Travel writer JAN MORRIS – who died this week – tells of her 1970s transition


When I was three or perhaps four years old, I realised that I had been born into the wrong body and should really be a girl. It is the earliest memory of my life.

I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. 

What triggered so bizarre a thought I have forgotten, but the conviction was unfaltering.

On the face of things, it was pure nonsense. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly, spoiled to a comfortable degree, weaned at an early age on Huck Finn and Alice In Wonderland, taught to cherish my animals, think well of myself and wash my hands before tea. My security was absolute.

When I was three or perhaps four years old, I realised that I had been born into the wrong body and should really be a girl. It is the earliest memory of my life, writes Jan Morris (pictured)

By every standard of logic, I was patently a boy. I had a boy’s body. I wore a boy’s clothes. I was not generally thought effeminate.

I have tried to analyse my own childish emotions to discover what I meant when I declared myself to be a girl. 

What was my reasoning? Where was my evidence? But it remains a riddle. So be it.

To me, gender is not physical at all but altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps; it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music. It is the essentialness of oneself.

Transsexualism is not a sexual mode or preference. It is not an act of sex at all. It is a passionate, lifelong, ineradicable conviction.

At nine, I joined the choir school of Christ Church, Oxford. The school itself was sensible and un-hearty. 

Each day, a moment of silence followed the words of the Grace.

Into that hiatus, I inserted silently every night, year after year, an appeal no less heartfelt: ‘And please God let me be a girl. Amen.’

How He could achieve it, I had no idea, and I was vague about the details. I still hardly knew the difference between the sexes, having seldom if ever seen a female body in the nude, and I prayed purely out of instinct. But the compulsion was irrepressible.

I hope I will not be thought a narcissist if I claim that I was rather an attractive boy. At Lancing, my next school, I was inevitably the object of advances. 

Ours was a marriage that had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream, living testimony to the power of love in its purest sense (James Morris, before becoming Jan, and Elizabeth)

Ours was a marriage that had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream, living testimony to the power of love in its purest sense (James Morris, before becoming Jan, and Elizabeth) 

I was not in the least shocked by these intentions, but simply could not respond in kind.

At 17, towards the end of the War, I entered a man’s world, the world of soldiery. I felt like one of those unconvincing heroines of fiction who, disguised in a Hussar’s jacket, penetrate the battlefields to find glory or romance.

The 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers — which took me to Italy, Egypt, Austria and Palestine — confirmed my intuition that I was fundamentally different from my contemporaries. 

One of the genuine surprises concerned the importance to men of physical sex. I once escorted a nervous brother-officer to a brothel in Trieste, on his first excursion into the demi-monde.

How pale he stood there in the street-light, looking back at me almost desperately, waiting for the door to open. 

As I drove away, I felt sure he would have had a far happier time going to the pictures.

I loved the Army but knew I could not stay. After going to university, I entered journalism and, as a foreign correspondent, wandered the world from Fiji to Dawson City.

I also trod the long, expensive and fruitless path of the Harley Street psychiatrists and sexologists, one after the other.

In the state of medical awareness then, it must have been baffling to have been confronted by a patently healthy and evidently sane young man declaring himself to be a woman.

Could it not be, they asked, that I was merely a transvestite, a person who gained sexual pleasure from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex? 

Alternatively, was I sure that I was not just a suppressed homosexual? But none of it fitted.

Heavens, I was a jumble, dark with indecision and anxiety. Sometimes I considered suicide, or to be more accurate, hoped that some unforeseen and painless accident would do it for me.

Yet throughout my young manhood I was in a constant state of emotional entanglement with somebody or other. 

They were unsatisfactory affairs, for they were necessarily inconclusive.

The girls soon sensed that I was likely to offer them no more than friendship. And I myself did not quite know what I wanted, beyond the touch of the hand or lip, the warmth of the body, the laughter and the company.

‘Why, why, why?’ screamed an American nympho of my acquaintance, doing her unsuccessful best to seduce me in a hotel bedroom in Athens. 

But I could not tell her, and if I had she would never have understood.

Love rescued me from self-destruction. I have loved people with disconcerting frequency all my life, but I have enjoyed one particular love of an intensity so different from all the rest, on a plane of experience so mysterious, and of a texture so rich, that it overrode from the start all my sexual ambiguities. 

Elizabeth, the daughter of a Ceylon tea planter, was the secretary to the architect of Wembley Stadium.

She had taken rooms in a house almost opposite Madame Tussauds. As it miraculously happened, I was in London too, taking a brief Arabic course, and found myself rooms in that very house.

We were so instantly, utterly, improbably and permanently attuned to one another that we might have been brother and sister. 

People often thought we were, so absolute was our empathy, and we even looked rather alike.

Ours was a marriage that had no right to work, yet it worked like a dream, living testimony to the power of love in its purest sense. 

