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Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Sonia (‘David’) Burgess (1947-2010) : An obituary

Angelic Inspiration: Human Rights Lawyer Dies in Tragic Circumstances.
Amended to bring up to date, December 2012.

Sonia Burgess
I am shattered by the news of Sonia Burgess's tragic death. Sonia was the human rights lawyer every human rights lawyer respected. Sonia was the lawyer who inspired me to be the lawyer I am today. From 1992 to her semi-retirement in 2002, Sonia (as ‘David’) acted as the lawyer to Press For Change, the UK’s lobbying and activism group for transgender people’s rights.

Sonia specialized in rescuing deprived and alienated refugees and asylum seekers, along with persecuted lesbian, gay and trans people. Her work frequently saved the former from persecution, degradation, even certain death and advanced considerably the battle for civil rights for the latter, over that period.
When I first went to Sonia’s office, naive as I was, and coming from 'up North', I had expected a London lawyer to work in a fancy building, with polished furniture, and rich carpets. Instead I entered a dark, dingy, decaying building on the East London Road, where dirty magnolia woodchip papered stud wall partitions, with holes where they had been torn and kicked in frustration by the firm’s clients, and which looked as if they would collapse at any moment. Inside that den of iniquity, their seemed to be hundreds of grey people hanging out, hoping for a bob or two, or a cup of tea whilst they waited for the British Government to decide on their lives. Rarely did money change hands. Sonia, supported by her legal partner Robert Winstanley (now His Honour Judge Winstanley of the South Eastern Circuit), and backed by an army of pro-bono law students, mostly gave away her services. Her wife, a beautiful Nepalese woman, and a community nurse, was the breadwinner for the family, Sonia’s legal income was tiny in comparison.

On first sighting, Sonia (as David) was a tall, willowy individual with a toss of deep blonde loose curls on a face with the highest cheek bones any woman would die for. ‘David’ looked like someone of neither sex, and for all the world, as you might imagine an angel if you were ever to meet with one. I had always thought Sonia was Jewish, but that as her wife was Nepalese, I had presumed Judaism was not pushed within the family. From other things I have read since Sonia's death I am not so certain now, but if she did aspire to any religion it must have been one full of love, and a willingness to make sacrifice through goodness.

Sonia was a person with a contemporary reflection on life, with a vision of a world in which humanity acted humanely towards each other. As a lawyer, her mission, “a job that she had just been given”, she said, was to rescue the earth’s dispossessed, who it seemed, took up residence at the firm's office.


David Burgess


As senior partner of Winstanley Burgess Solicitors, Sonia’s work led to significant judgements in the House of Lords, the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg and the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. ‘David’ worked on cases involving issues as diverse as fair trials in foreign countries, victims of medical torture, refugees who were being refused refugee status, civil claims against the Ministry of Defence for unlawful detention, country guidance casework on North Korea, as well as the many transgender cases we presented her with.

In 1992, Sonia agreed to take a case on behalf of our first child (referred to as Z) to the European Court of Human Rights. Sonia’s plan for the case was that our daughter (Z) would seek to have me, a (female to male) transsexual man, her father, and for all purposes other than providing the sperm, recognized on her birth certificate as her parent. She was claiming the right to a private life (Article 8) in which she have the full set of parents she knew. Sonia planned it very carefully. We did not ask for me to be named the father of our daughter. Rather our daughter asked for me to be recognized as her parent. By this ploy, we hoped that (a) we could extend the right to Lesbian and Gay parents, and (b) as the only space left on the certificate was for the ‘father’, the government would finally see sense and recognize me as such, which logically would then involve recognizing me as a man – because after all that is what fathers are.
It was a brilliant plan, and typical of the strategies’ Sonia would come up with. She would say they came to her in the shower, and I still tell me students that they will only  become real lawyers, when 10 to 12 years from now, they finally get a ‘eureka moment’ in the shower.

Four years later, by the time the decision in our case arrive, Z had been joined by Z’s 2,3, and 4. The decision came by fax at 8am in the morning, and for the next hour, with my wife’s consent I ran around the Manchester BBC studios to give 14 interviews, outing ourselves and our family. Sonia was constantly on the phone reading and analyzing the decision, so that within 10 minutes I was able to spin the fact that though we lost and were very disappointed, the court had found us to be a family.

Sonia’s work on this, and many other cases we came to her with, was to provide a sound set of strategic arguments in favour of trans people being recognized as entitled to the same Human Rights of privacy, dignity, family and equality as others.

She was equally brilliant on everything else she touched, and brought more than one home secretary down on their knees, as they lost case after case where they were attempting to return individuals to face persecution, degradation, or even certain death. However, I hated receiving the 9.30pm phone calls where she would ask me to write a ‘persecution risk’ brief for the court – for tomorrow at 10am. I lost many a night’s sleep at her request. It was an amazing high to find she had won the case. The rescued clients would then leave the court saying ‘thank you, thank you, I will, I will send you some money”. The money rarely came though.

In the end, financially the firm was on its last legs, 'David's' bad back was giving her a terrible time, and ‘David’ wanted to live as Sonia. My daughter has asked why she didn’t transition and work full time as Sonia? I transitioned in 1975, a period when ‘David’ was desperate to do the same. But Sonia was first and foremost a human rights lawyer. She already knew what I was about to find out. As a trans person, she would be tormented by peers, have no credibility at all in any court or tribunal and, most likely, she would lose her job - as I did many times between 1975 and 1990. 

