transitions and seeking refuge
September 8, 2008 4:33 PM   Subscribe

A fascinating story of the first known, Western transsexual, Tibetan Buddhist novice monk: Laurence Michael Dillon (born Laura Maude Dillon, May 1, 1915 - May 15, 1962) was a British physician and the first female-to-male transsexual to undergo phalloplasty. His brother, Sir Robert Dillon, was the eighth Baronet of Lismullen in Ireland. The editor of Debrett's told Time Magazine that Dillon was unquestionably next in line for the baronetcy: The unwanted press attention led Dillon to flee to India, and then to a Tibetan monastery. Girls Will Be Boys, a review of The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution, by Pagan Kennedy. Photograph of Michael Dillon as a monk.

Images [NSFW] and video on TransGenderZone.

Wikipedia info.

Peerage and the law as it relates to the transgendered

Sangharakshita, who betrayed Michael Dillon's trust

In 1946 Dillon published Self: A Study in Endocrinology and Ethics, a book about what would now be called transsexuality, though that term had not been coined yet.

Two books by him were published in London in 1962: The Life of Milarepa, about a famous 11th century Tibetan yogi, and Imji Getsul, an account of life in a Buddhist monastery.
posted by nickyskye (15 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Great post, even if the book reviewer didn't like him much.
posted by grapefruitmoon at 5:08 PM on September 8, 2008

As someone who is interested in both transgender issues and buddhism, this is absolutely fascinating. About the only way this post could be better tailored to my interests is to throw in some maps.
posted by desjardins at 5:23 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Great post.

Hope this makes your day desjardins: Buddhism in the U.S. map and U.S. Sexual Orientation / Gender Identification rights map. Yo do the overlay :)
posted by dirty lies at 5:50 PM on September 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

omg, how could I have forgotten the maps?!

Oh, there's maps dear desjardins.

Lismullen, County Donegal, Ireland where he grew up. Darjeeling, right between Nepal and Bhutan, where he met Sangharakshita. And Rizong Gompa in Ladakh, 73 kilometers from Leh, where he lived as a novice.
posted by nickyskye at 5:57 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Great post! I'd read about Dillon before, but oddly enough, from the perspective of Roberta Cowell (the first British transwoman) in an article :

"He was a good deal younger than I had expected, and wore a full beard. His hair was beginning to thin and had receded at the temples. He was a very masculine type, not bad-looking. Apparently he was a misogynist, and appeared to have a low opinion of women.

After lunch we sat talking over coffee, and he lit his pipe. We were discussing the connection between sex and intelligence, I, of course, maintaining that given equal opportunities, women can be the mental equals of men. He disagreed violently.

Then came the surprise, a surprise so shattering that the scene will be crystal-clear in my memory for the rest of my life. He sat there, sucking at his pipe and toying with his coffee cup. He was silent for a minute or two, and I was idly wondering how long that beard of his had taken to grow.

Suddenly, “I don’t really see why I shouldn’t tell you,” he said, “but five years ago I was a woman.”

Such a possibility had never entered my head for one moment. As I looked at him now it seemed absolutely and utterly fantastic, quite unbelievable, but I was not then fully aware of all that modem medical science could do.

He had been born as a perfectly normal girl, physically at least. Mentally he had felt like an interloper in his own body. He hated anything feminine, and was a gawky, desperately unhappy child. He was by no means bad-looking, a brilliant scholar, and an outstanding athlete. He wore men’s clothes whenever possible, and was frequently assumed to be a man.

One day a doctor friend suggested that he might be helped by hormone treatment, and gave him a supply. The results were more than satisfactory. Years later, after intensive therapy and some thirteen operations, he was legally certified a man. His case was by no means unique, he told me, citing other cases of women changing into men.

Although the final result was so satisfactory, he had endured and was still enduring immense hardships. For a long time he had lived on an income of five pounds a week, out of which he had spent exactly half on hormones. Even now he had to have constant medical supervision. He still suffered intermittently from hypoglycaemia, which is caused by a deficiency of sugar in the blood.

He was immensely strong, even for a man. I found it impossible to imagine him as a girl. He was as genuine a man as any I have met. "
posted by grippycat at 6:46 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

Hmm. The Buddhisim distribution map would be a lot more helpful if it were per-capita, instead of in absolute numbers; as it is, it's still striking in some areas (Texas? Really? Cool!)
posted by Tomorrowful at 6:51 PM on September 8, 2008

Important distinction, from the NY Times piece/third link:

Correction: April 8, 2007

A review on March 18 about “The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution,” by Pagan Kennedy, refers incorrectly to Michael Dillon, the main subject of the book, who was born a woman. Dillon’s sex change is considered the first of the modern era because of its surgical sophistication and its early use of testosterone, starting in 1938. But he was not “the first person on record to undergo surgery to change his gender.” (Records of surgery to alter sexual characteristics go back to ancient times.)

So, "first known Western transexual," is sort of inexact.

But I parse finely, nickskye! Excellent post, every link a fascinating read!
posted by humannaire at 7:08 PM on September 8, 2008

Dear humannaire, I knew he wasn't the first known Western transsexual. I think the firsts in the West were the Gallae in ancient Rome. In modern times, Einar Wegener in 1930 and Christine Jorgensen in 1953.

But first known, Western transsexual, Tibetan Buddhist novice monk. I first wrote monk but realized he wasn't ordained fully as a monk.

Once, while studying the Vinaya (the Buddhist texts on morality, which also include the rules and guidelines for monks and nuns, monastic discipline etc), my teacher informed me that Shakyamuni made room for transsexuals to shift from being monks to nuns, or nuns to shift to being monks, if they changed genders during their lives.

