Sonia

Sonia made a deep impression on me from our first meeting, in January last year, at a Rainbow Space evening at St Anne’s Soho, where she was then a member of the congregation. An entirely passable Trans woman, with a beautiful face, I was surprised to learn from her, on that occasion, that she was not living full-time as a woman but still worked as a male. Unnecessarily diffident about her feminine appearance/presentation and even about her work as a human rights lawyer, which we now know was of the highest quality, I had hoped, on that occasion, that she would join Sibyls, Christian spirituality for transgender people, which she subsequently did.

The last time I saw her was in June this year, over dinner at the Sibyls’ London meeting, following Evening Prayer at St Anne’s. With a mass of bubble hair, and a Zara shopping bag at her side containing her latest purchase, she looked lovely, and over the meal, characteristically, took a newer, younger, disabled member under her wing.

My husband and I sat opposite them, enjoying her company and the conversation, during which I learned three things that I did not know about Sonia: she and I grew up in the same part of England, where our paths could have crossed, but didn’t; that she too had been a student in Cambridge, Sonia being a few years ahead of me; which was the third thing I discovered about her that night – although I’d assumed that she was younger than me, she was in fact older by about five years. As the summer months passed I continued to hear from a friend about how well Sonia was settling into her new church where she had begun to participate enthusiastically in the life and ministry of the congregation.

Autumn arrived, the beginning of the dark months which, in my experience, have frequently led me into a period of personal upheaval and psychological shadow. A week ago, on Monday 25th October, in the early evening, I was angry and agitated as I began undoing all the work I had been engaged in earlier that day and which was not right. I had no idea of course that at the very same time Sonia was in mortal danger.

The next evening, when Rob arrived home, he immediately drew my attention to the front page of the free London paper where the headline read: “Man in dress ‘pushed’ to his death on tube”. It seemed needlessly sensational, if not bordering on the offensive. Evidently there was a story here, and one that, whatever the details, was almost bound to have a trans-related angle. According to the reporters commuters had seen two women, one younger than the other, interacting excitedly with each other at the edge of the platform at Kings Cross underground station, one of whom then either fell, or was pushed, into the path of the oncoming tube train. Witnesses were shocked and travel chaos ensued. Police attending the scene discovered that the dead woman was a biological male.

It sounded a very strange case indeed. Never, though, even for a moment, did Sonia come to mind as the likely victim, but the next evening, by which time further information was appearing in the press, though not the name of the deceased, a friend from Sibyls rang to inform me that Sonia was indeed the person who had died. So began my grief at her loss, combined with disappointment and anger at much of the press coverage with its insensitive and inaccurate stereotypes of ‘a bloke in a frock’: an image far removed from the petite, fashionable woman I had known for the past couple of years. Commuters’ first impressions of her had been spot on, and whatever her anatomy might be, she was, in heart, and soul, and yes, when dressed, in body, a loving and lovely woman.

And even though she continued to present as a male in her working life, perhaps there too she operated as a female in masculine clothing; certainly, her family have emphasised that although she worked in male mode they would prefer her to be known as Sonia, because that is who she was. Meanwhile, her colleagues have paid tribute to her pioneering work as a human rights lawyer, and the landmark cases for which she was responsible, making her death not just the loss of a precious human being who will be sorely missed, but of a professional lawyer with a passion for justice and the marginalised who still had much to give to society.

This weekend, praying at the Eucharist with the Changing Attitude Trustees, I watched as leaves fell from the trees – light, delicate, beautiful – and thought of Sonia and the fragility of human life. She appeared physically fragile and yet, as her working life demonstrates, she had tremendous courage, strength and determination, and it is shocking that she should have died in the circumstances that she did, not gently, like the falling leaves, but violently and in public view.

Privacy, for all people, is a human right that promotes dignity and a sense of self-worth, and is particularly precious to Transgender people as they approach, hover on, or begin to cross gender boundaries, while negotiating this process with significant others in their lives; and yet, as the coverage of Sonia’s death shows, in late 2010, despite the media having being responsible for greater general knowledge about Trans people’s lives, in death a Trans woman can still be stigmatized by the press in the grossest possible way by referring to her as a ‘man’ or by the use of male pronouns. The Telegraph on-line report, somewhat surprisingly, was an exception, and exemplary in referring to Sonia throughout as a woman, which is what she was.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8086759/Murder-inquiry-after-woman-pushed-under-Tube-train-at-Kings-Cross-station-during-joke.html

Let’s hear it too for the journalist who knocked a dozen or more years off her age – Sonia would have loved that!

Comments

  1. Susannah Clark says

    This is just a terrible tragedy, and Sonia deserves, in death, the dignity she so often gave to others. It is a tragedy for everyone concerned.

    And it would be good if the media could ‘get’ that.

    It is a very very sad death. Rest in peace, Sonia.

  2. Rosie Martin says

    Beautifully written Christina. Although I never met Sonia I felt as though I new her as we had exchanged emails regarding her joining Sibyls. May she rest in peace.

  3. David |Dah • veed| says

    If you look again Colin, the man who wrote the article that referred to her as a woman, directly after the mishap when little information had been available, is the same author who wrote the later articles that referred to her as a man in a dress and a transvestite.

    May Sonia rest in peace and rise in glory.

  4. Jo says

    Would you think of joining us at Trans Media Watch in fighting the appalling way the media continues to portray trans people ? We have seen much media bile in our 18 months of existence, but the manner in which the death of this beacon of hope and success has been reported (and it got much much worse later) has shocked and sickened us deeply.

    We’re on Facebook and at http://www.transmediawatch.org.uk

  5. Christina Beardsley says

    Thanks for all these comments – nice to hear from some friends here too. Sadly, David is correct: the Telegraph article was an early one when the subtleties were still unknown – I was just relieved to see one that represented the gender truth, albeit in ignorance. I’m not a great Facebook person Jo but I will try and link with your group. Changing Attitude’s Trustees are being encouraged to embrace newer technology and, of course, as part of our commitment to Trans people we would want to support your campaign. There is a comprehensive and rather beautiful obituary of Sonia by Stephen Whittle who knew her and her work extremely well. http://whittlings.blogspot.com/2010/11/sonia-david-burgess-1947-2010-obituary.html

  6. Denise Anderson says

    Beautifully written Christina

    I would like to send my deepest sympathies to you at this time.

    I met Sonia a few times, and she was a lovely woman, full of life and lovely to chat to and you always felt happy around her.

    She left a mark on us that will never be forgotten by her hard work and more importantly for being who she was…

    Take Care

    Denise Anderson

    Spectrum London

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