Trans politicians, part 1 (1986-1999)

As part of LGBT History Month, I have been researching the history of openly trans politicians in the UK and I will be posting these over the next few days.

Our history is often confused by the media’s need for sensationalism and they will often latch on to the idea that someone might be “first” at something to make another otherwise run-of-the-mill human-interest story about someone seem more interesting. Sometimes politicians reuse these stories themselves, not realising that the media have not bothered to fact-check their claims. This does not help trans representation in the long run, because it makes people feel as if being elected in politics is something remote and unobtainable for trans people rather than something that is quite achievable.

For those interested in the topic, it’s worth checking out this excellent report from the University of North Carolina’s LGBTQ representation and rights research initiative which covers the global situation.

More information is always welcome, as I will certainly have missed people prior to 2014, when I started compiling lists of known trans candidates at principle authority level or above each year. However, I will state my usual caveat here – I am aware of a number of trans people who hold or have held public office but are not out. I am not in the business of outing people, so I will only include those who are publicly out or have already been outed by the media.

Finally, if any historians would like to work on turning this series into a more formal paper for publication please do get in touch. I would like to be able to get this information recorded in a format more amenable to citation by future generations of activists.

Part two of this series covers 1999-2009, and part three 2010-2016.

Rachael Terri Webb (Labour)
1986-1990: Councillor for Ferndale Ward, Lambeth
1990-1994: Councillor for Gipsy Hill Ward, Lambeth

The history of successful trans politicians stretches back surprisingly far – to the mid 1980s. This was a time not just before the Gender Recognition Act was passed but before the campaign group that fought for that legislation, Press for Change, was formed. The trailblazer was Rachael Terri Webb who was, as far as anyone has been able to establish, not only the first openly trans person to have been a candidate in a UK election, but the first to have been elected.

Webb stood for Lambeth council in 1986 to the safe Labour ward of Ferndale, serving there until 1990. She then stood in Gipsy Hill in 1990, until retiring in 1994.

As with many people, it is difficult to establish the extent to which Webb’s history was known prior to her first election as the media rarely gives much coverage to candidates for local councils. More recent articles suggest she was outed by the tabloid press in 1983 as a result of using a loan available to all council employees to pay for surgery, but it has not been possible to locate the original articles yet. However, her position as the earliest known out trans politician and the first to win an election is secure, as there are references in the 1987 book “Bodyshock: The Truth about Changing Sex” as well as other sources prior to her re-election. She was also known to the wider trans community, presenting on the topic of “Transsexuals and Local Authority Equal Opportunities Policies” to the GENDYS conference in 1990.

Looking at the election results, it is notable that although elected comfortably Webb placed third of all three Labour councillors in both elections. That difference is most pronounced in the 1990 Gipsy Hill results, in which she polled 8% lower than the other two Labour candidates in an election that otherwise seems to have seen people voting a straight party ticket, with little or no difference in the votes between candidates of the same party. Concerning though this difference might be, it is entirely possible this difference in votes was for entirely political reasons. She was apparently well known and referenced in a number of articles and books in the late 80’s and early 90’s. These sources typically do not mention her as a trans woman, but do focus on her history as an outspoken member of Militant, on the left wing of the Labour party during a period that saw internal party disagreement on a par with today’s troubles.

Webb sadly died in 2009.

Sources and further reading:
London Borough Council Elections, 8th May 1986
London Borough Council Elections, 3rd May 1990
Hodgkinson, Liz (1987), Bodyshock: The Truth about Changing Sex. Columbus Books.
Ekins R, King D (2002), Blending Genders: Social Aspects of Cross-Dressing and Sex Changing. Routledge
International gender dysphoria conference 1990. Beaumont Trust
Zagria, A Gender Variance Who’s Who – Rachael Webb (1940 – 2009)
Webb, Rachael. Letters to the Editor. The Guardian. 2nd October 1990

Alexandra “Sandra” MacRae (SNP)
1992: Westminster Parliamentary Candidate for Glasgow Provan

MacRae has been in the headlines well before she became a candidate for the SNP, having been outed in 1981 by the News of the World in a story described by the Press Council as “distasteful” – it appears the Scottish Daily Record also ran less-than-positive stories during the election. Despite this, she appears willing to talk about her background publicly as a Herald Scotland article repeats by then historical quotes from her General Election campaign in 1992 where she talks about her transition. Coverage of her candidature is sparser than might be expected – the SNP then were less prominent than today, and MacRae was not expected to win. She placed second on 21.7%, with Labour comfortably holding the seat with 66.5% of the vote.