I don't think Michael Dillon really was "of the third sex" according to the Vinaya, which I think in that particular contexts means gay, androgenous or hermaphrodite rather than transgendered.
posted by nickyskye at 7:41 PM on September 8, 2008

That first link is the most objective book review ever published.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:34 PM on September 8, 2008

Great post!

I also became curious about Roberta Cowell, from her mentions in these articles. Here's her autobiography online, with lots of photos and here is a youtube video episode about Roberta from a transgender documentary. (I could only watch the beginning of this, because of computer problems, so maybe it answers my next question.)

Her story seems far less misery-laden than poor Michael Dillon's... at least she seems to have had the support of her family. For example, upon meeting with her father for the first time after her surgery, "The only reference of any sort that Father made to my femininity was when he said he hoped I would never paint my toe-nails scarlet." Her voice is very lively and humorous, qualities that must have helped her a great deal.

But I've tried in vain to find out what happened with her after her autobiography leaves off... I don't even know if she is still living. If so, I guess she would be in her late 80s.

And from the first link in the post, I found this funny: "He would take on exactly the same duties that the boys did, which turned out to be round-the-clock cooking and cleaning in Rizong's filthy kitchen." Interesting that the kitchen of this fabled, obscure Tibetan monastery and my own kitchen have so much in common: both seem to remain filthy despite "round the clock cleaning". :)
posted by taz at 11:48 PM on September 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I read The First Man-Made Man a few months back, and it's an incredibly fascinating read. I couldn't recommend it for anyone who can't take sad stories, because the last chapters are absolutely heartrending - hell, the entire book is heart-rending, but the last chapters are the worst, because Dillon/Jivaka finally finds out where he belongs just in time to be dragged away because of political bureaucratisms and left to starve to death, somewhere in the cold. It's hard to tell what happened - the ungenerous part of me wants to say that Jivaka's friends didn't try hard enough to find him before it was too late, that they weren't as attached to him as he was to them, which seems to have been a trend throughout his lifetime if Kennedy's psychological biography is at all accurate. But it's probably more fair and more true to say that they couldn't find him, both physically (it being easy to lose people in rural 1950s Tibet) and psychologically (he was apparently high-maintenance, and prone to going off on his own path).

Sangharakshita is a total [censored], though, if you'll pardon my disrespect - no matter what your personal beliefs are, that's no way to treat a friend. No words for Robert Dillon. Dr. Gillies? Totally my dead white guy crush, even more than when I first heard about him in WWI contexts. It's really not surprising that the NY Times reviewer (also) got attached to him - Dillon seems to have been, either the way Kennedy presented him or in reality, a bit of a remote character. Unsurprisingly! But as a result, even some of the supporting characters in his own life (Gillies, Roberta) come out a little easier to understand and idolize than he does.

I am so, so glad that my trans and genderqueer friends were born when they were. So glad.
posted by bettafish at 7:37 AM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Now, now Mayor Curley, it's not a review so much as a synopsis of her own book.

What wonderful additional links and info brought to this thread.

taz, that video is excellent.

bettafish, I so agree with you. The story is tragic, in some ways. Michael Dillon was so unsupported -except by his doctors and he seems to have been particularly fortunate there-, so alone and then betrayed by that narcissist cult leader, Sangharakshita. Poignant how Dillon called Sangharakshita, "Daddy". I wondered if it weren't somehow a replication of an old family dynamic.

But the story is also one of such amazing determination, courage and an adventuresome spirit. How amazing that, in spite of all odds, and the odds against were incredible, that Dillon was able to have that surgery, travel to the other side of the planet alone, to the Himalayas, become a novice monk and live in a very remote Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, India on the Tibetan border, publish books. That's pretty awesome.

I wonder why his autobiography has never been published. Perhaps his family prevented it?

He died in the hospital in Dalhousie, India, in the Himalayas, a lovely geography to die in as such things go, a beautiful hill station. And he paved the way for other transgendered folk. Quite an inspiring pioneer in his own right.
posted by nickyskye at 10:50 AM on September 9, 2008

But the story is also one of such amazing determination, courage and an adventuresome spirit. How amazing that, in spite of all odds, and the odds against were incredible, that Dillon was able to have that surgery, travel to the other side of the planet alone, to the Himalayas, become a novice monk and live in a very remote Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Ladakh, India on the Tibetan border, publish books. That's pretty awesome.

This is all very true, and thank you for mentioning this. I was rather nervous when I posted my comment because I couldn't quite figure out how to emphasize that I don't feel sorry for Dillon. Well, I do in the sense that I feel bad for him - I can't really put myself in his place because I'm cisgendered, but as much as I can imagine it, I would have been really lonely, and what a terrible way to die. But I don't pity him, because he accomplished a helluva lot with what he had. Mostly I'm just really pissed off at the people who let him down. What could he have done with their support, eh?

I'm really curious about Self - shame it's never (as far as I know) been republished. If I recall correctly, Kennedy suggests that it was a bit muddled on a strictly medical/biological level but was far ahead of its time in grappling with psychological issues, although no one was paying attention to read it.
posted by bettafish at 6:00 PM on September 9, 2008

Oh, I just found the video from the original post in much easier to view format on YouTube - part one here, and then it continues directly in taz's link (here, so people don't need to scroll up) and beyond. Haven't finished the documentary, but it seems very good so far - breezy and informative with a lot of interviews.
posted by bettafish at 6:42 PM on September 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Thank you bettafish, that documentary is excellent. Among other things, it makes me wonder about how Berlin came to be such a progressive city.

Yes, I agree with you, I wish Dillon's work had been republished. I'd love to read his Imji Getsul: an English Buddhist in a Tibetan monastery.
posted by nickyskye at 8:24 AM on September 10, 2008

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