July 2007

Rosette Royale

nonfiction

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution by Pagan Kennedy

When Christine Jorgensen stepped off a plane at Idlewild (now JFK) Airport in 1953, looking for all the world like Lana Turner’s long-lost cousin, she was repeatedly declared to be the world’s first transsexual. But history’s declared “firsts,” well, sometimes they turn out to be its seconds, even its thirds. And so, while sad, it seems necessary to break the news to Ms. Jorgensen and her fans: when it comes to being first to change one’s gender with the assistance of medical science, that title may very well belong to Michael Dillon, who, in the 1940s, shed his birth identity, Laura, to become the man he always dreamed of being.

Dreamed of? Well, as Pagan Kennedy tells it in her fascinating, though at times flat, The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution, Dillon’s experiences provided far more dustups than stardust.

In truth, Dillon’s troubles started early. Ten days after being born in England in 1915, the then-Laura lost her mother to sepsis. Her father, having left her and her older brother with two spinster aunts shortly after the mother’s death, died himself -- of drink -- when Laura was nine.

In her mid-teens, puberty played her a cruel trick, anointing her flat chest with unwanted breasts. In retaliation, she strapped them down with a belt. Even nastier, to Laura’s mind, was the day a boy, happening upon a gate while the two walked together, opened it for her with gallant honor. “Suddenly,” wrote Dillon in a journal, “I was struck with an awful thought...: ‘He thinks I’m a woman.’”

And so it went at Oxford, where she attended to university: everyone treated her as a female. No matter what she did -- joining the women’s crew team and advocating her teammates all don men’s clothing, procuring a stylish men’s hairdo -- she couldn’t get people to accept her as male. Her family, bristling at the gender-bending stories that trickled down to them, disowned her -- no minor offence, seeing as how her older brother was a baronet. But Laura could not help it. After all, she was sure that, inside, she was a man.

At 24, Laura, hearing of a military clinician specializing in “sex problems,” prayed he might lend a sympathetic ear. Instead, the doctor treated her to a hasty dismissal from his office, but not before tossing her a vial of pills: they were testosterone. Within weeks of use, she found that her voice deepened, her cheeks sprouted whiskers. Newly confident, Laura took on a new name: Michael.

But how could Michael be a man, without a penis? Here, fortune smiled upon him, in the manner of Sir Harold Gillies, one of England’s first plastic surgeons. He’d installed himself at a facility doing reconstructive surgery on soldiers injured in the war and Michael, upon meeting him and relating his story, asked: can you construct me a penis? To his astonishment, the surgeon said yes, but only after the beds in the facility clear up. Which meant Michael had to wait.

He entered medical school at Cambridge and, once in training, Sir Gillies told him a bed was waiting. Shuttling between the dormitory and the surgical facility hours away, Dillon underwent, from 1946 to 1949, at least 13 painful operations to construct a penis. Kennedy, having come across a photo of said phallus in her research, describes it thus: “it resembles... a frankfurter, oddly fat and smooth with a large hole at its end.” Mission accomplished.

Except that Dillon was still a virgin. Who, he wondered, would take him? That question, he felt sure, was answered by the arrival of a shapely statuesque blonde, Roberta Cowell, who met him one day in a London restaurant. Roberta, born Robert, wanted to become a woman. Having come upon a book that Dillon had penned on endocrinology, she asked if he knew anyone who could help. Dillon could have suggested Dr. Gillies, but the removal of a healthy male’s testicles -- known as an orchidectomy -- was illegal in the 1950s. Still in medical school, Dillon performed the operation himself, all the while secretly pining for Roberta. After courting her for months, Dillon was crushed when Roberta finally told him she wasn’t that into him. Despondent, and in possession of a medical license, he signed up as a ship’s doctor. And...

Well, the story goes on, with Dillon eventually finding his way to Tibet, seeking enlightenment through charlatans and honorable teachers both. Dillon’s life, it must be said, is fascinating and, for large swaths of the book, Kennedy delivers his biological, emotional and spiritual peregrinations with aplomb. But occasionally, the story fails her. While the Michael Dillon / Roberta Cowell unrequited love story does have legs, a mini-bio of Cowell runs on far too long. The same holds true of Dillon’s Tibetan travels: the journey through the last section of the book is arduous, and even Kennedy’s snappy prose can’t resuscitate it.

By story’s end, Dillon finds himself destitute, dying alone in 1962. He was 47. He’d written an autobiography, but publishers, fearing charge of libel from his baronet brother, wouldn’t touch it. And so, what Michael Dillon thought of himself, the world may never know. At least, thanks to Kennedy, more people will be aware he existed and that’s a good thing, whether you’re an acolyte of Christine Jorgensen or not.

The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution by Pagan Kennedy
Bloomsbury
ISBN: 978-1-59691-015-7
214 pages

Rosette Royale works as a staff reporter and production manager for Real Change, a Seattle newsweekly sold on the street by vendors whom are either homeless or low-wage earners. He’s written for various national publications and is dabbling in radio production.