TV & Radio
Transsexual insists on going to women's jail
'It's a matter of principle,' says woman after court treats her as still being a man
Henry McDonald, Ireland editor
Sunday October 23, 2005
Denise Martin is fighting for the right to go to jail - as long as it's a women's prison. Martin, one of Ireland's first transsexuals who had a full sex-change operation 22 years ago, faces a prison sentence next month after refusing to pay a fine over a breach of the peace offence in her home town of Larne.
The slender, 45-year-old bleached blonde could find herself in the all-male top-security Maghaberry jail outside Belfast.
'It's a matter of principle,' she said in between sips of latte inside a hotel overlooking a windswept North Antrim coast on Friday.
'At my first hearing in Larne last month the court referred to me as "Mr Martin" or "he", because on my birth certificate I'm still Douglas Martin. But as you can see by looking at me, I haven't been Douglas for over 20 years.
'On my British passport it states that I'm Denise, and that's who I have been for all these years. But if the next court appearance in Ballymena treats me like a man, then I'm in danger of going to an all-male prison.'
What began as a 'cat fight' between Denise and a middle-aged transvestite in Larne last April may end up in the European Court of Human Rights. If Martin refuses to pay the fine at her next court appearance on 7 November, she risks a custodial sentence.
'My solicitor told me I would have 28 days to appeal, and in that period I would go to a higher court to see if they can change my status to that of a woman. I don't believe I did anything wrong, but I won't pay and am prepared to go to jail, as long as it's a woman's jail.
'If they refuse, I have instructed my solicitor to fight this all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. I didn't go through years of psychiatric counselling, a painful operation and the entire trauma through my life to let the courts deny who I am today.
'I don't care if they fine me £30 or £3,000, I won't pay and I won't rest until they recognise me as Denise.'
The transsexual who says she is a normal heterosexual woman has other reasons to challenge the court's definition of her sexuality.
'My partner, who prefers to maintain his privacy, and I want to get married next year. I'm fighting this case partly for him as well. The law, or at least the courts, still sees me as a man and I don't want my partner being branded as someone who has married a man. He met me as a fully functioning woman, not as Douglas but as Denise. This fight is as important for him as it is for me.'
After the court cases and the marriage, the couple are planning to move to London. Asked how her family felt about her going public, Martin said: 'Obviously back in the early days there was a lot of hurt and confusion. But they have finally accepted me as Denise, and they know because I am a very cocksure person that I speak my mind and don't let people walk all over me.'
Aside from challenging the legal system, Martin will soon pose a dilemma for her local Anglican church where she wants to marry. 'I'm a very religious person,' she says, fiddling with a holy medal on a chain around her neck, 'It's extremely important for me to have my marriage blessed in the church as well as recognised in law.'
Martin claims that she was born as a woman trapped inside a man's body: 'I didn't have a sex change, I had a sex realignment. All the surgeons did was to correct my anatomy.
'I have been on a long, painful journey to arrive at the woman I am today. It's for that reason mainly that I will not allow the law to ignore who I now am.'
A spokesman for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission said it would be monitoring Martin's case and would be happy to speak with her if and when her challenge reaches the European court.
Sexual minorities in socially conservative Northern Ireland have used the European courts before to challenge domestic law. In the early 1980s gay rights activist Jeff Dudgeon won his case in Europe against the British government over the criminalisation of homosexuality in the north of Ireland.