The First Man-Made Man by Pagan Kennedy

In The First Man-Made Man (2007), author Pagan Kennedy tells the story of Michael Dillon, the first FTM to undergo phalloplasty (over several operations between 1946 and 1949.) Born into aristocracy in 1915, Laura Dillon identified early on as transgender but because the word did not yet exist, Dillon was at a loss for how to describe her identity. Eventually, she subjected herself to experimentation with testosterone tablets and began living life as a man. The First Man-Made Man follows Dillon’s life through to his surgeries, becoming a medical doctor and author, and his final days as a Buddhist novitiate.

The sub-title of the book, The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution, is somewhat misleading. The story of Roberta Cowell‘s sex change and the “love affair” between her and Dillon spans only two chapters, and the affection was one-way, Dillon for Cowell. The book is less about the story of two sex changes and a love affair than it is about Dillon’s struggles to align his mind and body. The sub-title then is sensational in nature, and not accurately descriptive of the main theme of the book.

The book was given to me as a gift by a Lama from our local Buddhist meditation centre, and my main interest in Dillon’s story was about his Buddhist experiences as a transman. While not completely surprising, I was troubled learning about the monastic law that forbade higher ordination to people belonging to the so-called “third sex.” It’s not entirely clear what constitutes “third sex,” but Dillon’s superiors in the Theraveda order of Buddhism told him he could never reach a higher ordination after he confessed that he belonged to the “third sex.”

Furthermore, I was disheartened by the attitudes expressed by Dillon’s guru, Sangharakshita, the founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. A controversial figure in some Buddhist circles, Sangharakshita comes across as a little self-righteous, speaking rather poorly about Dillon but in the end claiming to be the one who saves him from purgatory. To this day, he holds parochial views about gender identity, stating that,

“Jivaka was not able to beget a child [as a man]. To my mind it is this factor that determines the gender to which one belongs.” (p. 155)

I wanted to like Michael Dillon more than I did. He too seems a bit self-righteous (the “Oxford Man”), adopting an unlikeable misogynist reputation to prevent romantic interest from women (who might have outed him as trans), and expressing homophobia. (p. 145) His never-ending search for happiness (which is ultimately unfulfilled), for which I can certainly feel empathy, makes him come across as kind of messed up—yet another trans tragedy to be lapped up by the mainstream. But he’s a product of his time, when there were no words to describe his gender identity, let alone any real understanding of gender variant lifestyles. He did the best he could, and he was a pioneer.

The First Man-Made Man is short, lacking in some detail, but this probably has to do with a lack of source material. It could have used more photography, but again there aren’t too many photos of Dillon suitable for publishing. The story is well-written, telling a tale that needs to be told, especially given the time period when Dillon lived out his extraordinary life. It is a recommended book for anyone want to learn more about the roots of transgender men and the earliest developments in transsexual surgeries.

Books by Michael Dillon:

  • Self: A Study in Ethics and Endocrinology, 1946.
  • Out of the Ordinary, Dillon’s autobiography, unpublished manuscript, completed in 1961.
  • The Life of Milarepa, 1962.
  • Imji Getsul: An English Buddhist in a Tibetan Monastery, 1962.

More information about Michael Dillon:

More information about the book:

Related: What does Buddhism have to say about trangenderism?

The following links present some interesting information about Buddhism and transgenderism from the  E-sangha online community. The content is shown from Google’s cache, otherwise E-sangha requires a login to view the thread.

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