The first transgender person I knew about was James-to-Jan Morris, who is nearly ninety now -- cheerful and gentle as any granny and making it all seem rather natural that she went from being a soldier, adventurer, solidly married father of five (one baby dying in infancy) to being quite the same person except female, still married to the same female though they have to call their relationship a “civil union” now. All along the way she shared her shift of hormones and her 1972 surgery with the same interest in vivid detail as when she was writing about cities and history in dozens and dozens of books, all praised and mostly still in print. She’s “queenly” only if you are referencing the present Elizabeth II. ''I've always understood incest,'' she said. “It is about love and loneliness.'' She points out that her children are perfectly matched to get along with each other. She does not justify her nonconformity by being wicked, but by making wickedness sensible.
With wilder hair than Stephen Pinker or Margaret Atwood but always with a string of beads and a “jumper” (Brit for sweater), she smiles broadly for photos. I haven’t found a photo of her wife. She says the image of herself she liked the best was when she was ambiguously androgenous, which is cheering since old age makes androgenists of us all. But then, she’s Welsh/British where irony is appreciated. She says Americans lack irony and my experience bears this out, though I think Canadians are even worse. No mischief. (Except in Quebec.) Two good links:
When I write about something, everyone assumes that’s what I am, so writing about sex caused one misguided local man to make advances after a town council meeting, and writing about HIV-AIDS causes people to wonder where I caught it (I do not have it), and now I suppose people will wonder whether I’m “really” a man. Some -- after a spoof on the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment listserv -- are still convinced that I’m two gay men who built a straw-bale house near Bynum and who hunt big game for a living. Sometimes I’m cautious in choosing subjects and sometimes I’m not. This time it’s kind of a moot point -- I’m quite like Jan Morris except for the pre-change gender (I’ve always been female), and I can only aspire to being as good a writer. If writing about her would mean I became like her, so be it. In the meantime, it’s the hairdo I’ve got down pat.
One last book is to be published posthumously. It may include her autopsy to finally satisfy curiosity about her body. I hope it will include her genome, which seems to contain a formula for sturdy endurance and a gift for intimacy. Of course, her “real” genome will be in her books for those who know how to read in a way that reveals the writer. Over the years I’ve read a lot of articles by Morris but no books. Maybe it’s time to acquire them -- I’ll start with “Conundrum” when my next Social Security check comes. Since time slips over us all that web of slowing and squinting and forgetting, I should pay attention now.
Classically, the god of the sex change is Tiresias, who was transformed after striking a blow to two copulating snakes protected by Hera, the Wife-God. As a woman he was said to be a famous prostitute and also to have the gift of prophesy. Later, he was blinded by Athena, the Justice-and-Knowledge-God. Of course, you know that two snakes entwining a staff are the symbol of medicine. Of course, you know that all this is ancient myth and therefore no living person has these characteristics. “Tiresias is presented as a complexly liminal figure, with a foot in each of many oppositions, mediating between the gods and mankind, male and female, blind and seeing, present and future, and this world and the Underworld.”
Tiresias, “T” for short, is quoted many different ways over the centuries, but in one place it says: “Tiresias in Hades is asked "what is the best way of life?" and his disconcertingly modern response, translated from high-flown diction, is "the life of the ordinary guy: forget philosophers and their metaphysics.”
“In Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto XX), Dante sees Tiresias in the fourth pit of the eighth circle of Hell. (The circle is for perpetrators of fraud, the fourth pit being the location for astrologers, sorcerers, soothsayers, diviners, and false prophets who claim to see the future when they couldn't.)” Over the years writers and wannabe writers have not been able to leave Tiresias alone and their resentment at not being taken into his circle has been their Hell.
But none of this touches Jan Morris. Not because he spurns it, but because he knows what’s important to tend to. As a world traveler, he just doesn’t go places without carrying a decent British marmalade and a hot water bottle. The big risks and small comforts of life are important, but he has always come home to the same partner. Some day their stone house will be a graveyard headstone that says “Here are two friends, at the end of one life”. So one of the ironies is that in an unfaithful world, constantly pursuing new sexual thrills, what Jan has valued has been deep constancy.
Is a life like Jan Morris’ possible today? Given terrorists and insidious diseases, I wonder. Another famous travel writer averse to gender categories, Bruce Chatwin, more than a decade younger, was an art expert until trouble with his eyesight pushed him over into archeology and then to travel writing, though he was accused of fictionalizing. This recurring accusation against people who have exotic lives is so persistent that it’s got to be rooted in the accuser. That Hell of being excluded again. Perhaps this informed his most famous book, “The Songlines” which they claim mixes fiction with “fact.” Then he moved to specified fiction. A handsome and charming man of polyamorous sexuality, he died in 1989 of AIDS, aged 48, nursed by the wife he had married in 1965 and with the help of the wife of a former male lover. His writing is much valued, though he was always trapped between accusations of making things up and raging from people who thought they were being portrayed. Probably some were upset at NOT being portrayed.
Morris and Chatwin intrigue us and terrify us, because we might yearn to be able to live and write like that -- but never be able to fulfill the desire. All anyone can do is follow what unfolds before them. The best advice is the ancient Buddhist command: pay attention. And as Tiresias noted, make that attention to the “ordinary guy,” because he may be far more extraordinary than you think -- and not because he or she went to college or is a media darling, ironic as that is.