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Lives lived...

Today I include two excerpts from two separate articles on the life of David/Sonia Burgess who was by all accounts an excellent parent, an upstanding citizen and one of the finest immigration lawyers of his generation.

In 2010, now living as Sonia Burgess, she was pushed into a subway track by a deranged person she was trying to help. Burgess was an example of a human being and not a gender stereotype. He grew up in a single parent home and was raised by his mother. His entire life he had gender disphoria and late in life had begun addressing it by living in a way that was more reflective of the way he felt inside.

“David Burgess was regarded as one of the finest immigration lawyers of his generation. The decisions he secured in the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights featured significant landmarks for the representation of asylum seekers and transgendered people.

Burgess had graduated from St Catharine’s College, Cambridge in 1969. He went on to co-found his own legal aid law firm, Winstanley Burgess solicitors, six years later. It was there, as senior partner, that he began to specialise in asylum work.

In 1987, a decision awarded in favour of 52 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers changed British law to allow asylum seekers the right to appeal against refusal of asylum before having to leave the country. Before that no such right was guaranteed. In 1991 he took up the cause of “M”, a Zairean asylum seeker, and brought contempt proceedings against Kenneth Baker, the Tory Home Secretary. The victory was described by one of the leading experts in academic law, Professor Sir William Wade, as the most significant constitutional case for more than 200 years.

His first victories in securing full legal rights for transgendered clients were equally ground breaking. In the 1980s he represented a female-to-male trans client, Mark Rees, who wished to have the gender on his birth certificate altered. He campaigned for the right of Stephen Whittle, a female-to-male trans parent, to be legally recognised as the father of his children.

In 2005, Burgess separated from his wife of 20 years, with whom he had three children, and began the transition from David to Sonia. She continued to work as a lawyer under the name David, but lived thereon as Sonia.

Sonia Burgess died in 2010 after she was pushed from the platform at King’s Cross under an approaching tube train. Senthooran Kanagasingham, who lived as Nina and was awaiting gender reassignment surgery, was charged with Burgess’ murder and jailed for life. After the verdict, Sonia’s daughter, Dechen Burgess, told the court, “She was trying to help Nina. Ideally we would like Nina to recognise the harm she has done to many lives, but we hope she can one day reach such a place so she can live life in fullness as our father would have wanted.”


And from an article in the UK Guardian written in January of 2011:

“On the day that Burgess was killed, he was living as a woman and yet working as a man. He was open about his lifestyle to anyone who asked, but he also had separate groups of friends: those who knew him as David and those who knew him exclusively as Sonia. He allowed only his closest confidants to see him in both guises and, as numerous of his acquaintances will attest, he shied away from mentioning his achievements, preferring instead to draw out the person to whom he was talking. The vast majority of those who knew him as Sonia, such as Christina Beardsley, knew nothing of his remarkable professional record. Those who knew him as David had little inkling that, for the past five years, he had been living as a vivacious and attractive woman, shopping for clothes in Zara, getting his ears pierced and undergoing electrolysis to remove his facial hair.

When Sonia fell in front of that tube train last October, the rush-hour commuters could have had no idea about the extent of her uniqueness. And for many of Sonia's friends, her untimely death was the final tug on a ball of thread that would unravel her extraordinary story.

On 17 November, a funeral service for Sonia Burgess was held at St Martin-in-the-Fields, an impressive, grey-stone, porticoed church that overlooks Trafalgar Square. The church was filled with around 600 people from diverse backgrounds – lawyers, university contemporaries, former asylum seekers, members of the transgender community and countless others who, in some way, had had their lives touched by the person they knew as either David or Sonia. His three children stood up to deliver a eulogy about the father they had known, slipping easily between female and male pronouns as they talked. It was, everyone agreed, a moving tribute to an exceptional person.

As he sat in the pews casting his eye over the congregation, it struck Ian Baker as ironic that his friend would have been "utterly and acutely embarrassed by it all. He could never have imagined that so many people felt that way about him."

In the weeks and months after his friend's death, Baker has found it difficult to come to terms with David's absence. "You take people for granted in life. You don't stand back and think, 'How does he fit into the scheme of things?' Then, when he's gone, you suddenly realise." He looks down at the carpet for several seconds, his head tilted to one side, his fingers fidgeting. Eventually, he speaks. "You realise: I've never met a more compassionate person." And he sounds relieved, as though, after two hours' conversation, he has finally managed to find the right words”



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