The revealing story of an Oxford graduate named Laura Dillon, who secretively transformed herself into a man several years before Christine Jorgensen made “transsexual” a household word.
While primarily a biography, the book also traces the history of scientists’ evolving ideas about what it means to be male or female. Kennedy (Confessions of a Memory Eater, July 2006, etc.) makes use of Dillon’s own writings and those of other transsexuals; she consulted plastic surgeons, members of the transgendered community and a Buddhist monk who was Dillon’s mentor in India. The author writes vividly of Dillon’s struggle with her sexuality at Oxford in the 1930s and of the social and legal constraints she faced while making the transition from female to male. She began taking testosterone pills in 1938 and was attending medical school as Michael Dillon when she learned of the revolutionary work being done by plastic surgeons to repair wartime injuries. From 1946 to 1949, she underwent 13 operations to get a penis. In 1951, Michael Dillon (now legally male) proposed marriage to Roberta Cowell, a man-turned-woman who did not return his affection and turned him down. Dillon became a ship’s doctor and in 1954, when Cowell’s sensational autobiography threatened to out him, signed up for a four-year stint ferrying pilgrims to Mecca. He eventually fled to India to find anonymity and study meditation. Adopting a new name, Lobsang Jivaka, he planned to take vows as a monk. At the time of his death in 1962, he was working on his memoirs, which would have been the first by a female-to-male transsexual.
Sheds welcome light on the changes in society’s attitudes and in scientific thinking about gender.