolved to join one of the services. Now hampered by her recent psychiatric history, she received several rejections but at the age of twenty was eventually accepted into the Women’s Royal Naval Service in 1963.
After basic training, she was stationed at the Royal Naval Air Station, Culdrose, Cornwall as a motor transport driver. She decided that to avoid problems she would live out her expected female role. It didn’t work. This she realised when her officer asked her why she was mannish. That problem was exacerbated by the fact that she found one of the other servicewomen attractive Yet she knew that she was not homosexual and did not want to have a physical relationship with a woman as a woman. In those times however, the services took a dim view of what was perceived as homosexuality, and so stress was growing. Brenda’s one confidant during this difficult period was the naval chaplain. (Forty years later he and Mark are still in contact.) It was no surprise and indeed almost a relief to Brenda when, after two years’ service she was discharged from the WRNS on medical grounds.
Brenda then spent a period of time studying for the qualifications necessary to apply for a place at medical school. It was her plan to bury her problem by dedicating herself wholly to serving others as a family doctor. Yet at it was always present and in spite of being told that a “sex-change” wasn’t possible, Brenda continued to hope.
She also attempted to find out if her problem were unique and in 1969 found the answer. In that year The Times (London) reported the proceedings of an International Symposium on Gender Identity. It described the condition of transsexualism and its successful treatment through gender reassignment therapy. At last, there was an explanation for her years of turmoil. She contacted the Albany Trust, which existed mainly to support homosexual people, and was given the name of their counsellor, Doreen Cordell, to whom she wrote. Mrs. Cordell responded immediately. With Brenda’s approval she passed on her letter to a consultant psychiatrist, John Randall, who worked with transsexual people. At their first meeting Dr.Randall declared that he could help Brenda live as a man if that was what she really wanted. Meanwhile her attempt to get into medical school was unsuccessful but she was accepted for the dental surgery course at the University of Birmingham. Initially, after discussions with Mrs. Cordell and Dr. Randall, Brenda took their advice and decided to change gender roles only after qualification as a dental surgeon. It was not a step that should be rushed.
Yet even with the prospect of a change of roles, stresses arose at university. Once again she found herself seeking and gaining great support from the clergy, this time the students’ union chaplain, a woman minister of the United Reformed Church. Brenda realised that her studies could be jeopardised by the strain of coping with the difficulties which arose as a result of living in the wrong sex for another five years. In the spring of 1971 she asked Dr.Randall if she could undergo hormone therapy to enable her to present as male. He agreed and in September of that year Brenda changed gender roles and name;and Mark set out for the first time. His vicar suggested that before returning to university Mark live for a week at the Anglican Franciscan Friary in Dorset, an all-male community, as preparation for returning to the dental school and home as a man. He never forgot that first week, an immense load had been lifted from him and he felt liberated. Nonetheless he withdrew from the dental course after three years; he knew that he wasn’t really dextrous or scientific enough to make a good dental surgeon. It had however been a valuable period. The university had supported him throughout his role-change, he had made some very good friends and had also become an active member of a Birmingham church. Here he became a server for the first time.
Although clearly accepted as male from the start Mark knew that life would be made easier with surgery and he underwent a bilateral mastectomy in 1974 and a total hysterectomy in 1975.
This was not long before he began studies at an Anglican establishment, Christ Church College, Canterbury, where he had enrolled for a teaching course. He felt it imperative to undertake a vocational course although had some doubts about teaching children. So did his tutors but because he had shown academic ability he was invited to join the first ever BA course to be taught at the college. It was for a University of London BA in English Literature and Religious Studies. Mark felt that there was a parallel with his role change insofar as this new course had a feeling of “rightness,” of liberation, about it. He had already been studying English on the education course but was delighted to have the opportunity to undertake religious studies. To his surprise the Head of Religious Studies told him that since first meeting him at his interview she had hoped that he would study in her department. (The college was aware of his “past” because the law at that time did not permit legal recognition of transgender people in their new roles but nonetheless accepted him without any problem.)
Studying at an Anglican college and with Canterbury Cathedral as his local church where he was both a guide and a server, Mark felt that maybe he was being nudged towards ordination. He realised that with a baptismal certificate in the name of Brenda, there could be problems so he wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Dr. Coggan replied sensitively and courteously but had to inform Mark that because he was still legally a woman and at that time the Church of England did not ordain women, Mark could not be considered for the priesthood.
Since 1972 Mark had been doggedly contacting members of Parliament about the UK Government's refusal to change gender status given on a birth certificate. By 1979, with no sign any of progress and spurred further by his rejection by the Church, Mark decided to challenge the Government. through the legal system, eventually appealing to the European Commission for Human Rights. The Commission decided that Mark had a case, with the result that in 1986 he found himself in Strasbourg before the European Court of Human Rights. His request for anonymity was breached but he decided to carry on and make the most of the situation and use the resultant media attention to his and the transgender community’s advantage. Several months later Mark learned that his appeal had been rejected but rather than give up he was determined to continue the battle. His prediction that others would follow him to the Court of Human Rights was to prove true.
