In the summer of 1958, Michael Dillon stumbled up a mountain path in Kalimpong, India, gasping in the thin air. He was a British gentleman gone to seed, with an unkempt beard and a pipe stuffed into one pocket of his rumpled suit. He often glanced over his shoulder, as if someone might be chasing him.

Dillon was on his way to a monastery run by an Englishman. He guessed it would be the kind of place where you could become invisible. Hidden on a mountaintop in the Himalayan foothills, you could lose your identity and start a new life.

Laura Dillon, before her sex change, at age 16 in her hometown of Folkestone, England © Liz Hodgkinsons
Laura Dillon, before her sex change, at age 16 in her hometown of Folkestone, England © Liz Hodgkinsons

Finally Dillon came around a turn and spotted a dormitory perched on the side of a cliff. A white man in a yellow robe stood on the building’s porch; short, with a shaved head and huge horn-rimmed glasses, he resembled a stern owl. The man waved and welcomed Dillon to come in. Speaking with the accent of a working-class Londoner, he introduced himself as Sangharakshita. Born Dennis Lingwood, he dropped that name when he was ordained as a Theravada monk. (Sangharakshita went on to found a British community called Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, which now has centers in over a dozen countries worldwide.)

By way of explaining his own situation, Dillon reached into a pocket, fished out a newspaper clipping, and handed it to the strange little yellow-robed man. The monk peered through his thick glasses and read the clipping. It was a gossip column concerning a British woman, Laura Dillon, who had changed her sex. She had transformed herself—legally and medically—into a man, and was now living as a doctor named Michael Dillon. As a male, Dillon stood to inherit an estate and a title: someday, he would become the ninth baronet of Lismullen.

Sangharakshita handed the newsprint back, and the two of them exchanged a long, significant look. This was a bombshell. Five years before, Christine Jorgensen’s sex change had become the number one news story in America; when Jorgensen appeared on TV bedecked in blonde curls and designer gowns, the public understood that it was possible to metamorphose from man to woman. But few people—even top doctors—knew that the human body could go the other way, too. Dillon had been the first person ever to undergo a medical transformation from female to male. He was a worldwide tabloid story waiting to happen—if the journalists ever managed to find him. A few weeks earlier, they had located Dillon in Baltimore, where he was working as a ship’s doctor. A gaggle of newshounds had descended upon him with their notepads and flashbulbs, lobbing questions, threatening to tear off his clothes in order to see the evidence of his sex change. And so Dillon had fled to India, to the most out-of-the-way spot he could find.

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