News: Review: Out of the Ordinary
As transgender continues to be a media buzzword these days, it may surprise you to learn that an autobiography of transgender man Michael Dillon that appeared last November had remained unpublished since it was put in the mail from India to the author’s agent in 1962.
There are, of course, extenuating circumstances. Transgender people were nowhere near as accepted by society in 1962 as they are now, and Dillon’s family may have wished to avoid publicity. But Dillon is a fascinating character, and his story is especially important to Bristol.
Dillon, born in 1915, was assigned female at birth, but by the time he graduated from Oxford he had begun dressing in a very masculine fashion. In those days, gender medicine was almost unknown. The records of what had been done in Germany had been mostly lost when the Nazis destroyed Magnus Hirschfeld’s clinic in 1933.
But Dillon got lucky. Having acquired a job near Bristol in the mid-1930s, he discovered that a local GP, George Foss, had been experimenting with a new drug called testosterone. It had interesting, and very unwelcome, effects on Foss’ female patients, but to Dillon those effects were a miraculous opportunity. He made an appointment to see Foss and asked for treatment.
Dillon’s relationship with Foss did not go well. As a scientist, Foss was keen to continue his experiments, but as a GP he had a duty of care to his patients. He declined to treat Dillon unless his patient underwent a psychiatric evaluation. When this came back highly negative, Foss refused to accept Dillon as a patient, but he did hand over a bottle of testosterone pills.
The psychiatrist had not only poisoned Dillon’s relationship with Foss, but had gossiped to people at Dillon’s workplace. Dillon lost his job. However, World War II had just started, and workers were in short supply. Dillon found employment at College Motors on Rupert Street.
In his memoirs, Dillon describes his time in Bristol as “the worst period of my life”. This should not reflect badly on the city. To start with, gender transition is hard on anyone, and must have been especially hard when so little was known about it. Dillon also had the war to contend with. The day he started work at the garage saw the first air raid on Bristol. To earn extra money, Dillon volunteered to become a firewatch officer: in exchange for 10 shillings per week (50p), he spent his nights sleeping at his workplace.
Though no bombs ever fell directly onto the garage, it was dangerous work. Dillon recounts the story of the Good Friday Blitz when bombs destroyed the nearby John Wright’s Print Works. He spent much of the night helping protect the wooden buildings on Christmas Steps.
One consolation was a friendship Dillon made. Gilbert Barrow had grown up in Bristol’s Muller Orphanages. Looking for work, Barrow chanced upon the garage where Dillon befriended the teenager and suggested he join him as firewarden. Barrow was one of the first people to fully accept Dillon as male, and their friendship continued long after the war.
Another important friendship was with Arthur Russell Milbourn, the Canon of Bristol Cathedral. It isn’t clear how they met, but Millbourn clearly took an interest in the spiritual welfare of transgender people. He and Dillon corresponded throughout their lives, and had dinner together at the Royal Hotel whenever Dillon returned to Bristol. Years later Millbourn wrote the introduction to the autobiography of the pioneering trans woman, Roberta Cowell.
Possibly the most significant friendship Dillon made in Bristol began early in 1943. Dillon accidentally overdosed on testosterone and passed out in the street. He was taken to the BRI where he met a plastic surgeon (probably Dr. Geoffrey Fitzgibbon). Having heard Dillon’s story, this man agreed to remove Dillon’s breasts, and to provide an introduction to Dr. (later Sir) Harold Gillies, the leading surgeon in the field. This led to Gillies developing a technique to build a penis using plastic surgery. Dillon was the beneficiary in a world first for transgender medicine.
Dillon began studying medicine at the Merchant Venturers’ Technical College (now the Faculty of Engineering at The University of Bristol), and, whenever he could, visited Gillies’ hospital in Basingstoke, where he worked as an intern helping to treat the war wounded. Eventually, he earned a place at Dublin University to continue his studies, and never returned to live in Bristol. He worked as a doctor on merchant ships until he was outed by the Sunday Express and fled to India to become a Buddhist monk.
Dillon was a remarkable man whose life was fascinating even without his gender transition. The publication of his autobiography, Out of the Ordinary, will no doubt introduce him to the public, and establish Bristol’s place in the history of gender medicine.
Out of the Ordinary: A Life of Gender and Spiritual Transitions, Michael Dillon (Lobzang Jivaka), Fordham University Press, 2016.
Read more: Bristol's LGBT+ scene is better than ever