It was many year into our friendship, before I was told of Sonia’s existence. Sonia’s wife had known of Sonia from before their marriage, but the children had been protected. However, they told me of the time when Sonia had been out for dinner with a friend, a fellow trans woman, when she realised she had been recognized by a fellow diner, a parent of one of his son’s school chums. ‘David’ decided that now was the time, she had had a difficult few years with her teenage son. When she finally got the courage and blurted it out, her son said “I thought you were really the most boring person I had ever know, thank god there is something interesting at last”. 

The family adapted easily, and happily accommodated both Sonia and ‘David’ within their household. In a statement the family said: “Sonia (David) was a loving and wonderful person and will be missed deeply.

When Sonia did semi-transition in the early 2000’s things had changed a great deal. She was able to work part time as a lawyer, and the courts acknowledged her considerable expertise. Technically she was still David, but looking very much more like that angel of neither sex. As her funeral service was to show, many, many lawyers and senior judges knew of Sonia's other life by then, and they did not find it a problem. However, Sonia was still uncertain as to what the consequences would be of transitioning to living permanently in her preferred gender role. She would have been greatly reassured if she had seen the great and the good of the law who turned out for her funeral. 

Sonia was just as beautiful  as David had been handsome, in many ways even more so. She must have had a picture decaying in the attic as she had barely aged outwardly, from when she had been 30. Sonia (rather than ‘David’) and I first met for a for Amnesty International’s photo shoot for a ‘Trans People are People’ campaign. She looked wonderful and very desirable. Quintessentially though, she had stepped outside of our current universe and entered what the transgender actor and writer, Kate Bornstein refers to as that (trans)gendered space outside of where everyone else’s gender is. Sonia claimed a position as a trans woman, and she was a supreme trans woman. Men might look and know there was something different, they would often desire her, but rarely guess she had been born male.

It has been very sad to see the tabloid references to her as an ‘escort’, implying that she was some sort of transgender prostitute. That was not Sonia, she simply sought love, and fun. 

Sonia's assailant was another trans woman, Nina (nee Senthooran) Kanagasingham, an asylum seeker who Sonia was helping. We will probably never get to the bottom of what happened on the tube train platform of Kings Cross station. According to one report as the architect of this terrible event, Nina was seen to be sharing a joke with Sonia. It could be just one of those terrible incidents that become a tragic accident, not everything is a crime. Nina was prosecuted at the Old Bailey, and convicted as being guilty of manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. She will spend a long time in a secure hospital - hopefully getting the treatment she really needs. 

I can only imagine that Nina had reached that terrible point of frustration and despair with the British Immigration Injustice system, when despair is the only possible response, and she lashed out at the person closest. It is one of the dangers of the job; Human Rights lawyers are not meant to have an easy time of it.


Knowing Sonia, she would have approved of that, she was simply ‘helping out’ with a trans woman’s immigration issues, but something went badly wrong. 

Sonia leaves behind her wife, two daughters and a son. May she rest in her well-deserved but humble peace. I now know that many of us were fortunate to meet with an angel.

These 3 short beatitudes from the sermon on the mount sum up the meaning and purpose of Sonia Burgess’s life:

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
  • Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
  • Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you ...
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Key Case Law: Sonia ('David') Burgess
Chahal v United Kingdom, European Court of Human Rights
Razgar, R (on the application of) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2003] EWCA Civ 840 (19 June 2003) Court of Appeal
A v Chief Constable of the West Yorkshire Police & Anor [2002] EWCA Civ 1584 (05 November 2002) Court of Appeal
R (Tamil Information Centre) v Secretary of State for the Home Department [2002] EWHC 2155 (Admin) (18 October 2002) Administrative Court
X,Y and Z v United Kingdom (1996) European Court of Human Rights. Case no: 75/1995/581/667
In re M (A.P.) (Cross-appellant and Original Respondent) 1993 House of Lords
The Queen v Immigration Appeal Tribunal, ex parte Gustaff Desiderius Antonissen. (Free movement of persons) [1991] EUECJ C-292/89 (26 February 1991) Court of Justice of the European Communities
R v. Secretary of State for the Home Department, Ex parte Sivakumaran and Conjoined Appeals (UN High Commissioner for Refugees Intervening) [1988] AC 958, 16 December 1987 House of Lords
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Copyright: Stephen Whittle 01/11/10 amended 28/12/12

ps. Jemima comments "Why is the value or status of a trans woman measured in her desirability?".  I feel an answers needed here. My reference to David's and Sonia's desirability had nothing to do with her trans status, her glamour, beauty, sexuality or anything similar. Sonia was 'desirable' as a person who truly cared, who always had a smile no matter how much pain she was in, who made you feel like you were the most important person in the room - when you were anything but, and who lived a life which was given wholeheartedly to others. I wanted to be as good a person as Sonia was, I desired to be like her, to feel the connection of her brain rather than her body. I wished I could have been her and live my life in the self sacrificing way she lived hers. People assume that the only form of desire is sexual, desire is so much more about aspiration.