Transitions in Gender and Spirituality: Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka

December 20, 2016 / Etta Madden / Subscribe

In the spring of 1962, within a month of my birth and just before his death, Lobzang Jivaka finished composing his spiritual autobiography in India. Almost fifty years before and half-way round the world, he had been named at birth Maude Laura Dillon in the Ladbroke Grove neighborhood of Kensington, a now-posh borough of greater London.

Cover of Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka's memoir of transgender and spiritual life

Cover of Michael Dillon/Lobzang Jivaka’s memoir

While my young parents were adjusting to life with a third child in suburban New Orleans and wrestling with a cultural change from rural Arkansas, this Buddhist monk was revisiting his life’s journey. Writing this memoir of “transitions,” from declared female at birth, to living through one of the first medical sex changes in history and re-registering as Michael, was the last of his many accomplishments. These and his transformations–through undergraduate studies at Oxford and medical school at Dublin’s Trinity College, serving as a naval physician and finding his way to Tibetan Buddhism–are the focus of Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions (Fordham UP, 2016).

Although completed more than a half-century ago, the account of this “evolution,” as he shared it, has only been published recently. What kept Dillon/Jivaka’s story from the light? An aristocratic family—Dillon was heir to a title—and fear of a legal battle prevented the book’s publication, according to its introduction by Jacob Lau and Cameron Partridge.

Lau’s and Partridge’s introduction and notes also inform readers of the historical appearances of words such as “hermaphrodite,” “intersex,” and “trans.” And they explain Michael/Lobzang’s scientific choice of the word “evolution” when describing his journey. Such helpful details for needy readers accompany references to Michael’s book, Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology (London 1946), and to prior biographical accounts, Liz Hodgkinson’s Michael née Laura: The Story of the World’s First Female-to-Male Transsexual  (London 1989) and Pagan Kennedy’s The First Man-Made Man: The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and A Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution (New York 2007).

The autobiography’s arrival now seems appropriate for a ready audience of interested and accepting readers.

By “interested” readers, I mean more than voyeuristic. Any avid reader of memoir, and especially those who pick up spiritual narratives, will be drawn to the book’s cover and title. Certainly, they caught my eye. I first taught a university course entitled, “Spiritual Selves: From Augustine to the New Age,” more than twenty years ago. Even then my reading range with spiritual narratives was broad and inclusive.

Writing for Healing

My critique of Out of the Ordinary within this larger context recognizes above all that the author needed to write it—for himself and for others. Its value as a story that potentially will save the lives of others is significant. Just two weeks ago in an interview with Terry Gross, Cleve Jones spoke about his new memoir, When We Rise: My Life in the Movement, in a similar way. He disclosed that he set aside his suicide attempts when he learned about others like himself.

Yet in spite of embracing the important role of narratives of healing, I can’t help but read memoir with an eye that considers elements of form and style as well. When teaching the genre, I present three categories for explaining why personal narratives merit printing by major publishers: The first is that the person writing is famous and thus earns interest from a broad audience. Think Barak Obama. The second is that the story, although of an ordinary person dealing with ordinary events, is beautifully and poetically written. Think of a memoir of drinking and recovery, or death of a parent—perhaps one of Mary Karr’s magically written accounts, Liar’s Club, or Lit. The third is that the person’s story is unique or exotic enough to raise interest. Think Out of the Ordinary–Maude becoming Michael becoming Lobzang.

The Ordinary, Slightly Slanted

Michael’s/Lobzang’s story, however, also includes the ordinary. The narrative builds through the commonplaces of autobiography, from family heritage, through early childhood memories, schooling, professional life, and relationships to a place of reflection on the whole. So his account of returning “home” to clean out the living space of aged aunts who raised him will seem familiar to many readers. However, many accounts are slanted slightly to the angle he chose to emphasize: his transitions in gender and spirituality.

If there is a weakness to this tale, it is in the sometimes thick details and specialized language: discourses of British preparatory and “public” schooling, including courses and exams at Oxford; the language of crew, an important sport throughout much of his life; medical lessons, research, and experiences with its applications; nautical terminology; and discourses of meditational spirituality. Yet these discourses that may seem to some tedious details could be almost anyone’s of his era, class and locales. Undoubtedly richest for “insiders,” they may be read quickly by “outsiders” unfamiliar with the terms. Within each of these areas, the relevance of details to the larger account are clear—whether it be about spiritual caring, his own marginalized position, or just being human.

That is, there was no heavy editing to emphasize only sexual transitioning, or evolution, throughout the story. The account is that of a person whose life is larger than the transitions. However, details of gender identity seep through occasionally in the early years, gaining momentum so that by later years such details flow full force.

For example, in Michael/Lobzang’s early memories, he relates a trip to the barber–of desiring to have his hair cut like his brother Bobby’s. His aunt and the barber got a good laugh out of the occasion—but didn’t give Maude the wished-for style. A bob was the closest acceptable cut for one deemed a girl. He recounts other jealousies of brother Bobby—activities the “guys” indulged in, Bobby’s extended holiday visits with their father. During school years, before leaving for Oxford, a male friend opened a gate for Maude, prompting the memorable self-query—why would he do that for me? I’m not a girl .

