Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 3 / 19 January 2017

Spiritual & gender transitions


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Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions by Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka, edited by Jacob Lau and Cameron Partridge; Fordham University Press, $34.95

Before Christine Jorgensen, Candy Darling, or Kate Bornstein, there was Michael Dillon, a transgender pioneer and one of the first cases of a woman transitioning to a man. The holy grail of transsexual history has been the long-rumored memoir of Dillon/Jivaka, finished in 1962, two weeks before his sudden death at age 47 after collapsing on a hike in India and dying in a local hospital. Mailed to his literary agent, but prevented from being published by his transphobic brother, the autobiography literally lay hidden in a London warehouse for 50 years. A successor at the literary agency retained a copy of the manuscript, which he would quietly make available to scholars doing work on Dillon, including trans researcher Pagan Kennedy, who completed a biography of Dillon/Jivaka, The First Man-Made Man , in 2007. Two trans scholars from Harvard Divinity School, Cameron Partridge and Jacob Lau, who attended one of Kennedy's book readings, approached her about the memoir, and she made digital photographs of the manuscript available to them. Eventually it was published by Fordham.

Born Laura Maude Dillon on May 1, 1915, into a minor aristocratic family, her mother died a week after giving birth, and her father, an alcoholic, when she was 10. She was raised in Folkestone, England, by two spinster aunts. From early on, Dillon had an interest in spirituality, beginning with Anglican Christianity, due to a close relationship with a local vicar. Dillon attended Oxford, studying theology then classics, becoming an avid rower. She began adopting masculine traits such as smoking a pipe and confiding to friends that she was attracted to women. She was sent by a local doctor to a psychiatrist who unprofessionally shared her story with another physician who worked in the laboratory where Dillon had secured a position. The resulting ridicule by colleagues was unbearable. This began a four-year miserable period when Dillon was employed in a garage. In 1939 she began self-administering testosterone, which had only been synthesized in 1935. At 28, he legally registered as male under the name Lawrence Michael. Dillon became a firewatcher during WWII, but also started studying sexology and hormones, writing his first book Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology in 1946. He eclipsed Harry Benjamin, the foremost expert, by 20 years in formulating a coherent medical model of trans people.

He had a double mastectomy and, deciding to study medicine at Trinity College, found a surgeon to perform the first phalloplasty (construction of a penis) on an assigned birth female. Graduating in 1951, he joined the Merchant Navy as a surgeon for six years, traveling all over the world. He might have made this decision due to his failed relationship with Roberta Cowell, not mentioned in the memoir. She had contacted Dillon about transitioning from male to female and he fell in love with her, but not feeling similarly, she rejected his marriage proposal. He would never have another romance.

In 1958 he wrote to Burke's Peerage to register to be next in line for his older brother's title, a move that outed him to the press. Journalists hounded him on his navy ship. Fleeing from them, he decided to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk, having studied Buddhism for years and struck a friendship with Dhardoh Rimpoche at the Mahabodhi Temple at Bodh Gaya (site of the Buddha's enlightenment) in India. He was ordained a novice, the first Westerner to be accepted as a Tibetan monk and allowed into a monastery, writing two books: Practicing the Dhamapada (1959) and Growing Up Into Buddhism (1960). He took the name Lobzang Jivaka, the Buddha's physician. He studied under a strict Theravada English monk teacher who exposed him after discovering Dillon was heading for Tibet. Authorities turned him back at the border. Having retrieved his manuscript, Dillon added a short account of the previous three years and an introduction, finishing it on May 1, 1962, his 47th birthday. Oddly, the memoir would arrive before news of Dillon's death.

Readers wanting an in-depth account of his transition or struggles to embrace a new identity will be disappointed. He only discusses the subject because he wants to correct media misrepresentations of his life, writing in the hope it might "contribute to a broader understanding and social acceptance for others with histories like his own." There are no lurid sexual revelations and only a brief reference of his conversion to Buddhism, having covered that topic in a previous book. The other frustration is that Dillon is very much a man of his times, far from enlightenment, casually making indiscreet remarks that we would regard today as imperialist and racist. His prose is rather dull, veering at times into an off-putting, morally righteous tone. While not the revelatory read one might wish, as a rare historical document of what it was like to be a trans man in the middle of the 20th century, there is cause for celebration at the publication of this fascinating if unresolved life.

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