A Change of Sex

by | Nov 16, 2021 | What I'm Thinking | 1 comment

November 20 is Transgender Day of Remembrance, and that has gotten me thinking about the great reporter and historian Jan Morris. Morris will have died exactly one year ago on November 20, 2020, at the age of 94. Morris was not murdered in a hate crime, unlike those who are being remembered in these days leading up to and on November 20, but she was a transgender pioneer.

Morris underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1974 at a clinic in Casablanca, Morocco. The wonderful Literary Ladies Guide site reminded me of Morris recently, and I checked her book The World: Travels 1950–2000 out of the library so I could explore her writing.

While various forms of SRS had been practiced for centuries, Casablanca was the location of choice for SRS starting in the 1950s. A French plastic surgeon, Dr. George Borou, was the first to invent a type of surgery that allowed sensitive tissue from male genitals to be used to create female organs. By 1973, Borou had performed more than 3000 surgeries.

Born in 1926, Morris already had some reputation as a writer when she underwent her surgery. At the age of 24, she accompanied Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary’s expedition to the top of Everest and scooped the story to the London Times. From this experience, she went on to cover the Suez canal crisis of 1956 in a story for The Guardian that led to the resignation of Britain’s PM, Anthony Eden. Following this story, Morris wrote extensively about South Africa and the Middle East, winning further fame for the book Venice, published in 1960.

But while Morris’s travels through Africa and Asia won public acclaim, an interior journey was underway. From the age of 3 or 4, Morris wrote in her book Conundrum, she realized “I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl.” Following her surgery, she appeared on The Dick Cavett show, a popular TV interview show, to speak openly about her decision and her experiences.

She lost some fans following her SRS and the change of her name from James to Jan. A number of former colleagues made disparaging remarks, but she continued to write and gained further readers and acclaim. She wrote a three-volume history of the British empire and books about Hong Kong, Sydney, and Trieste. She saw herself not as a travel writer, but as a historian and a chronicler of culture and cultures.

Regarding the movie poster: I am limited in the images I can use on this blog by copyright restrictions. But the Casablanca poster spoke to me not only because of the location of Morris’s surgery, but also because of the way that film represents the embedding of hyper-romanticized sex roles and stereotypes. When my son and daughter-in-law got married, a little over four years ago, I brashly volunteered to sing something at their wedding. (I was taking singing lessons at the time.) Along with my voice coach, I considered and discarded various possibilities, including the theme song from Casablanca, “As Time Goes By.” It’s a lovely melody and in my range, but I got hung up on these lyrics: “Woman needs man / And man must have his mate.”

So many things to disagree with in those lines! I considered rewriting them (it was just a small private wedding, no issues with copyright). But I couldn’t think of anything that scanned properly and said what I wanted to say, so I eventually abandoned the effort, and simply went with “All You Need is Love.”

It was a song that everyone at the wedding could sing along to.