We reinvent ourselves all the time. We change jobs, get a facelift, become born again, get a new mantra or Mercedes, whatever… This country, “The American Dream,” is based on reinvention. But how about reinventing yourself as someone of the opposite sex? How about undergoing years of painful operations; preparing oneself to face intolerance and discrimination society to achieve goals? Writer Pagan Kennedy has tackled such a subject in her new book The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth Century Medical Revolution (Bloomsbury). Kennedy, a long-time Somerville resident, and the author of a number of critically-acclaimed fiction and nonfiction titles including: Black Livingstone and Spinsters, has written a true account of Laura Dillon, a woman born in England in 1915. Laura, later known as Michael Dillon, became the first person to undergo a sex change from female to male. Dillon’s quest for radical change was at a time when the use of plastic surgery and synthetic hormones were in their seminal stages of development. During Dillon’s long and torturous journey he became a medical doctor, and even had an unrequited love affair with Roberta Cowell, a preoperative male to female he thought would understand him. In the end Dillon began a spiritual quest for acceptance in India and Tibet where he attempted to become an ordained Buddhist monk. Kennedy has tackled this bizarre story in an objective, non-histrionic manner, making for a totally engrossing read. The Beat interviewed Kennedy recently about The First Man- Made Man:
Doug Holder: Laura Dillon started out as a female. But her life was dedicated to her transformation to a male, which was totally unheard of in 1940's and 1950's England. How much do you think this obsession was psychological, and how much physical. How much did the repressive attitude towards women contribute to this?
Pagan Kennedy: Born in 1915, Laura Dillon began to have intimations that she was not really a girl even in the nursery. But her true revelation came at age 17, when a boy held open a gate for her, and she realized that he saw her as a woman. "It was a horrible moment and I felt stunned," Dillon wrote later. "I had never thought of myself as a female despite being technically a girl. People thought I was a woman, but I wasn't. I was just me." From then on, she was compelled to dress and act as a man. She did not know how to explain herself or her urges, given that the word 'transsexual' had still not come into use. So she had to invent the idea for herself. She faced enormous discrimination -- not so much as a woman but as a person who dressed in drag and looked androgynous. This fueled her desire to transform her body into a male's; she wanted other people to stop tormenting her. In the late 1930s, she became the first woman on record to begin taking testosterone, which is an enormously effective drug for changing appearance. By the early 1940s, Laura Dillon had become a male tow-truck driver named Michael Dillon. He wrote one of the first texts ever to argue for the rights of transsexuals. He then earned a medical degree and became a doctor. At the end of his life, he explored India and became one of the first Westerners ever to take vows as a Tibetan Buddhist. The first half of Dillon's adult life was dedicated to changing his body; in the second half, he worked on transforming his own mind and grasping spiritual truths.
Doug Holder: Obviously Dillon felt strongly about being a complete male, to the extent of getting a penis. He didn't seem to be that concenred with the sexual aspect of a relationship. He seemed to be more interested in the trappings of "respectability" Married, house-- the middle class ideal. Your take?
Pagan Kennedy: Yes, his greatest desire was to become invisible and to live an ordinary life. This is a privilege that most of us take for granted. Imagine how exhausting it would be to draw stares and catcalls every time you walk down the street, to be fired from jobs, to be ostracized. Dillon -- like many transgendered people today -- had faced a kind of social torture that ground him down. So once he could pass as a man, he longed to fit in and be accepted, because he'd never had that luxury before. At the same, he hungered to find some spiritual enlightenment and Truth (with a capital T); this urge sent him on a fascinating quest all over the world; he traveled from America to Africa to China, and eventually he found what he was looking for in India. He would end up at a remote monastery in the Himalayas, enduring all kinds of deprivations -- from hunger to hard work -- in order to gain mastery over his own mind.
Doug Holder: Dillon graduated medical school. He was a mediocre student at best. Do you think he would have made the cut if he was a mediocre woman student?
Pagan Kennedy: He went to Trinity medical school in the late 1940s in Dublin. He spent much of those years commuting back to England to have more than a dozen plastic surgeries to transform his body so that he could pass as male in the shower or locker room. Often ill from surgery, he had a ready explanation: he had been injured in the Blitz. The Irish didn't question him on this; they knew too many other Englishman who had been hideously maimed by the bombs that fell on London, Bristol, Cardiff. In fact, Dillon had served bravely during the war as a fire watcher, putting out flames that sprung up from bombs and watching over a building full of gasoline that could have gone up any moment. So he was given allowances as an Englishman who'd been through the war. But I should also emphasized that he performed well enough in med school to pass all his tests and even perform surgeries -- which was miraculous, considering that he spent so much of his time as a patient himself.
Doug Holder:Dillon fled to Tibet, after his failed attempts at a relationship with another transexual, and his outing by the popular press. He sought to be a Buddhist Monk, but he was rejected because he was of the "third sex" I wonder if this was a first case for this order, and did they really have an understanding where this guy was coming from?
Pagan Kennedy: The Buddhist monastic code -- 2,500 years old -- does prohibit people who belong to the "third sex" from becoming monks. However, it's hard to say what exactly religious leaders meant, thousands of years ago, by that term "third sex." Also, the monastic code prohibits people with a zillion other conditions, from goiter to eczema, so a lot of people ignore these bans. Initially, Dillon sought to become a monk in the Theravada tradition, but the leaders blocked him. He found the Tibetan Buddhists to be much more sympathetic. Had he lived a few more years, he surely would have become a monk.
Doug Holder: How would Dillion fare in 2007?
Pagan Kennedy: In 2007 would Dillon have a respectable medical practice, marriage, sexual life or least have a much better chance at it.
In fact, hundreds or thousands of transgendered men are now living the kinds of ordinary lives to which Dillon once aspired: marriage, kids, careers. And many of them are living quite extraordinary lives. For instance, Dr. Ben Barres, now one of the top brain scientists in the country, went through MIT as a woman and transitioned after that. He has spoken out eloquently about discrimination against women in the sciences.
Doug Holder. There is a picture of a pipe on the front cover of the book. Dillon smoke a pipe. Was the pipe a sort of smoke screen (pardon the pun) for Dillon?
Pagan Kennedy: When she was at Oxford in the 1930s, Laura Dillon struggled to figure out who she was. Her friends had told her she was a "homosexual" because she was attracted to other women, and yet Laura knew that her discomfort did not have to do with sex so much as with identity. She needed other people to recognize her as a man -- more particularly, she knew she had to become an Oxford man, an intellectual and thinker. Because she did not have a word, she picked a symbol for her future self; in secret, she bought a pipe and brought it back to her room at Oxford and began puffing on it. The pipe -- that male appendage in the shape of a question mark -- seemed to perfectly sum up what Dillon knew she needed to survive. Eventually, she did become exactly the kind of man she'd picture: Michael Dillon was a pipe-smoking intellectual, an Oxford man and a respected doctor. And then, when he began living at a monastery in India -- and hoped to dissolve his ego in order to find englightment -- he threw the pipe over a cliff. This, for him, was the ultimate sacrifice: he intended to give up not just the pleasure of smoking, but also all his privileges as an Englishman in India.