Michael Dillon, through his quest of himself, paved the way, both scientifically and socially, for the acceptance of trans identity.
The history of gender affirming surgery is fascinating as it begins with inspiring men and women who defy prejudice and get around the law to do what they believe is right. Early cases of surgical transitions can be difficult to trace, as they often occur clandestinely and are sometimes covered up to protect the people involved. Michael Dillon, the first trans man to have had a phalloplasty, was a pioneer of the movement who had to brave social censorship.
Born in 1915, from a line of Irish baronet nobility in its later years, Laura Dillon, like many trans men, never felt good in his body. As a woman, he feels wrong, he feels different; he hates dresses because he feels they annihilate his existence; he shudders at the thought of being touched by a man. He prefers to put up with insults and jibes rather than wear what society prescribes, and creates an emotional shell for himself so as not to show people that their comments hurt him.
In 1938, at the age of 23, having completed his university studies, he officially became the first woman to take testosterone in order to begin a transition. Soon, Laura “passes”: he goes by the name Michael, works in a gas station, and disappears into the crowd of tall, bearded men. He will later say that this is what he always wanted: to be ordinary, to no longer attract attention.
In the early 1940s, Michael completed his hormone therapy and, having started medical school as a man, set out to find a surgeon who could continue to modify his body. According to his testimony, a penis, more than an asset during sex, would offer him safety, in the bathroom, in the showers of sports clubs, and in the hospital in case of emergency. In a society that could never accept that this baronet’s brother was once a woman, he had to hide his past.
He discovers Sir Harold Gillies, a plastic surgeon who worked on mutilated soldiers during the First World War. Gillies runs a hospital in a small town named Rooksdown in the English countryside, where the war-wounded, maimed and disfigured, learn to be happy again, without judgment, with a dose of blue nail polish, bicycle rides, dance lessons, acceptance, and patience. A haven of peace with a surprisingly modern philosophy. There, Michael Dillon will undergo a total of 13 operations spread over several years.
At university, in hospital, in his social life in Dublin, Michael has to lie to explain his absences and convalescence; he says he was injured during the Blitz. To keep up appearances, he sometimes goes on dates with young women, but never a second time. He doesn’t dare reveal himself to anyone, to see disappointment in someone’s eyes or risk a scandal, or worse, rejection. He creates a reputation for himself as an old bachelor, eternally single, a bit of a misogynist.
His loneliness will be broken by his encounter with Roberta Cowell, the first British trans woman to undergo a sexual reassignment surgery. Dillon, now a doctor, will perform an orchiectomy on her, and Gillies will perform a vaginoplasty afterwards.
Later, Dillon becomes famous by publishing a highly controversial book. To escape fame, he fled to India where he became a Buddhist monk and died in 1962 at the age of 47.
Michael Dillon, through his quest of himself, paved the way, both scientifically and socially, for the acceptance of trans identity. This man, who wanted only to feel good about himself, needed to constantly justify, protect, and defend himself – a lesson in bravery for all.