The Oxford years not only provided crew but also included awakening to sexual attractions and others’ lifestyles, as Maude wrestled with identity issues. Maude had begun to wear men’s jackets and flannels and sport an Eaton “crop.” “Take a woman and get over [your] repressions,”  a girlfriend advised. But “this advice . . . given . . .  again and again, even by well known doctors . . . seemed wrong,” Michael/Lobzang explains. After leaving Oxford but without a clear professional and personal path, Michael found work in a garage. Wearing a jumpsuit and generally being treated as one of the guys helped only a bit. Clients and coworkers still came out with occasional references to Michael’s being a gal.

“War–the Darkest of Days”

These struggles reach a peak in “War—the Darkest of Days,” a chapter where the narrative’s beauty also emerges. The title’s dual meaning intertwines the ravages of air raids and bombings with Michael’s physical and emotional struggles. Blackouts from hypoglycemia lead him to hospital wards, where staff wrestle with his gender identity. He meets people who seem to understand his dilemma. One surgeon offers hormone pills in a gesture of good will but fears going further with experimental procedures. Another encourages him to officially change his “registry” of birth identity to be officially “Michael” with British authorities. Yet another suggests he is a prime candidate for plastic surgery, which he begins. Along with Michael’s surgical transition is his own entry to medical school and beginning of his professional career.

This personal development in Dublin, first at Trinity College and then serving a small hospital on the north side, seems almost perfect. The marginal status of Ireland vis à vis the island of England, the mixture of Catholic and Protestant opposing traditions and hospitals, for example, allow Michael the opportunities to practice care and concern for those around him as he learns even more about social differences.

This is No Sob Story: Spiritual Inclinations

Indeed, here as throughout, what makes this memoir so moving is perhaps its greatest absence. There is no cry of poor, poor pitiful me. This is no sob story. What could easily have turned into a story of abuses and injustices instead becomes an account of how this courageous human looked outward to help others – in spite of so many years of feeling isolated and different.

Such moving accounts within a spiritual narrative should not surprise readers. Likewise, commonplaces of religious leanings and awakenings factor into Michael’s early years, although they were without early inclinations toward prayer or daily readings. The parish’s Vicar, who embodied learning, took an interest in the young Maude and discouraged pursuit of becoming a Deaconness. Learning languages–not just Latin but also Greek–was an important aspect of the spiritual journey, and the Oxford education contributed well to it. Yet Michael eschewed the Oxford Group, whose invitation he refused because although popular, he explains, they spoke little of Jesus Christ. Instead, he maintained connections with “evangelical groups,” perhaps because he had “been bitten by an evangelist revival meeting at a susceptible age.”

Other moments, even in the midst of gender-identity concerns, reveal a belief in a spiritual realm. While on holiday with a friend, he remained overnight with a man in the throes of depression who insisted on his company for hours of conversation. Although Michael felt the forces of evil present, he remained. What readers might assume will be an awkward and painful sexual encounter never occurs. Rather, the next day the man confesses he had planned to kill his wife and children; he would have executed his plan, had Michael not been present.

Encounters with Others: Ethical Outreach

Throughout, such touching moments punctuate encounters with others where Michael listens to and assists those in need. For example, he writes of researching and promoting a new ulcer treatment; of caring for an impoverished 16-year-old tubercular patient that others had written off; and of delivering a premature baby to a woman who was large enough that no one knew of the pregnancy. These experiences increased his sensitivities and remind readers of Michael’s own marginalized position.

Travels often offered learning opportunities through expanded horizons. Michael traveled inexpensively (by biking and camping) on the continent during holidays, and he signed on as a ship’s surgeon with the Merchant Navy to pursue further experiences in a wider world. Intending only one year in constant transit, he stayed on for eight.

During the later travels and connections, Michael learned of spiritualist Lobzang Rampa and his writings, which corresponded well with his spiritual needs. He had struggled with teachings of the Christian church while embracing the teachings of Jesus as a leader of social change and beginning to explore spiritualism and meditation. Readings and conversations led Michael from Rampa to Tibetan Buddhism and its monastic practices.

Reflections on Evolutionary Journeys

Older now than Michael/Lobzang was when he completed and sent off the manuscript, just before leaving his bodily life in India, I  reflect on my own positions in my family’s tree. I think of issues with which he was struggling, when my parents and my husband’s parents wrestled with different matters. While they dealt with careers, marriage and the start of families, he also faced career and relationship issues. When his autobiography lay completed but languishing, while the racial and sexual riots of the 60’s raged, I was listening to religious lessons and sermons about why men shouldn’t have hair below the tops of their shirt collars and why women shouldn’t wear pants.

It would be another several years before I would witness Billie Jean King play Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” and hear whispers of the word “homosexuality.” It was much longer before I would hear of “sex changes” and would read Diedre McCloskey’s Crossing: A Memoir (1999). (In contrast to Michael/Lobzang’s narrative, it contains no attention to spiritual transitions, medical ethics, or evolution.)

Perhaps most rich during my reading of Out of the Ordinary is how it tinged my imagination with visions of other families during the same years. It prompts me to think about how differently people travel through this large world. It reminds me of how wrongly we often assume–especially when we are younger–that there is only one path. How little we know of others’ journeys. Even more so, how little we know of future outcomes of the evolutionary changes we witness every day.

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Etta Madden