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TG History: Climbing Mount Everest — Jan Morris Part IV

| Aug 2, 2010
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Michelle Moore brings you TG History“When you reach the top, keep climbing,” Zen proverb

Morris had been able to call upon her friends in the media to keep her upcoming transition a secret. However, once her surgery was done, Jan Morris’ gender change made worldwide news and it’s important to remember how controversial it was at the time. Unless someone was outed this was an era where nobody transitioned publicly. Popular clinical guidance usually counseled a clean break from one’s past life, family, and friends. Today it would be impossible to defend such a practice but at the time conventional wisdom held that transitioning in ones’ current life would invariably be unsuccessful. But Jan Morris was unlike other transsexuals before her in that she was a world famous public figure…” there was no place to hide. Besides which, the very idea of giving up writing and the family she loved was unacceptable to Jan.

JanMorris1Her very appearance was a shock to the public on several levels. Up to this time the only transsexuals generally known to the public had been entertainers such as Christine Jorgensen or April Ashley. Middle aged and plain featured Jan wasn’t a pretty young thing nor did she have any of the drag queen flamboyance the public expected. Indeed, Jan’s appearances on the BBC were the first occasions of a transsexual woman on television talking about something other than transsexualism. As one off-put observer described: “[t]hey seemed frightened and even repulsed by what he had become a proper, somewhat dowdy, middle-aged Englishwoman who looked as though a trip to the local tearoom was about all the adventure she could handle.” Jan was the sort of plain, ordinary, conservatively dressed woman you saw every day who blended into a crowd without notice. Where was the glamour and sex in that? Jan Morris was “normal” and in some ways that was the most disturbing thing of all.

Sexism also played a part. While opposition to her transition was expected, Jan was also a woman entering a traditionally male dominated career field and things like her dress, physical appearance, and mannerisms were minutely scrutinized for any signs of non- conformity to traditional feminine behavior. People focused on trivialities: that she drove sports cars like a man and that she whistled, apparently something only men do. Nor was Jan herself immune to the attitudes of her day as expressed in her 1974 autobiography Conundrum. “Some of it now reads as very dated,” Jan would later say, “particularly passages about the attitudes of men to women, but I’ve decided to leave it, it’s such a period piece.” On the other hand, Morris said: “What I can’t stand is being patronized by men. I have seen life from both sides and know what prejudice survives. I know by the very fact of my womanhood I am treated in many petty situations as a second class citizen — not because I lack brains or experience or character but purely because I wear the body of a woman.”

“What does it feel like feel like to be a woman, after so many years as a man? I cannot honestly answer that familiar question. For one thing I never truly thought myself a man, and do not know how a man feels. For another, there are aspects of being a woman that I shall never experience — girlhood, menstruation, childbirth, an unequivocal female sexualness. And for a third, nobody really knows how anybody else feels — you may think you are feeling as a woman, or as a man, but you may simply be feeling as yourself.”

Pleasures of a Tangled Life

morris
Jan at home

One of the most remarkable things about Jan Morris is how she has consistently proven her critics wrong but then her life has been a constant climb up a series of Mount Everests. No one thought she could continue her relationship with Elizabeth and her family. People stated flatly that her gender change was the end of her career as a writer and as a woman she couldn’t bear the strain of constant travel. Today, Jan Morris is firmly established the world’s foremost travel writer and in 2008 The Times named her the 15th greatest British writer since World War Two. Her books continue to sell well after 40 years, several of which have never been out of print.

Travel writing prior to Morris tended toward dry historical reading or public relations fluff pieces. Her work set the tone for today’s popular travelogue literature with its quirkiness, atmosphere, cultural curiosity and evocative descriptions. Jan has won Britain’s Heinemann Award for Literature and America’s George Polk Memorial Award for Journalism. Jan has written numerous magazine articles for Rolling Stone, National Geographic, American Heritage, Salon, and Time, among others. She is an Honorary Doctor of Literature of the Universities of Wales and Glamorgan. Jan is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects and has been awarded Britain’s prestigious Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). Morris is a respected literary figure whose personal endorsement is eagerly sought by writers.

Though she’s literately been to every corner on Earth, Jan has visited America more often than any country other than her own. Regarding the New York Times 9/11 story, Morris said she was “deeply touched” to see her writing used to help express the catastrophe that had overwhelmed a city she loves. Shortly afterward, Jan herself was victimized by the terrorist attacks when a man, later arrested, send powder laced anthrax hoax letters to Morris and several other public figures.

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Jan and son Twm Morys

Perhaps because of the extreme care she took in transitioning, Jan’s family adapted well. Observers felt that Jan’s wife Elizabeth accepted the inevitability of the sex-change even before she had. Jan’s son Henry (whose godfather was Sir Edmund Hillary) followed Jan’s footsteps to India and is now a musician and teacher in Devon. Her son Mark edited an encyclopedia of 20th- Century composers and produced the cover art for Conundrum. Daughter Susan studied at the University of Wales. Her son Twm, an acclaimed poet, was quoted a few years ago saying, “The effect on me has not been unhappy. On the contrary, it is fascinating. For Jan it has been a kind of journey, which few people, except in myths, have undertaken.”

For Jan and Elizabeth there has since been a further happy ending. The couple had continued living together even though British law had forced them to divorce. But the United Kingdom has since passed the Civil Partnership Act giving same sex couples rights comparable to civil marriages. On May 14, 2008 Jan and Elizabeth were legally reunited in a civil union. Having lived together for more than a half century in the same Welsh village Jan and Elizabeth intend to be buried together as well under a headstone which reads: “Here are two friends, at the end of one life”.

Bibliography

“Top that! How The Times Scooped Everest Triumph,” London Times, January 12, 2008

The Conquerors: Hillary & Norgay, Jan Morris, Time Magazine 100

Sir Edmund Hillary, Conqueror of Mt. Everest, American Academy of Achievement

“Jan Morris” by Paul Clements, 1998

The Long Voyage Home, Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian, October 6, 2001

Coronation Everest, Jan Morris, 1957

Conundrum, Jan Morris, 1974

Pleasures of a Tangled Life, Jan Morris, 1987

Manhattan ’45, Jan Morris, 1989

“Agonized, New York Bends, But It Doesn’t Break”, September 16, 2001, New York Times

“Anthrax Hoaxer in Court”, BBC News, October 25, 2001

Sex Changes: The Politics of Transgenderism, Pat Califia

James & Jan, David Holden, March 17, 1974

Crossing the Line, Richard M. Levine, May/June 1994

Love story: Jan Morris, The Independent, June 4, 2008

Some quotes slightly edited for space.

 


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