March 13, 2003

Transgender Professor Talks Marriage

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Besides the charisma, and beyond the English accent, Stephen Whittle brings more than international insight to his ideas on the role of sex in marriage. In a lecture on Tuesday, entitled “Sex: Has It Any Place in Modern Marriage?,” Whittle, a transgender activist, scholar, and reader in law at England’s Manchester Metropolitan University, discussed past cases involving marriage for transsexual people with an audience of about 30 law students and staff members. He also discussed his own experiences with the British legal system.

Whittle’s ideas focus on the theory behind some 1,049 legal rights associated with civil marriage. He argued that the courts have fallen behind the changing nature of the modern marriage and that they uphold the “civil contract”, which supports a “legal sense of marriage … that is archaic and fails to take on board the real need of modern families.”

The audience as a whole responded with laughter at times, and provocative questions to Whittle’s progressive ideas on marriage.

“His ideas are really interesting, but my biggest concern is that his ideas may reify the gender roles,” said Vicki Toscano, a law student.

Whittle mentioned that he was involved in the court decision “Parenthood x,y,z vs. (1996) Kanteras (2003)”

Toscano was especially impressed by Whittle’s openess.

“I appreciate how he contextualizes his work in his own life — it’s brave,” she said.

The audience was both intrigued and entertained by Whittle’s interesting ideas.

Third year law student Joe Wheeler, remarked, “In general the law school focuses too much on rules instead of the theory behind it. He [Whittle] thinks about the actual legitimacy of such rules. Hearing him speak was one of the best opportunities.”

Whittle also proposed the idea of The Family Contract. This would not take sex into account when considering an individuals rights involving civil marriage. He stated the family contract would allow, “a new understanding of family law and hence marriage, opening it up to new family constructs in which the family becomes a place of social obligation rather than blood and sexual ties.”

“His ideas are great. He brings an international perspective, specifically a European perspective, on marriage. We have the opportunity to learn about transsexual issues from a legal scholar. He also taught us about the cases over seas,” first year law student Matt Faiella said.

Many of Whittle’s examples were meant to define “true sex” and its role in marriage. He then discussed his own ideas of “true sex” and its place in the institution of marriage. Many of Whittle’s cases exemplify “true sex” as defining the validity of a marriage. Whittles ideas about the family contract oppose the theory behind these cases.

Toscano said that Whittle’s ideas, “Will make courts reconceptualize ideas of sex.”

Whittle has already began to put his ideas into action besides speaking at universities like Cornell. He teaches in the courses on contemporary social law, gender, sexual orientation and the law, and human rights. He is also founder and vice president of Press for Change. In this organization, he campaigns for respect and equality for all transgender people.

Archived article by Teah Colson