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transgender history

A remarkable pioneer: an important story in transgender history

A garage in central Bristol is probably not the first place you would think of if asked to name a local business involved in LGBT rights, supposes Darryl W. Bullock, yet it is key to one of the most fascinating and important stories in transgender history

Born in London in 1915, Laurence Michael Dillon came from Irish nobility. Sadly, Dillon’s mother died of sepsis just 10 days after giving birth and Michael (initially assigned female and christened Laura Maud after his mother), was raised with his older brother Robert by a pair of spinster aunts in Folkestone, Kent. Their father blamed his youngest child for causing the death of his wife, and nine years later he was dead too, having drunk himself into an early grave.

The aunts seemed hell-bent on raising their youngest charge for a life of celibacy and piety, but he was having none of that. Michael had little interest in female pursuits and was beginning to question his gender. The word ‘transsexual’ did not exist in those days, and when he confided in another aunt that he thought he might be lesbian, she simply laughed and suggested marriage would cure such foolishness.

As his breasts developed he bound them in an attempt to stop them showing, cut his hair short and began to dress in a mix of men’s and women’s clothes. His only friend was the local vicar, who nurtured an interest in sport and a hunger for spiritual awareness, and enabled him to defy his aunts to enrol at Oxford University, studying theology before switching to classics.

Michael excelled at sport, became president of the Oxford University Women’s Boat Club, competed in the Women’s Boat Race twice and helped design a new uniform, closely modelled on the clothing worn by the men’s team. He bought a motorbike, and hid any trace of femininity under his increasingly androgynous clothing. Wearing his boating uniform, ‘L M Dillon’ was pictured by newspapers including the Daily Mail, where a photograph accompanied by the caption ‘would you guess this is not a man?’ caused huge embarrassment for the family.

After graduating he took a job in a research laboratory at Stoke Park, near Bristol, studying the brain, and for a while coached the women’s rowing club at the University of Bristol. Little remains today of the Stoke Park Colony, as it was then known, although the iconic, yellow-painted Dower House still looks down over the M32 from the top of Purdown. In 1939, at the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) but was discharged after a week for being too mannish. Michael began pioneering hormone treatment the same year, consulting Bristol doctor George Lush Foss, who had published several papers on the subject in the British Medical Journal. Hormone therapy was still new, but Michael was desperate to try anything that might help him live fully as a man and Foss, who ran a practice in Summerhill Road, St George, intended to use Michael (with his full consent) as a human guinea pig, administering high doses of testosterone in an effort for him to become more manly.

At the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force but was discharged after a week for being too mannish

However, before Foss would begin treatment he insisted that Michael see a psychiatrist, and that would have devastating consequences. Not only did Foss decide not to go ahead (although he tossed Michael a bottle of testosterone pills as a sop), the psychiatrist talked about his new patient to friends at a dinner party, and soon other people were talking about him too, including the staff at Stoke Park.

The war was on, women were doing the jobs of men now fighting for their country, and Michael moved to the city, taking a job at College Motors on Rupert Street where he operated the petrol pump and continued to take testosterone. Work at the garage was tough; the mechanics laughed about the freak who looked like a man but still used a woman’s name, but he was a conscientious worker, and when bombs began to rain down on the city he took an extra job as a fire watcher, keeping an eye on the garage and other nearby businesses at night in case one of Hitler’s incendiary devices should threaten to burn them down. He slept in the garage, enabling him to save money on lodgings – a necessity as he was spending half of his weekly income on hormone pills.

On Good Friday 1941, one of the worst nights for Bristol, Michael was one of the many who helped the city’s firefighters as nearby buildings including John Wright’s Printing Works were destroyed. He slowly built up a grudging respect from his co-workers and one, Gilbert Barrow, who as a child had been cared for at the Muller orphanage in Ashley Down, became a lifelong friend. He also became friendly with Arthur Millbourn, the Canon of Bristol Cathedral, and the pair would correspond for many years. Garage foreman Albert Carter instructed the other mechanics to always refer to Michael as ‘he’, and – partly because his upper-class accent went down well with customers – he was promoted to tow-truck driver, meaning he would spend less time in their company anyway.

In 1942, Michael received his first mention in the newspapers as Mr Dillon; he is listed in the Western Daily Press as agent for the garage, making several donations to the Red Cross. That same year, while walking around Bristol city centre, Michael fainted after a sudden rapid drop in his blood sugar levels. Taken to the Bristol Royal Infirmary, while he was recovering a sympathetic doctor, Geoffrey Fitzgibbon, suggested that it might be time to consider a full mastectomy to remove his hated breasts. Shortly afterwards Michael underwent the first of a series of 13 operations that would lead to him becoming the first British man to experience successful gender reassignment. Fitzgibbon introduced him to Sir Harold Gillies, the pioneering plastic surgeon who would help him complete his transition and – via a little subterfuge – apply to have his gender officially recognised on his birth certificate.

