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Jan Morris: prophet of our gender troubles The trans pioneer left a peculiar legacy

Nothing is what it seems. (Photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)

Nothing is what it seems. (Photo by Colin McPherson/Corbis via Getty Images)


October 19, 2022   9 mins

“Do you remember,” the late Jan Morris asked our late Queen, “when they climbed Everest for the first time, and the news came to you on the day before your coronation?”

It was 2001. The writer and the monarch were standing in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, at an event to celebrate British publishing.

“Yes of course I remember,” the Queen said sharply.

“Well I was the person who brought the news back from Everest, so you got it on time.”

The Queen looked at Morris in silence. Before her stood a properly large lady — a 6ft 4” lady, with wispy white hair harassing a square head. A fascinating, but somewhat odd face. A correct Englishwoman’s voice, but sultry, with a male pitch. A laugh like a cat’s laugh, hissy and languid. And a lady. Were there ladies on Everest, in 1953?

Morris did not explain to the Queen that she had undergone gender reassignment surgery in the decades since the mountain was defeated. “How could I explain to her?” she later said. “Life is too short.”

How to explain Jan Morris? Who was she? What was she? Faced with a life like this, the Queen’s confusion is our own. Morris was a man, and then a woman. He had been a debonair foreign correspondent as the jet age dawned, who transformed into an apparently cheerful old dear wearing pearls in a damp corner of North Wales. He was a superb travel writer who yearned to compose novels, then wrote the Pax Britannica trilogy, the greatest — or at least the most entertaining — narrative history of the late 20th century instead.

She was a trickster who denied the existence of truth, then struggled to have her female identity accepted by her family, her profession, and her society. She wanted to be a raffish romancer, but was “happily married” for 70 years. She hymned British Imperialism, then became a Welsh Nationalist. She was described as an enigma, yet underwent the least enigmatic voluntary medical procedure possible. Her public persona was all bonhomie, but she lived alongside her own gravestone; it haunted the corner of her library for decades. Every time she said she had retired, she resurfaced scant months later with a new book — even after she died in 2020, there she was again, a little while later, with another one. There were 58 of them in the end. More than anything, she was a flirt, a tease. “My life is one long allegory,” Morris claimed. To which the reply, inevitably, is: for what?

Jan Morris was born James Morris in the Somerset seaside town of Clevedon in 1926. His father’s family was Welsh, his mother’s vaguely Norman — division was established as an early theme. The young boy wandered the hills overlooking the coast near his home, already isolated, already convinced “I had been born in the wrong body, and should really be a girl”, already yearning for the unobtainable. Then the miseries of school (Lancing College), where he was always in trouble, “beaten by prefects more than any other pupil” during the early months of the war. As the conflict wound down, Morris joined the 9th Lancers, serving in Venice, Trieste, and Cairo as an intelligence officer, undertaking what she called “squalid duties of repression and withdrawal”.

In 1953, Morris, at 27 the new foreign editor of The Times, became the official journalist on Edmund Hillary’s expedition to Everest. Breaking the news that Hillary had conquered the mountain made Morris’s career. He was a classic, frenzied overachiever. Celebrated books followed, such as Venice (1960), and the sex-change memoir, Conundrum (1974). These are the room temperature facts, diligently recorded by Paul Clements in his new biography, Jan Morris: Life from both sides. 

You have to feel sorry for Clements. He was friendly with his subject, which is dangerous for a biographer. Morris destroyed her private papers, and lived, at times, as if existence itself was an inside joke. “Almost nothing in life is what it seems”, she wrote, and we would do well to apply this mantra to Morris’s own life. She claims she knew she was a woman when she was three or four years old — yet she pursued emphatically manly careers in the army and the press. She claimed an ambiguous sexuality — but when she met her wife, Elizabeth, Clements notes that “any questions about gender and sexuality were swept aside”. Five children, one of whom died, followed. The marriage was a perfect patriarchal model: Morris away obsessively working the globe; Elizabeth tending children, garden, accounts and house, alone. “Jan,” said her daughter Suki, “was a very complicated person, not in my view, the simple, lovely being that people see at all”. Nothing was what it seemed. All Clements will say is that she had a “contradictory nature”.

