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Michael Dillon was born as a female in 1915, and was one of the first people in the UK to undergo a medical procedure to change him into a man. He took estrogen and went through many surgeries, performed by Harold Gillies, one of the first plastic surgeons who learned much of his technique from working on soldiers with battlefield injuries. Dillon was a member of an aristocratic British family, and his brother was Baronet of Lismullen. Dillon's life was extraordinary; his identification as a woman made him want to get a female body, and he was ready to risk universal ridicule. He became alienated from his family and he eventually died on his own in India. Pagan Kennedy tells the story of his life, portraying him sympathetically and emphasizing how he forged a trail for himself. She writes well, if a little floridly at times, describing his thoughts or what he saw, in order to heighten the drama. In the telling of this story, she also surveys some of the history of transsexuals in the twentieth century, and she goes into some detail regarding Roberta Cowell, whom Dillon helped have a male-to-female sex change, and then fell in love with. For anyone interested in the history of our understanding of gender and the development of transsexuals as a category, this book is essential reading.
Dillon was clearly a smart and resourceful man, with some if not self-destructive then reckless tendencies. One question raised by his life is whether his self-description of being a man who grew up in a woman's body is the best one and whether the path that Dillon created was the best one. One alternative approach that has been defended by many in recent decades has been to avoid a rigid gender scheme that divides all people into men, women, or a weird mixture of male and female, and rather accept that people have a spectrum of different qualities and that we should accept people for what they are. The hope here would be that people did not need to then undergo dangerous and disfiguring operations to change their appearance. However, in order to do this, one would have to change society rather than one's body, and this certainly wasn't feasible in the middle of the twentieth century. Indeed, there are strong social pressures to keep gender clearly separated into male and female, and attempts to change this are often savagely repressed. Dillon wrote a great deal about himself and his condition, arguing that medical approaches were appropriate and best, and it is not hard to see why he took that stance, since it was probably the best one available to him at the time. Yet hopefully our understanding and treatment of people we currently classify as transsexuals will evolve and improve.
Toward the end of his life, Dillon became interested in eastern thought and went to India to avoid the Western press and learn how to change himself mentally. Kennedy takes a very non-judgmental view of this, but Dillon's readiness to believe the claims of frauds and dubious religious sects, as well as his readiness to give away all his money, seem quite bizarre and suggest the possibility that he was not just eccentric and impulsive, but that he had extremely poor judgment at times. For all his brilliance and self-determination, this raises the question whether he had a deeper mental disorder that affected his behavior and beliefs. It is too late to settle this question, and even if he did suffer from such a disorder, that would not reduce our understanding of his courage and the importance of his fight against conventional views regarding sex and gender and his success in achieving what he wanted. It would also be irrelevant to the arguments he set out in his books. However, it would be relevant to a full understanding of his life and his struggle.
Link: Pagan Kennedy website
© 2008 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York.
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