Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

I am reading about one of my heroes, the British trans man Michael Dillon, at the moment. Michael was the first trans person to medically transition. Plenty of trans people had cross-dressed before Michael but he was the first documented person to undergo hormone therapy and surgery to transition. Many people think that the more well-known Christine Jorgensen was first. In fact, Christine started taking ethinyl estradiol after the she completed her World War II US army service in 1945. Her gender reassignment surgery took place in Sweden in 1951. Michael started taking testosterone in 1939 and had his chest surgery in Britain in 1942.

michaeldillionnavy jorgensen

What is interesting about Michael’s transition is that three quarters of a century on not much has changed. Michael’s first approach was to a doctor who specialised in hormone treatments to help women with menstrual problems. He didn’t feel qualified to assess Michael so referred him to psychiatrist. The psychiatrist assessed Michael and sent him back to the doctor. The doctor then got cold feet about the whole thing and refused to treat Michael. He did, however, throw a bottle of testosterone pills at him and told him to see if they did anything.

Similarity number 1: Being bounced from medical professional to medical professional with no clear pathway to care, poor follow ups and refusal of treatment is still a far too common experience in the trans community.

Michael found the testosterone did work and began to self-medicate, purchasing his pills over the counter. (It was readily available in the 1940s as a “rejuvinator” for men.)

Similarity number 2: Self-medicating is still common in the trans community where treatment is denied. So strong is the desire to transition that people risk their health by buying drugs off the Internet and guessing their dosage.

Michael’s mastectomy came about by accident when he was admitted to hospital and a surgeon at the regional hospital happened to be an early adopter of plastic surgery techniques. The surgeon knew of the pioneer of plastic surgery, Sir Harold Gillies, and his work in reconstructing various body parts, including genitals, for soldiers who had suffered injuries in both World Wars. He advised Michael to go and see Gillies and ask him whether he might be able to construct a penis for him. Michael funded all his surgery himself.

Similarity number 3: Trans people still have to find their own way through the healthcare system, researching the best surgeon for their needs, and then funding the surgery themselves.

Unacceptable though it is that none of these problems with our care have been sorted out in 75 years, it is not the part of Michael’s story that interested me most. The quirk that grabbed my attention was his change of name and details. In 1942, Michael had to get a medical certificate from a doctor and a letter from a family member in order to change his birth certificate. That was all he needed. He didn’t have to wait two years, he didn’t have to prove he had been living as his recognised gender, he didn’t have to apply for a gender recognition certificate and have that application scrutinised by a panel, he just had to self-report that he was his gender and ask two people to confirm that fact.

The law in Britain was changed in 1970 to make it impossible for transgender people to change their birth certificate unless it could be proved that a genuine mistake had been made a birth. This was in response to the annulment of April Ashley‘s marriage to Baron Rowallan on the grounds that she was male. The court case provoked the usual tabloid outrage and knee-jerk reaction that demanded that trans people should not be able to “hide” their past gender. After much campaigning, the 1970 law was amended in 2004 when the Gender Recognition Act was introduced, giving us the system that is in place today.

Ten years on and it is time that we reverted to the 1942 system of self-reporting our genders. The 1970 system was about “protecting” the cis population from the trans population “pulling the wool over their eyes”. What the current system boils down to is the fact that the cis-populated establishment cannot conceive of anyone wanting to change their gender, the thought is so alien to them. Therefore, they want proof that we are of sound mind, that we really do want to be the gender we say we are, that we’re not just “a bit confused”. This is all highly condescending for trans people.

In the way that the arguments for the 1970 system were specious, so the arguments for the 2004 Act are also based on a lack of understanding of what being trans really means. It is time that the judging of trans people’s genders stopped and we were granted the right to register what we know to be true. That is the one thing from 1942 that we should have held onto!

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