Morris began taking oestrogen pills in 1964, the first stage of an eight-year physical metamorphosis. She had been near-suicidal in the run up to this decision. And at the very moment her identity as a man was crumbling, her country was too. What did James Morris see when he looked around in 1964? He had been born at a time when Britain still decided world questions, and he had always approved of this. Now God was withdrawing His credit from the British. After Everest, Morris was a foreign correspondent for the Guardian. He filed from Cape Town and Bogota, from Cairo and Kabul, from Tel Aviv and Isfahan. He had followed Britain’s armies through the long, bleary rearguard action of imperialism. He had watched that “distasteful ignominy” at Suez. “We were living in a twilight time,” Morris wrote. “Old forces were dying and new energies emerging. Patterns that had seemed permanent were falling into chaos.”

Everywhere was retreat and evacuation. The Promethean spirit — “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life,” the spirit used to whisper — that executed Mughal princes without trial, that snaked railways underneath Rhodesian waterfalls, that doomed prisoners to silent wards on the frigid shores of the Tasman Sea, that Empire-building spirit, was gone. Things would never be the way they were again.

Bereaved of their worldly footholds — “the grand illusion had collapsed, and England was a European island once more,” he wrote — the British were all alone. Morris’s entire generation was left like Atlas, but relieved of his globe. They would have to find new burdens to carry. It was not enough for him. He wanted more.

So, approaching middle-age, Morris hurled himself into two vast concurrent projects, two escape plans from the wreckage of Britain and his own masculinity. One concerned the past, and the Empire. One concerned the future, and his identity.

Though Clements never makes the connection explicit, it’s clear that James’s decision to become Jan was a peculiarly original response to the end of the British Empire. Read the Pax Britannica trilogy (1968-1978), the first of those projects, written as she transitioned. It is thunderously problematic. Morris described her response to Empire as “sensuous”. She cherished British cruelty in a way no one would dare do today. Empire was was a “flare”, a “blaze”, and an “ambition for its own sake”. As the 19th century turned, the British “yearned to break out of their sad and prosaic realities, and live more brilliant lives in Xanadu”. Other lands, from Ireland to India, were collateral, and Morris could live with that.

Gender shadows these books. Clearly, it made Morris’s hairs stand on end to think about the sheer effrontery of men like Robert Clive, or Admiral “Jackie” Fisher or Winston Churchill. She remembered the gentlemen of the East India Company as “showy, amoral
 Plundering, fighting and trading in a spirit of uncensorious give and take”. She loved the men of peak Empire even more. They had everything the men in her generation lacked: constancy, surety, a granite bedrock of Christian faith. Here she is on John Nicholson, an Anglo-Irish Army officer who flew through British India like a tempest. He was “a fable in his own lifetime
 He was a fighter
 He was a big man
 He looked utterly sure.”

By the third volume of the trilogy, Farewell The Trumpets (1978), composed after Morris had her gender reassignment surgery in Casablanca, it was not merely the British Empire that was coming apart. It was British masculinity itself. Suez was the empire’s tomb, and a finale for the British male. Looking back at the troops sent to occupy Port Said in 1955, she saw them as “self-conscious”, their half-hearted war-making “somehow fraudulent”, suffused with a “sham virility”. Around them the Egyptian city stood “shattered and appalled
 a bitter memorial to the last display of imperial machismo.” All the certainty had vanished. The sad-sack farrago at Suez raised more than geopolitical questions for Morris. If, after centuries of vigorous domination, British masculinity was impotent and no longer plausible, then why be a British man at all?

Well, how about a woman? This was the second project. In Conundrum, Morris elaborated on her notion of womanhood. It was not designed to please feminists. It was designed to be the opposite of the Victorian imperialists Morris so admired. “My own notion of the female principle was one of gentleness as against force, forgiveness rather than punishment, give more than take, helping more than leading.” In post-Imperial Britain, if Morris could not be a wolf, she would be a lamb. She would escape into her own romantic idea of femininity. To be a woman rather than a man, she argued, was simply a matter of “good taste”.