There remains hardly a moment in my life that I would not rather share with Elizabeth.

I hid nothing of my dilemma from her. Still, I told her, the mechanism of my body was complete and functional, and for what it was worth was hers. 

For my part, in performing the sexual act with her I felt I was consummating a trust, and with luck giving ourselves the incomparable gift of children: and she on her side responded frankly to what I was, and I hope enjoyed herself.

We produced five children — three boys, two girls — but sex was subsidiary in our relationship. 

Ours was always an ‘open marriage’ in which the partners are explicitly free to lead their own separate lives, have their own lovers perhaps, restrained only by an agreement of superior affection and common concern.

For months at a time, I would wander off across the world and sometimes Elizabeth would travel in a different way, into preoccupations that were all her own. 

Though we were linked in such absences by a rapt concern with each other’s happiness, still we never begrudged each other our separate lives, only finding our mutual affair more exciting when resumed. 

We could scarcely call our sexual relationship a satisfactory one, since I would have been perfectly content without one at all, yet our lives were full of compensation.

Our intimacy was erotic in a different way, in a sense of ecstatic understanding, and sometimes a thrust of affection that came like a blow between the eyes.

I was immensely proud of my marriage. However tangled my inner life, still I knew that I had achieved this triumph: a trust that was absolute and a companionship that was endlessly delightful. 

It was apparent to Elizabeth sooner than it was to me that one day I must appease my conflicts.

I honoured, though, an unspoken obligation: that until she was fulfilled as a mother if not as a wife, I would bide my time.

I was wonderfully happy in other ways. My instinct to have children had been profound, and I hope I gave them, if nothing else, an understanding of the colossal constructive force of love, which can bridge chasms and reconcile opposites.

It was not until the eldest boys were in their late teens, they tell me, that they began to realise in what way I was different: for 15 years at least, my marriage looked from the outside not merely successful but perfectly orthodox.

I spent some ten years in journalism, mostly as a foreign correspondent with a grandstand view of the world’s great events —including the conquest of Everest in 1953. 

Though I resented my body, I did not dislike it. It was lean and sinewy, never ran to fat, and worked like a machine of quality. But by my mid-30s I began to detest the physique that had served me so loyally.

This was the worst period of my life. I was tormented by an ever-increasing sense of isolation from the world and from myself, and plunged into periods of despair that frightened Elizabeth.

My work was well known on both sides of the Atlantic, and the opportunities I was offered were almost unbounded. 

But I wanted none of it. I thought of public success itself, I suppose, as part of maleness, and deliberately turned my back on it.

Instead, I took to writing books or travelling in foreign places. I have never doubted that much of the emotional force that men spend in sex, I sublimated in travel.

It could not work for ever. Our children were safely growing; rather than go mad, or kill myself, or infect everyone around me with my profoundest melancholy, I took the first steps towards a physical change of sex.

Nobody in the history of humankind has changed from a true man to a true woman, if we class a man or a woman purely by physical concepts.

What was about to happen was that my body would be made as female as science could contemplate or nature permit.

For eight years, I took female hormones. They turned me from a person who looked like a healthy male into something perilously close to a hermaphrodite.

The change was infinitely gradual: my skin became clearer, my cheeks rosier, my tread lighter, my figure slimmer.

At first people thought I looked inexplicably young. Then not just the texture but the shape of my body began to change. 

Life and the world looked new to me. Even my relationship with Elizabeth, which soon lost its last elements of physical contact, assumed a new lucidity.

Stripped of my clothes, I was a chimera, half-male, half-female, an object of wonder even to myself. It was a precarious condition.

During a journey in South Africa, I was told at lunchtime that I must wear a collar and tie in the dining-room, at dinner that I must not enter wearing trousers.

On a train from Euston to Bangor, a man who had just been asking me if I had played cricket at Oxford was taken aback when the waiter, placing my soup before me, said, ‘There you are then, love, enjoy it!’

Reactions varied greatly. ‘Are you a man or a woman?’ asked the Fijian taxi-driver as he drove me from the airport. 

‘I am a respectable, rich, middle-aged English widow,’ I replied. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘just what I want,’ and put his hand upon my knee.

Americans generally assumed me to be female, and cheered me up with small attentions. Englishmen found the ambiguity in itself beguiling. 

Frenchmen were curious, Italians simply stared boorishly. Greeks were vastly entertained. Arabs asked me to go for walks with them. 

Scots looked shocked. Germans looked worried. The Japanese did not notice.

I soon discovered that only the smallest display of overt femininity, a touch of make-up, a couple of bracelets, was enough to establish me as female, albeit a mannish sort of female, I expect.

There was no moment of instant trauma in my relationship with the children, no moment when, standing before them as a man one day, I reappeared suddenly as a woman. The process was slow and subtle.

More distressing was the danger they might be teased or mocked at school. But helped along the way by sensitive teachers, they seemed to escape those miseries.

