Monday, December 7, 2009

Michael Dillon: The "First" Man-Made Man

The First Man-Made Man, by Pagan Kennedy, is a book about Michael Dillon, one of the first people to undergo sex-reassignment surgery.  At the time the book was written he was believed to have been the first female-to-male transsexual, but recently someone else has been rediscovered.  Call Dillon the second man-made man.

It's a short book which contains tremendous amounts of information.  Some of the most interesting stuff is not directly related to Dillon at all.  I will attempt to give a short overview of his life.

The Person

Dillon was born in 1915 and named Laura Maud Dillon.  (He later changed his name to Laurence Michael, but seems always to have gone by "Michael.")  His mother died of complications soon after the birth.  In that era, fathers were believed to be incapable of caring for children, let alone infants, so Dillon's father handed off his two young children to a pair of spinster aunts.  He died when Dillon was nine.

These women were what one might call highly eccentric.  The lives of genteel unmarried women were at that time fairly restricted, and they seem to have imposed even more restrictions than were necessary.  According to Kennedy, they told their niece that no one wanted to come over to her house, or invite her to their houses.  They even told her not to greet people if she passed them on the street.  Under these conditions, it's not surprising that Dillon never really developed any social skills and found it difficult to make friends later in life.

The young Dillon had one stroke of luck:  he was befriended by the local vicar, who convinced the aunts to let him go to Oxford.  The first women's colleges at Oxford were founded in 1879 -- however, women were not allowed to take complete degrees until 1920.  It was at Oxford that Dillon began dressing as a man.

In 1939, a year after graduation, Dillon consulted a doctor for the first time about what we would today call his "transsexuality."  The doctor gave him some testosterone pills, but unfortunately he also gossiped to Dillon's co-workers about this "woman who wanted to become a man."  Dillon quit his job and moved to another town.

In 1943, Dillon met a plastic surgeon, one of the first in Britain, who had studied with the man who apparently invented plastic surgery, Harold Gillies. Dr. Gillies invented his surgical techniques while working on men who had been disfigured in World War I, people who had been injured in accidents . . . and on a certain number of people who either had been born with ambiguous genitals, or wanted sex-reassignment surgery.  His disciple wrote Dillon a note that enabled him to change the name and sex listed on his identity documents (possibly before any surgery had been carried out) and passed him on to Dr. Gillies, who performed several surgeries on his chest and genitals over a number of years.

In 1949 he became the proud new owner of an official penis.  Ironically, the main purpose of this organ was to allow him to pass in those "public" situations where men are gathered together in the nude or semi-nude.  It was not fully functional, and considering that men have a taboo against staring at each other's equipment, one can't help but wonder just how realistic it was.  In any case, Dillon was happy.  Temporarily.

The story of Dillon's outing is surely unique.  Dillon's father had actually been a baronet.  When he died, the title passed to Dillon's older brother, who had no children.  Therefore Michael Dillon was the heir to the baronetcy (although Laura Dillon would not have been.)  Dillon wanted to be officially known as the heir.  It turns out that there are two directories of the peerage in Britain -- Burke's and Debrett's.  Dillon showed his revised birth certificate to the editor of Debrett's and explained the situation.  The editor saw his point and changed the entry for the baronetcy in question.  He believed that Burke's peerage would also get changed, but this did not happen.  Someone compared the two peerages and asked, "Why is Laura Dillon listed in one and Michael Dillon listed in the other?"

This happened in 1958.  Dillon was then working as a ship's doctor.  His ship was docked in Baltimore when the story of the peerage discrepancy broke -- and apparently it was huge.  Dillon couldn't stand the publicity (if it had been me, I would have left the peerage and the baronetcy alone, but Dillon wanted to be recognized.  Except he also didn't.)  He fled again.

A couple years earlier, he had become interested in mysticism.  He studied the works of Gurdjieff, and found a "Tibetan" guru who turned out to be a fake.  But Tibet still called to him.  When the peerage story broke, he went to India and became the disciple of an English Buddhist who had been ordained as a monk in the Theravada tradition.  Dillon wanted to be ordained as well, but he discovered that, according to the original Buddhist rules, members of the "third sex" are not allowed to be ordained.

What did they mean by the "third sex?"  Kennedy says it's not clear.  I would have been fascinated to find out, but if Dillon felt any particular curiosity, his biographer doesn't mention it.  He hoped that they would make an exception for him.  He was happy in India (it was difficult to get to Tibet because it was in the process of being occupied by the Chinese) despite these various problems. 

As Kennedy says, he had reshaped his body and now he was trying to reshape his mind.  He was living in a foreign land . . . there must have been something comforting about that.  I believe that people judge foreigners less harshly than they judge their own -- or rather, they allow strangers to be strange.  If it's one of your own kind, you have to keep them in line.  Dillon also admitted to feeling a certain superiority, as a white man in Asia.  In England he was only a freak.

He gave away his inheritance, an act which he believed was in accordance with Buddhist doctrine, and lived in poverty.  He died in 1962, in India, probably of malnutrition.  (There is a website which claims that the Buddhist vegetarian diet is what malnourished him, but it was more likely to be lack of food in general.)

The Book

I would not say that Kennedy is unsympathetic to her subject, but I do feel that she misses the point of transsexuality.  Much of the book is devoted to a discussion of the history of cosmetic surgery and hormone treatment, in which Kennedy provides many fascinating (and sometimes grotesque) facts.  Her goal is to demonstrate that both cissexuals* and transsexuals have sought to alter their bodies with surgery and hormones . . . and if that causes people to feel more tolerance for transsexuals, that's great, but I still believe that wanting to get a new nose (for example) is not at all the same thing as wanting to change your biological sex.  Also, hormone therapy for cissexuals promises to "maintain" or "restore" their current or former state.  It doesn't create an entirely new physical condition.

After reading this book, I had to wonder if I really understood Michael Dillon.  Perhaps biographies of transfolk can never be entirely successful, because it is such a subjective state of being.  For example, after I read Conundrum by Jan Morris (which Kennedy describes as "masterfully written," by the way) I did feel as if I understood her.  She was expressing herself, speaking for herself; no one else could speak for her.  That is the essence of transgender/transsexuality:  no one else can speak for us.  (Incidentally, the year before he died Dillon did complete an autobiography, which Kennedy had access to, but the manuscript has not been published.)

The First Man-Made Man is unquestionably worth reading . . . but it also seems to be wandering in the dark.  (Is that an accurate reflection of Michael Dillon's life?)  It describes his body, and some of his mental processes, but it never seems to find his heart.  The body can be reshaped, the mind can be reprogrammed, but the heart is that item deep inside of us which does not change.

*"Cissexual" is the opposite of "transsexual," just as "cisgender" is the opposite of "transgender:"  it refers to someone who feels their gender to be in harmony with their biological sex.

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