On the day that the Court’s decision was handed down, Mark received a letter from the Liberal Democrat MP and barrister, Alex (now Lord) Carlile who was to prove a great ally in the fight for legal recognition. He agreed with Mark that a campaign needed to be organised. With his encouragement and support Mark organised a meeting which Mr. Carlile hosted in his House of Commons office in 1992. It was attended by other lawyers and concerned transgender people. After the meeting, the group moved to a nearby café and there the campaign group, Press for Change was born. Its growth and success was to exceed Mark’s wildest hopes.
After twenty years of personal campaigning Mark was happy to take a step back and let younger, more computer literate and skilled PFC activists do their bit. He continued to write many letters, one effort being to contact all the diocesan social responsibility officers of the Church of England, over forty in all. Responses were very few but they were sympathetic. Since 1989 Mark has travelled the length of the UK speaking at local, regional and national Samaritan (Befrienders) conferences and other gatherings including police and church meetings.
In spite of being publicly known as transgender, Mark was elected by the people of his village to serve as a Member of Tunbridge Wells Borough Council from 1994-98. Some unwelcome publicity followed this but he was treated with friendliness and respect by both his fellow councillors and constituents. Their concern was that he fulfilled his role. His gender status was not their business. Mark found this attitude very helpful.
In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act at last became law. It had had overwhelming support in the House of Commons but there was some very vitriolic opposition from a few Christians, especially in the Lords. The Evangelical Alliance and the Christian Institute had conducted a long campaign to destroy the bill. Transgendered people were described as “vicious” by a CI member of the Lords and the CA called them, “deluded, deceivers and idolatrous.” Mark wondered how many of these Christian people had actually met a transgendered person and how they could reconcile their attitude with the teachings of Jesus.
Understandably quite a number of transgender people still felt only anger and pain at the at they had been maligned and mistreated by those claiming to be Christian. In July 2004, in a letter published by The Church Times, Mark chastised the bishops who had opposed the Gender Recognition Bill in the House of Lords. This prompted invitations for him to write in a couple of Christian publications. One response also prompted him to put into action an idea which he had been considering for some time.
Although by now an avowed agnostic, Mark felt that it was very important that transgender people should see that there were many caring Christians who supported them. His idea was to use the recent Gender Recognition Act as an excuse to hold what he hoped would be a service of healing and reconciliation. This event, “The Gender Recognition Act 2004, Reflection and Thanksgiving,” was held in St Anne’s Church, Soho, London, 21st May 2005. It was attended by several priests, transgendered people and their supporters. Mark was amazed and moved by the number of people who came from his home parish, including the local vicar, who preached a very powerful sermon against Christians who would not show love. Ironically, within the preceding week the Act had been amended by a Statutory Instrument in order to accommodate the objections of the fundamentalists. As a result they have the right to check on anyone who they might suspect to be transgender. If the individual is so, these religious people are permitted by law to refuse him or her employment, accommodation or even entry to
Mark knew that all the work he had done to prepare the service was rewarded when one of the transgender members of the congregation wrote that she had never believed that she could have felt so accepted. Another wrote, “The church was full of love”. Even the non-transgender members of the congregation found the event very moving.
In spite of no longer being a churchgoer, but still a perpetual student, Mark undertook a university course in applied theology at evening classes. He gained a diploma in 2007. During the pastoral studies class Mark was somewhat taken aback to hear the priest tutor tell the class to be prepared for anything and went on to mention her church organist who had been transgender. Mark had not disclosed his situation to any of his new colleagues but given that they were nearly all ordinands wondered if he should. After reflection he contacted the tutor who invited him to talk to the students. They were very appreciative and some months later one of them told him that she had met a transgender person and was glad to have heard Mark’s story because it helped her to understand.
Several of the ordinands wanted to read his book, Dear Sir or Madam, but it had gone out of print and the publisher had declined to print any more copies. With continuing interest from many people, Mark decided to republish the book at his own expense. It was at least an opportunity to revise and greatly expand the book to include the major developments which had taken place since the 1996 first edition. He also included photographs. (The earlier edition had none). People who have read both editions say they prefer the later edition (2009) because it is more positive than the first. One priest reader called it
With the Gender Recognition Act now law, Mark was now legally permitted to change his gender status to male. The fact that he would have lost his female state pension had he done so was a deterrent but fortunately Mark was in no hurry to make the change because he knew that it would make no difference to his life. Having been “outed” many years earlier and with very little likelihood of every marrying it was not an action he needed to take. Nonetheless when he reached male pensionable age he decided to register as male but only in order to bring “closure” to the second edition of his book. For him the Act was too late. Nonetheless, he had no regrets.
Considering the energy and bravery required to take on such immense challenges, Mark has 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.
(This biographical statement provided by Mark Rees.)