There remained the surgery. I had male organs still, and still my body was producing male hormones in rearguard desperation.

In England, several hospitals now operated upon transsexuals. In the case of those born male, the penis and testicles were removed and a vagina created, either simultaneously or in later surgery: functionally the patient was left more or less in the condition of a woman who has undergone total hysterectomy. 

Orgasm was possible, because the erotic zones retained their sensitivity.

This is what I now planned to have done to myself. But when, in the spring of 1972, I felt myself ready for the last hurdle, I discovered an unexpected snag — the surgeon who accepted me for surgery at Charing Cross Hospital declined to operate until Elizabeth and I were divorced. 

I recognised, of course, that we must be divorced in the end. But I resolved we would end our marriage in our own time, lovingly, and I would go for my surgery to foreign parts beyond the law.

So I booked myself a return ticket to Casablanca in Morocco, where everybody in my predicament knew of Dr B. He did not bother himself much with diagnosis or pre-treatment and expected handsome payment in advance, but his surgery was excellent.

In Room 5 of Dr B’s clinic, I sat on the bed and did a crossword puzzle. Late at night, two nurses came to inject me with a drug.

When I awoke it was pitch dark and there was no sound. My arms seemed to be strapped to the bed and I no longer appeared to have any legs. 

But I seemed to be breathing, my mind worked, and a cautious clenching of the abdominal muscles seemed to tell me that I was heavily bandaged down below.

I was alive, well and sex-changed in Casablanca. This stunning thought more than compensated for the nightmare sensation of my awakening. 

I found myself, in fact, astonishingly happy.

When I flew back two weeks later to London, I was still in pain and moved with difficulty. Elizabeth welcomed me home as though nothing in particular had happened. 

A grand sense of euphoria now overcame me. I knew for certain that I had done the right thing: it gave me a marvellous sense of calm. 

Thirty-five years as a male, I thought, ten in between, and the rest of my life as me.

Fortunately, the first society into which I ventured frankly and publicly sex-changed was the profoundly civilised society of Caernarfonshire. My neighbours greeted my moment of metamorphosis with an urbane insouciance.

Some could not restrain a kind of gasp, instantly stifled. Some tactfully said how well I looked that morning. But most simply pretended not to notice.

Elsewhere in the world, the impact was more abrupt.

The very tone of voice in which I was now addressed, the very posture of the person next in the queue, the very feel in the air when I entered a room, constantly emphasised my change of status.

Thrust as I now found myself far more into the company of women, I began to find women’s conversation in general more congenial. 

Men treated me more and more as a junior — my lawyer, in an unguarded moment, even called me ‘my child’.

I discovered that, even now, men prefer women to be less informed, less able, less talkative and certainly less self-centred than they are themselves. 

The subtle subjection of women was catching up on me.

It was, of course, by no means all unpleasant. If the condescension of men could be infuriating, the courtesies were very welcome. And people are usually far kinder to women.

Physically I was less striking as a female than I had been as a male; on the other hand, I found that my new happiness was infectious and I struck up friendships more easily.

Psychologically I became more emotional. I cried very easily and was ludicrously susceptible to flattery. 

My scale of vision seemed to contract, and I looked less for the grand sweep in my writing than for the telling detail.

At last, I admitted to myself without embarrassment how attractive men could be. 

I was asked sometimes if I planned to marry one, but no, the men I have loved are married already, or dead, or far away, or indifferent. Too late!

Besides, though Elizabeth and I are now divorced, we are locked in our friendship more absolutely than ever and propose to share our lives happily ever after.

As for my children, at least I had not antagonised them. They had been my staunchest allies throughout the change, screening me, supporting me, reassuring me. They knew how infinitely I cherished them in return.

It was not such a terrible thing, after all. They had not witnessed the collapse of love, the betrayal of parentage, desertion or dislike. What they had watched was a troubled soul achieving serenity.

I was received with curiosity by most people, with amusement by some, with nonchalance by dons and aristocrats, with kindly incomprehension by soldiers and old ladies, with earnestness by those who wanted to demonstrate their enlightenment, with bold kisses by extroverts.

Those who easily accepted the proposition were mostly women themselves. Many men, on the other hand, professed themselves stupefied.

Of course, I have regrets. I regret the shock I have given to others. I regret lost time. I regret the necessity of it all, but I do not for a moment regret the act of change.

I have myself achieved, as far as is humanly possible, the identity I craved. But if my sense of isolation has gone, my sense of difference remains, and this is inevitable.

However skilful Dr B., I can never be as other people, though I do not mind my continuing ambiguity.

What if I remain an equivocal figure? There is nobody in the world I would rather be than me.

  •  Extracted from Conundrum, by Jan Morris, published by Faber at £10.99. © Jan Morris 1974. To order a copy for £9.67 go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Promotional price valid until 12/12/2020.

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