She was convicted of sexually assaulting a female friend while disguised as a man. How? Simon Hattenstone hears a tale of loneliness and betrayal in the digital age
Judge David Stockdale QC is a serious man with a hangdog expression and a lugubrious manner. He speaks in a basso profundo and looks as if he may never have smiled in his life. But he is measured and scrupulously fair: the perfect lawyer to preside over last months retrial of 27-year-old Gayle Newland in Manchester. In September 2015, Newland was convicted of sexually assaulting a close friend while disguised as a man, and sentenced to eight years in prison. But that conviction was overturned on appeal, after it was ruled that the original judges summing up had been biased in favour of the prosecution.
It is 19 June, with temperatures reaching 33C in parts of Britain the hottest June day since 1976. The air-conditioning, which cost 5m to install, has failed in courtroom five. I am going to remove my wig, Stockdale says. Members of the jury, I can only apologise for the heat. An ancient contraption is wheeled in to blow cold air across the room.
Stockdale tells the jury that this case has been heard before, but that they are not to speculate about why it is being heard again. Its facts are, you may feel, rather unusual and certainly got a good deal of press coverage at the time, he says as he outlines the case. But none of the jury appears to recognise the story.
And it is an astonishing case, as complex as it is occasionally lurid. Newlands first trial centred on the evidence of two compelling key witnesses (her and the complainant), a bizarre online love triangle, an abrupt betrayal, and a pink prosthetic penis, which Newland wore while disguised as a man. Her defence argued that the complainant was in a relationship with Newland, and fully aware that Newland and her male alter ego, Kye Fortune, were one and the same. But the prosecution disagreed, and argued that when she discovered her boyfriend was, in fact, a close female friend, her world fell apart.
On one level, that first trial felt like a one-off, without precedent. But on another, it resonated as a very modern tale of loneliness and love in the digital age: here were two women whose virtual world had become more real to them than their real one.
The second trial begins with more than two hours of video evidence: the recorded statement that the complainant Chloe (not her real name) gave when she first went to the police on 3 July 2013. She is an attractive woman, also 27, brought up in a Methodist family. Today she gives evidence behind a curtain, telling the jury that her dream was always to dance professionally on cruise ships, to travel and find a good husband. She had discovered a new confidence as a student at Chester University, after ending an abusive relationship with a boyfriend.
Kye Fortune first contacted her on Facebook, she says. The photographs showed a handsome, athletic, half-Filipino young man, and he wanted to be friends. They soon became close, regarding each other as boyfriend and girlfriend. Chloe was desperate to meet him (he was also a student at Chester), but for more than a year he refused. Kye said he had been in a disfiguring car accident, that he had a heart condition, that he was seriously ill with cancer, and Chloe believed him. Distraught, she tells the court she was a pathetic and naive idiot who had the worst judgment in everything.
But Kye wanted to introduce her online to one of his best friends, Gayle Newland. After the two women met, they found they had a lot in common, Chloe says going to a concert together, watching films, playing netball, hanging out. The thing she liked most about Newland, Chloe says, was that Kye trusted her totally.
Chloe says more than a year passed before Kye agreed to meet her, at a hotel in Chester, where they had sex. They met at a hotel once more, and then for three months at Chloes flat every Sunday, and sometimes midweek. There were strict rules to these encounters, Chloe tells the jury. Kye told her he was so anxious about his appearance that she would have to wear a blindfold, and could not touch him because of his injuries. He said his chest was bandaged because of a nozzle attached to his heart, and that he had to wear a compression-style suit to regulate his heartbeat. She accepted the strange conditions because she loved him, she explains; he had bought her an eternity ring, and she told everyone they were getting married. Once, Chloe admits, she looked out of her bedroom window after Kye had left, and saw Newland driving off. But she assumed that Newland must have given Kye a lift, and that he was sitting in the passenger seat.
At times, Chloe breaks down and her voice becomes muffled. At others, she is combative, asking why she would be in court having her reputation shredded if she was making this up. But her dates do not always add up, and sometimes she cannot remember simple information. For example, during this trial she reveals a significant new detail: that she let Kye tie her hands behind her back when they had sex. Nigel Power QC, Newlands defence barrister, a small man with a mighty quiff, is taken aback: Why? he asks.
Because he didnt trust me not to touch him or take my blindfold off.
Were you content to have your hands tied behind your back? Power asks.
I was, unfortunately, Chloe replies. If this is the way we have to do it for a couple of months, so you trust me, then fine.
How often did he tie your hands behind your back?
Why, Power asks, has it taken her four years to tell anyone this?
I must have forgotten to, because I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, Chloe says. In the grand scheme of things, it wasnt important if he did it once or twice. I dont remember little details.
But you said it was every time, Power says.
Newland sits silently in the dock. She has a number of tics: sometimes she blinks or twitches when she hears the evidence against her; occasionally she sits open-mouthed in protest.
Gayle Newlands mother Julie and father Brian are here every day. Outside the courtroom, there is no division between family and the press, and the Newlands are friendly without encouraging conversation. Julie reads books and magazines, while Brian talks to his daughters lawyers. At one point he introduces me to Julie, and jokingly asks if I can get rid of the photographers waiting for Gayle.
Court five is a small room with a balcony for members of the public. Some days, it is crammed with students and Newlands supporters. Even though she has never given any indication that she identifies as a man, Newlands case has been taken up by transgender activists, who believe the issues of consent it raises is something they have in common. Does it matter, they ask, if Chloe thought she had fallen in love with a man when, in fact, it was Newland? If Newland was found guilty, would that mean that someone who was transgender and did not inform a partner might also be guilty of sexual assault?
Newland is not the first British woman to have been charged with sexual assault after disguising herself as a man. In a world where sexuality is increasingly fluid, there have been a number of gender fraud cases. In 2012, 20-year-old Gemma Barker was convicted of sexually assaulting several friends while disguised as a man. In 2013, Justine McNally was convicted of six charges of sexual assault while masquerading as a man; and in the same year Christine Wilson, who had been diagnosed with gender identity disorder, was placed on the sex offenders register after pleading guilty to sexual relationships with two teenage girls while disguised as a man. Last year, 23-year-old Jennifer Staines was sentenced to 39 months after pleading guilty to sexual assaults on three teenage girls; she admitted contacting them using fake social media profiles as Jason.
Newlands trials have also raised broader issues around consent: how many people are truly who they say they are? If somebody lies about their wealth or status or background, does that mean a partner can claim they only consented to sex with a different person? Meanwhile, social media platforms are struggling to tackle the epidemic of false identities on their sites. In its 2014 annual report, Facebook admitted that fake accounts make up between 5.5% and 11.2% of its 1.3bn monthly active users.