As It Happens

She refused to leave her home when her partner died. Her case paved the way for LGBTQ rights

Mary Cunningham Simpson didn't think of herself as a trailblazer, but her friend Paul Johnson says that's exactly what she was.

Mary Cunningham Simpson, 'a true pioneer' who was relatively unknown later in life, has died at the age of 74

Mary Cunningham Simpson, who made history when she brought her case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights, died this week at the age of 74. (Wiltshire Gazette & Herald)

Story Transcript

Mary Cunningham Simpson didn't think of herself as a hero, but her friend Paul Johnson says that's exactly what she was.

The trailblazing lesbian, whose legal battles in the 1980s helped paved the way for LGBTQ equality in the U.K., has died at the age of 74.

Simpson is not well-known today. But in 1984, she made a stir when she challenged her eviction from the council home she shared with her long-time partner, Nicky, in North Yorkshire, England.

Nicky was the home's official tenant, and when she died, the local council tried to kick Simpson out. English law at the time had a provision that allowed a deceased person's spouse to take over their tenancy, but only if they were living together "as husband and wife."

Simpson pushed back, fighting her eviction in court all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. She lost at every stage, but her efforts helped pave the way for others to secure LGBTQ rights, says Johnson.

Johnson, a sociologist, has been a friend of Simpson's since he interviewed her 2015 for his book Going to Strasbourg: An Oral History of Sexual Orientation Discrimination and the European Convention on Human Rights. He wrote about her legacy in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald newspaper

Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

You recorded [a] conversation with Mary six years ago. What goes through your mind when you hear her voice again?

I think of what a very brave person Mary was, and I think of the pioneer that she was back in the 1980s when she brought her case against discriminatory laws that meant that she couldn't stay in her home when her partner died. 

While she was unsuccessful, you have pointed out that she really was a pioneer and had an impact on the fight for future same-sex couples. How did she pave that way?

Her legacy is that she was one of the first people in the world — actually in the whole world — to assert under international human rights law that same-sex couples should not suffer discrimination on the grounds of their sexual orientation.

And she made that argument at a time when people thought this was bizarre. You can see from the court judgments, they just thought the argument was bizarre.

So she was truly ahead of her time in the 1980s. And so were those that supported her — her legal team, who often worked for little or no money, and the LGBT community that supported her. 

But ultimately, she was at the forefront of it. She suffered the discrimination that came because of the case.… When she basically barricaded herself in her home, refusing to leave, her home was attacked. Things were thrown through a window.

She suffered a lot of homophobic abuse, but her case laid the ground for future cases. And this is often what happens in law. People take legal cases. They're the first people to do it. They lose, but their battle opens up vistas for new arguments, shows what paths can be taken, and people come later and they bring the same cases. And case after case is brought until eventually they win. And that's what she did. She was a true pioneer, a trailblazer.

Paul Johnson, left, is the author of Going To Strasbourg, a book about the people who fought LGBTQ discrimination at the European Convention on Human rights. (Submitted by Paul Johnson, Oxford University Press )

What was life like for Mary after she lost the cases?

I think she found it very difficult. She obviously went back to living as normal life as she could. She left the home that she had eventually lost. She moved to a different part of the country and got on with her life.

And her life was dedicated in most part to helping animals. She had a deep love of animals, and she would take in any stray animal she found and look after it. And her house was full of street animals.

When you spoke with her and had her look back at her experience, did she recognize that she was a pioneer or a hero?

She didn't really. I told her she was, but she didn't. 

I think that's common with people who do bring these cases. Because although to us they are truly extraordinary and they do show high levels of bravery, what they actually are is very ordinary people trying to live ordinary lives. They're people that want to be treated with dignity and respect and be treated equally to others. But they want that in order to get on with their ordinary life.

So she didn't think she was extraordinary, and she didn't think she had done anything extraordinary, but she really had.

Why do you think more people don't know about her?

At the point that people do these extraordinary things and bring these extraordinary legal actions, they are known for a short time, but the world moves on and they become forgotten. And that was my motivation for interviewing Mary and people like her, and to collect their testimonies together in a book, so that people will remember the very brave actions that they took and not forget them, and to remember that the freedoms that they enjoy today in the U.K. are down to people like Mary.

Is there any one memory of her or something that she might have shared with you that gives you comfort and that fills you with positive memories of her?

My overriding memory of Mary is not related to any one thing she said, but to the extraordinary kindness that she always exhibited. She used to ring me and talk about all sorts of things on the telephone. But when she spoke about anyone or anything, and particularly animals, she always spoke with the greatest kindness and compassion.

People who are treated so badly and so cruelly often don't react with anger and bitterness, but develop an enduring compassion for other people. And to me, she was the epitome of that. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Cornick. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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