MacRae was no stranger to elections, having stood at least four times prior to transition, in Edinburgh Central (Feb & Oct 1974), Edinburgh Pentlands (1970) and Midlothian. (1966) Unfortunately, most sources about MacRae are from 1997 when she hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons following a conviction for fraud. According to media reports, she was the first trans woman to be housed in a female prison but as with most media claims about “firsts”, this is tricky to verify.

Sources and further reading:
‘News of the World’ censured. The Observer. 9th August 1981, page 5
Lawyer stole #16,000 from clients, Prisons face dilemma of sex-change embezzler. The Herald. 10th December 1997
Transsexual man jailed in women’s prison. BBC News. 1st September 1998
UK General Elections since 1832
Zagria, A Gender Variance Who’s Who – Sandra MacRae (1942–) solicitor, SNP candidate

Mark Rees (Liberal Democrats)
1994-1998: Councillor for Rusthall Ward, Tunbridge Wells

Mark Rees is perhaps better known as co-founder of Press for Change and a prominent campaigner for gender recognition which resulted in the passage of the Gender Recognition Act in 2004 – a journey which began with a European Court hearing as far back as 1986, the same year that Webb was first elected. In the middle of this period, Rees had served four years as a councillor in Tunbridge Wells, standing in Rusthall Ward first in 1991 before going on to win in 1994. Although he re-stood in 1998, he was not successful.

There are many excellent resources about Rees’ life online, and rather than try to summarise them here, anyone interested should read the articles published by either LGBT History Month or Zagria. Christine Burns’ eBooks, Pressing Matters also cover the story of the campaigning group, Press for Change.

As well as being the first, to date, Mark remains the only openly trans man known to have been elected to public office in the UK.

Sources and further reading:
Rees v. The United Kingdom – 9532/81 [1986] ECHR 11. 17 October 1986.
Burns, Christine (2013) Pressing Matters (Vol 1)
Famous and Inspirational Trans People: Mark Rees. LGBT History Month
Zagria, Mark Rees (1942 – ) Part II: activist, councillor
Tunbridge Wells Borough Council Election Results 1973-2012

Rosalind Mitchell (Labour)
1997-1999: Councillor for Redland Ward, Bristol

Mitchell was not out when first elected to Bristol Council. In fact, she didn’t transition until 6 months after her election, meaning she can lay claim to being the first trans person known to have transitioned whilst holding public office in the UK. She was in office for a relatively brief period, and her tenure appears to have not been trouble-free as although apparently accepted by the Labour Group on the council she was refused entry to a Labour Women’s group and did not restand when her term expired in 1999.

Sources and further reading:
Election results for Redland, Bristol, 1997 (Election data has been updated by Bristol Council to refer to Mitchell’s current name. It is clear from other sources that she did not transition until November 1997)
Burns, Christine (2013) Pressing Matters (Vol 1)
Burns, Christine. The Rosalind Mitchell Story, Press For Change. 21st September 1997, archived from the original.
Dyer, Clare. Labour transsexual comes out. The Guardian. 22nd September 1997, page 6.
Winkler, Elisabeth. The year that changed my life, The Independent. 27th December 1998
New Labour, New Woman, part of the Home Ground series. BBC. 7th July 1998
Dyer, Clare. Labour Group Throws out Sex Change Woman. The Guardian. 19th March 1998, page 4.
Sex objection to Bristol Woman. Local Government Chronicle. 31st March 1998.


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