Published in 1974, Conundrum became, in Clements’ imaginative phrase, a “media circus”. Morris, the handsome writer, was the highest-profile person to change gender in British history. Her persona was savaged in print and on television. “She sounds not like a woman, but like a man’s idea of a woman,” wrote Rebecca West, “and curiously enough, the idea of a woman not nearly so intelligent as James Morris used to be.” Germaine Greer accused a “self-indulgent” Morris of lacking frankness about what her “new body looks like and how it works”. Nora Ephron laughed at her: Morris was “perfectly awful at being a woman; what she has become instead is
 A girl”. A particularly brutal drubbing in the Times Literary Supplement left Morris writing to the editor. “Your cruel review of Conundrum has reduced me to tears.”

Every line of today’s battles over gender identity was scripted in the furore around Conundrum and Morris in the early Seventies. She appeared on a BBC talkshow and faced a 45-minute barrage of questions from an MP, a psychiatrist and a feminist. Morris was told that her book was “proselytising and immoral”. Her notion of womanhood was “ridiculous” and “limited”. Morris responded that it was “arrogant” to assume anyone could know what anyone else might feel like. The transexual experience was an “inner-music” and a quest towards a new reality. Gender, Morris told millions of TV viewers, “is the way people feel and the way they want other people to think about them — it is the spirit, the soul, and the innermost essence of what people feel they are.” Morris was saying that trans women are women. She may have been the first to do so in Britain. “I’m afraid you must take it or leave it”, she told the bewildered panel.

Overnight, Morris’s life was truly allegorical. Her life was a bridge between two worlds. The first was the old reality, where identity was confirmed in collective endeavours like the British Empire, inherited beliefs like Christianity and powerful institutions like the Armed Forces or Fleet Street. When she became a woman, Morris was clearing a path towards the second world we live in now. Identity is confirmed by the individual, through a series of deliberate choices rather than an inherited set of traditions, and based entirely on feelings. All she wanted, “was the liberty of us all to live as we wished to live, to love however we wanted to love”.

Morris suspected that she was a prophet. “Is mine only a transient phenomenon” she wondered, “between the dogmatism of the last century, when men were men and women were ladies, and the eclecticism of the next, when citizens will be free to live in the gender roles they prefer?” Asked about the pushback against the trans movement in 2017, an increasingly ancient Morris said our “moment is messy, but I think more and more people will move to my condition”. She believed it was possible that “everyone has the potential to have both genders in them”.

Jan Morris was an early adopter of an ideology that has swept across the Western world in the past 30 years. Conundrum has never been out of print. Morris’s belief — born from the collapse of empire, engineered to replace her imperial faith — that gender is ineffable and innate, are becoming commonplace in institutional settings. When Morris died, one of the leading tributes came from the chief executive of the Tavistock Clinic’s Gender Identity Development Service.

Is this simply fashion? Is this ideology “cronyistic” as Helen Joyce, and other gender-critical writers have suggested? Some feminists argue that gender-identity ideology will be abandoned “when it is no longer in the ascendent”, the politicians and tech billionaires will junk the pronouns in their emails, biology will reassert itself, and women will no longer have penises.

Morris prefigured our present, but perhaps she represented the future too. Our great-grandparents believed that masturbation caused insanity. Our great-grandchildren may come to view the idea that only natal women can bear children with a mixture of condescension, alarm, and laughter. A quaint and horrible belief, like phrenology.

“The sexual attitudes of any given society”, Gore Vidal said, “are the result of political decisions.” He was right. Biological facts exist only up to a point. Power is more important. If power decides that fantasy and feeling take precedence over evolution and biology, then fantasy and feeling become fact. The distinction between the sexes can be socially engineered. The technology to make it so exists.

