Jan Morris: Trans writer’s memoir, published 50 years ago, ‘demolishes’ current anti-trans narratives

As a young reporter in 1953, Jan Morris was on the frozen mountainside as she chronicled Edmund Hillary’s historic ascent of Mount Everest.

But, thanks to Conundrum, a 1974 landmark memoir centred around her experience as a trans woman, she also became a well-known as a trans pioneer.

No matter what topic Morris covered over her long writing career – from global travels to history to recounting her life experiences – she did so with unflinching honesty and evocative language. 

In Conundrum, she wrote about realising at the age of three or four that she had “been born into the wrong body and should really be a girl”. As an adult, she grappled with the thought that she’d “rather die young than live a long life of falsehood” by not being able to be her authentic self. 

She was later able to transition, going through hormone treatments and eventually having gender-affirming surgery in Morocco in 1972. And she lived a long life, dying in 2020 at the age of 94.  

Fifty years on from Conundrum’s original publication, and the difficulty some trans people face accessing healthcare and advocating for their identity in a hostile environment, still mirrors what Morris wrote about.

Trans author Jan Morris’s memoir gives the lie to the idea that being trans is a new fad. (Getty)

For activist, writer and musician CN Lester, who wrote the introduction to the Folio Society’s anniversary edition, Morris’ journey “completely demolishes” the anti-transgender idea that trans people are a new fad.

Referring to the prevailing rhetoric about being trans, Lester said: “I’m a millennial, but somehow Gen Z ‘invented’ being trans and push it through social media with their blue hair and their pronouns – and it’s all so ‘frightening, new and confusing’.

“Well, here’s this 50-year-old book written by someone who was in her fifties [Morris would have been in her late forties when Conundrum was published], which at that point in the 1970s, was already pretty staid and conservative in some ways. Even in that micro-encapsulation, you can see how rich the timeline is.

“When you look at the book itself, you realise that Jan Morris is referencing [fellow trans pioneer] Lili Elbe, and there’s this call-back and call-back to [earlier] trans history. That’s eye-opening, fundamentally huge.

“One of the problems with ‘trans as new’ is that is used to destabilise. It’s used to present this narrative that trans is a threat.

“So, having more examples of that culture and the richness of that culture – even if it’s not something that we would say describes my experience entirely or is my favourite and [a] wholly unproblematic work – shows our lineage and the fact that we’re not going anywhere,” Lester continued.

Activist and singer-songwriter CN Lester writes the introduction to the 50th anniversary version of Jan Morris’s Conundrum.

Morris’ openness was extraordinarily bold. Few people at the time understood what transitioning entailed or how gender-affirming healthcare worked, let alone knew anyone who had experienced it. 

There were media reports about other trans figures living as their authentic self, and Morris’ memoir took the idea of such visibility as “knowledge exchange” and the benefit that being in such a high-profile space can offer others in the community, Lester said. 

“Through writing down her experiences and showing the keywords she used, then by publishing this book, how she made her medical treatment visible, made it a blueprint for other people. 

“That is a really practical way in which visibility is useful. I think there are ways we can continue to do that. It’s not visibility for the sake of visibility. 

“It’s not visibility for the sake of [being able to say]: ‘People will see us and know they should respect us because there’s a picture of me smiling’.

“Jan Morris was a hugely influential writer and she had such a successful career as a journalist that she was in a position not only to publish this but [also] to exploit it as a book, to exploit it through tours and not to disappear afterwards. 

“Not like [transgender racing car driver] Roberta Cowell or [trans actress and singer] Christine Jorgensen, who were sort of picked up, chewed up and spat out. 

“Instead, [Morris] was like: ‘Cool, I’m still writing. I’m still incredibly influential. I’m still going to win book awards. I’m still here. You can’t push me aside. And in those books, I will communicate some forms of knowledge distribution which will be helpful to people in situations like mine’.

“I think that’s fascinating.”

As Lester acknowledged in the introduction to the new edition, Morris’ work does have “aggravating moments”, and contains several references that are problematic by today’s standards.

It is, itself, a conundrum – so uplifting in parts yet damning in others. 

The 50th-anniversary edition of Conundrum is available from the Folio Society’s website now.

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