Spiritual search for transgender contentment
Updated: Apr 1
The death of Welsh historian and author Jan Morris towards the end of last year (November 2020) prompted me to re-read her book Condundrum, first published by Faber in 1974. It is a memoir of her life as the renowned journalist James Morris and her struggle to come to terms with her gender identity, the cause of emotional turmoil which led ultimately to a sex-change in a clinic in Casablanca when in her mid-40s.
Looking back, Jan Morris always maintained that the quest for fulfilment was much more spiritual than physical or psychological. 'In my mind it is a subject far wider than sex: I recognise no pruriency to it, and I see it above all as a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit' (pp. 14–15).
In these days of increasing visibility of gender fluidity and debates over the rights of people to live with the identity they choose for themselves and to have those choices reflected in certain public policies, it is fascinating to read Morris's views of 50-plus years ago and see how much has and, indeed, hasn't changed in terms of compassionate or prejudiced responses to gender difference and matters of sexuality and personal behaviour.
I was intrigued to read her insights into how different it felt to inhabit a male body and then a female one, that had been made possible through surgery and extensive hormonal realignment. For Jan Morris whatever physical advantages some men may take for granted, when it comes to which sex to be, there was – for Jan Morris – no contest from a spiritual point of view:
'The nearest humanity approaches to perfection is in the persons of kind, intelligent and healthy women past their menopause, no longer shackled by the mechanics of sex but creative still in other kinds, aware still in their love and sensuality, graceful in experience, past ambition but never beyond aspiration. In all countries, among all races, on the whole these are the people I most admire: and it is into their ranks, I flatter myself, if only in the rear file, if only on the flank, that I have now admitted myself.' (P.159)
Morris was always controversial! Although she divorced her wife just before her operation, the two remained close, and came together in a civil partnership years later. They often travelled together, and lived together. In their house, Morris kept a gravestone that bore the inscription – both in Welsh and English – designed to be a joint epitaph one day: 'Here are two friends, Jan and Elizabeth, at the end of one life.'
Jan Morris, 2 October 1926–20 November 2020