Whether such a shift will make people happier — which is surely the point of it — is difficult to answer. In her life as a woman, we can detect something quietly unwell about Morris. Nothing was as it seemed. She told interviewers how much she loved floral dresses and embraced a rather desperate frivolity. The hard-edges of James Morris were publicly sanded away. She would no longer take things that seriously — “far better in my opinion to regard the great world as a kind of show, a tragicomedy put on for my fascination”. Such an attitude of high unseriousness can only come from believing that there are no great causes left, that nothing really matters, so you may as well laugh. She  praised callowness. “Give me fizz, give me irresponsibility, and if I ever feel maturity creeping in, crack a bottle, put out more flags, and ring bells!”

It was a masquerade. “Many wondered,” writes Clements, “if there was an underlying melancholy behind this facade”. Seen as a whole, Morris’s entire life appears as a trick question, like the one she asked the Queen that day in Buckingham Palace. Could Britain get over the loss of Empire? And could a man be a woman? Morris was not the first, nor will she be the last, to discover that there are no simple answers to either question.


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Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 year ago

A woman is an adult human female. James/Jan Morris was a biological male. He was suffering from the long recognised and extensively documented mental illness known as gender dysphoria. The symptoms of the illness are that an individual feels a subjective sense of their “gender” that does not accord with what they believe someone of their biological sex should feel.
Apparently sufferers of this illness get relief from pharmaceutically and surgically altering their bodies to resemble the opposite biological sex.
Mental illness takes many forms and involves many different types of delusional beliefs. In almost all cases mental health professionals try to communicate to their patients that their delusions are not real but a product of their illness. Patients are given medication and counselling to help them cope with their condition. Mental health professionals do not accept and reinforce the delusions of their patients. That would be gross professonal negligence. Until relatively recently the same approach was taken with sufferers of gender dysphoria.
Transgenderism is not:”an ideology that has swept across the Western world in the past 30 years”. It has crept out of the obscure recesses of academia as part of postmodernism only relatively recently. Until then it well understood as the mental illness of gender dyphoria
The author, as per usual goes in to flouncy, unspecific language on the subject, and in doing so prevents intellectual scrutiny.. Any reference to scientific research in differences between female and male brains is not presented.
Transgender ideology is an fad. It is a set of absurd, anti-scientific notions, dreamt up by third rate professors playing with postmodernist ideas in the rarefied atmosphere of academia. Somehow it escaped in to the real world, and should have been ridiculed back to where it came from long ago. But it has been sustained by the climate of fear the vicious trans activists have created by their attacks on anyone questioning their dogma, and by gullible people who have overintellectualised themselves in to believing patent nonsense. Finally, however, it seems that the tide is turning against the trans zealots.

Last edited 1 year ago by Marcus Leach
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Those third rate professors in search of tenure cooking up fantasies like “trans” victimization sure have made a lot of money for so-called children’s hospitals. It’s shocking how quickly these profitable mass psychoses take hold. Or is it . . .?

Michelle Johnston
Michelle Johnston
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Gender Dysphoria is no longer classified as a mental health disorder by the world health organisation but the nub of really good evaluation by a psychologist is to determine if the person in front of them is a successful functioning adult who in every other respect is healthy both mentally and physically where the only remaining element is they believe that they identify in a different gender.
That very careful diagnosis, which many transgendered people wish to sidestep in favour of self-ID, is why a small number of people have reassigned their gender since the act was introduced eighteen years ago.
Jan was an interesting and capable writer and some of the most revealing qualities of her own journey and why, are beautifully elaborated on in her book “Conundrum”. My sense with Jan is as a bright soul she tried to articulate very complex feelings which no one who does not feel the same way could understand, just as there is no reason as to why Jan should understand what it feels like to have no questions on this matter at all.
All we can do is be compassionate and understanding but because this is genuinely a rare occurrence we are unlikely to encounter, it is left to MSM to reduce it to dodgy appearances, preoccupations with “bits” and all the bruhaha that has developed in recent years.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago

“Gender Dysphoria is no longer classified as a mental health disorder by the world health organisation but the nub of really good evaluation by a psychologist is to determine if the person in front of them is a successful functioning adult”
I think the problem with this statement is that your faith in psychologists is a bit misplaced. Tavistock is an example of this. Teenage girls, like all teenagers, are complicated and fragile. It’s fine to no longer regard it as a health disorder, but to begin serious treatment at that age was always a risk, as it has turned out to be.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Caroline Watson
Caroline Watson
1 year ago

It is possible to be ‘compassionate’ towards a mentally ill person who believes a delusion without reinforcing that delusion.
The delusion is not only that a man can ‘become’ a woman, or vice versa (and the motives are very different) but that ‘gender’ exists outside linguistics. Replace ‘gender’ with ‘individual personalities’ and the whole ridiculous edifice comes crashing down.