On Good Friday 1941, one of the worst nights for Bristol, Michael was one of the many who helped the city’s firefighters as nearby buildings including John Wright’s Printing Works were destroyed

‘Everywhere I turned I seemed to be hemmed in by birth certificates and identity papers, driving licenses and my mail,’ he wrote after Laura Maud officially became Laurence Michael. ‘It was as if a sudden tiny gleam of light had appeared, showing a possible line of escape. The world began to seem worth living in after all.’ He continued working at the garage until the war ended, Gillies unable to begin surgery until after hostilities were over. Nights would be spent watching the skies for bombs, continuing his studies into the brain and writing. In 1946, Michael published Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology, an early plea for sympathy and understanding towards homosexual and trans people. This ground-breaking book dared to suggest that there was nothing wrong with the mind of a trans person: it was their body that had let them down and therefore that needed to be corrected. In some ways Michael was lucky that he realised this during the war, when surgeons were discovering new ways and improving on already existing methods of reconstructive surgery.

Two years before the founding of the National Health Service, Dillon’s book also advocated a world in which ‘we should see that all medicinal products are for international use and should be free to all sufferers.’

Aside from his vicar friend, Michael had lacked a positive role model growing up, and he now saw one in Sir Harold Gillies. It was because of Gillies that he decided to train as a surgeon, relocating to Dublin and studying at Trinity College where few, if any, thought of Michael as anything but a red-blooded male. He once again took up rowing, this time for a male team, and began to date women. He also met and became friends with former prisoner of war, engine designer and Grand Prix racer Roberta Cowell. Roberta had read Self and sought Michael out to see if he could help her on her journey to become the first British woman to successfully undergo a full male-to-female reassignment. The two grew close, began a relationship and started to dream that they might one day be able to marry. Michael performed the first operation on Roberta, then still illegal, before Gillies and American surgeon Ralph Millard completed her transition.

Two years before the founding of the NHS, Dillon’s book advocated a world in which ‘we should see that all medicinal products are for international use and should be free to all sufferers’

Michael Dillon qualified as a physician in 1951 and was working in a Dublin hospital when Roberta ended their relationship. Devastated, he decided to leave Ireland and signed up as a surgeon with the Merchant Navy for a year. Life at sea suited him; he recalled that after his first meal with his shipmates ‘I went to my bunk that night feeling immensely happy. This was the life for me!’

Contemporary photographs show a confident, handsome man in uniform, his bushy beard unable to conceal his happiness. In fact, things were starting to go so well that Michael felt it was time to approach the editor of Debrett’s Peerage and ask that his brother’s entry be altered from ‘sister living’ to ‘brother living’. The change was important: Robert Dillon had not produced an heir and, as a brother, Michael stood to inherit the family name and estate. The editor was happy to comply, and Michael thought no more about it. Then, in early 1954, news of Roberta Cowell’s transition broke.

Roberta’s tale made national headlines, and when a tell-all book, Roberta Cowell’s Story (with a preface by Canon Millbourn) was issued that included an anonymous anecdote about a doctor who had himself transitioned, Michael signed a contract with another ship and fled before the press caught on. While he was at sea the now-retired editor of Debrett’s published a memoir. In it he recalled their encounter: newspapers were quick to pick up on the story, and for the first time the British public became aware that Dr Laurence Michael Dillon had been born a woman. When his brother, now the eighth Baronet of Lismullen, told the press that his only sibling was a sister who was a doctor on a liner, reporters were waiting when Michael’s ship, the City of Bath, docked in Philadelphia. It was the final straw.

Ever since his teenage years Michael had been on a quest for spiritual enlightenment and, realising that he had no future in Britain, he travelled to India where he turned to Tibetan Buddhism. Finally, Michael had found the inner peace that had eluded him for a lifetime.

He was ordained at the Rizong Monastery in Ladakh, Kashmir, taking the name Lobzang Jivaka, and spent his final years studying and writing, publishing several books on Buddhism and completing his own biography.

Sadly, Lobzang died of liver failure, aged just 47, in 1962, before that book could be published. Shortly after his death the unnamed psychiatrist that Michael had met in Bristol in 1939 announced that he planned to write about Michael’s transition. ‘He was sent to me by another doctor before the series of operations,’ he told the Sunday Telegraph. ‘Ten years later there was a chap standing on my doorstep with an enormous black beard. I twigged who it might be.’ Despite his brother insisting that the manuscript be destroyed, Michael’s autobiography – Out of the Ordinary – was published in 2017, finally revealing his incredible story in his own words.

“Michael Dillon is key figure in the international history of trans medicine,” says expert on trans history and co-chair of Bristol’s LGBT history group Outstories, Cheryl Morgan. “He was not just a pioneer patient. The ideas that he put forward in Self are only now becoming recognised as best practice by the world medical community. Bristol therefore has a hugely important role in trans history, and that is something that the city should celebrate.”

Darryl W. Bullock is the author of books including the internationally acclaimed David Bowie Made Me Gay: 100 Years of LGBT Music. Keep an eye out for his next, The Velvet Mafia: the Gay Men Who Ran the Swinging 60s, published by Omnibus Press.