Johanna Louw
Johanna Louw
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Would you rather that gender dysphoric people commit suicide? Your post shows little insight and zero compassion. People with psychological conditions and/or mental illnesses deserve respect, just like anyone else.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago
Reply to  Johanna Louw

You present as many others do, a false dichotomy. Affirmation and suicide are not the only options. Just as well given 40% of “trans” kill themselves regardless of wether their delusions are affirmed.
If 40% of any section of society is inclined towards suicide suggests a high degree of mental illness.
Compassion is giving people the tools and techniques to cope with a life not in accordance with their wishes. Not acquiescing to either their or your emotional blackmail.

Michelle Johnston
Michelle Johnston
1 year ago
Reply to  Johanna Louw

The point I was making up the thread and was downvoted for was that those who successfully transition through the support of their clinicians are only supported in that transition if they are not diagnosed as suffering from any kind of mental illness. That they are gender dysphoric is no longer considered a mental illness.
Other studies show that in people who transition, the desire to consider suicide reduces from a very high level to barely recorded afterwards. That suggests for a very small number of well-adjusted successful adults who actually transition the journey is one to happiness.
What I am sensing in these comments and some allude to it is people who would otherwise offer transgendered people polite indifference have found the zealotry among part of the community has placed them on the defensive.
The sadness is so few people actually transition each year like Jan just over 400 a year since the act was introduced the entire subject takes up a hugely disproportionate amount of air time.
I do wonder what those from this very small community feel about the idea of self-identification who are a much larger group where men retain all the characteristics and drivers of their manhood and vice versa.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michelle Johnston
Tiddles Bilbo
Tiddles Bilbo
1 year ago
Reply to  Johanna Louw

He was a misogynist . Men can be women
. Misogyny at its finest!

Sandra Currie
Sandra Currie
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

It’s the only mental delusions that is treated by affirming the delusion. The only mental disorder treated this way. Now that’s insanity!

j morgan
j morgan
1 year ago

What an utter waste of mental energy it is, trying to nuance your way to a place where a man can be a woman (sort of, if you squint, and ignore reality).

He can’t be. Not everything has to be complicated. Society has better problems to confront than trying to reconcile reality with the fantasies of men such as James Morris.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago

The author of this piece seems either uncertain, or confused as to when or how to refer to Morris. Sometimes “she” other times “he.” At times he refers to Morris as “she” when Morris was actually “he.”
Morris, be it James or Jan, was male and should be referred to as “he”.
Anything else is a lie. No matter the intention.
Morris was born male and died male. That he may have undergone surgery, taken drugs and changed his clothing to more resemble a woman does not change the fact (and it is a fact) that Morris, despite how he perceived himself was male.

Last edited 1 year ago by N Forster
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

Saying ‘she’ and ‘Jan Morris’ instead of ‘he’ and ‘James Morris’ does not cost us very much, if it makes the person feel better. Much like there is no compelling need to refuse to say ‘Bob Dylan’ when you mean the person whose real name is Robert Zimmerman. James/Jan Morris was a male and we should not deny the truth of that. Who get access to female loos, prisons and sports teams is another matter. But some reasonable accommodation would seem only polite.

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

If the question of how to address a person suffering from gender dysphoria was left as a personal choice, then most people would be content to play along with the fiction.
But throughout the world, not referring to a person by their “preferred pronouns” is being criminalised and used a basis for sacking people and taking away their livelihood.
When the law compels me to engage in a fiction under threat of criminal sanction, or my livelihood is threatened unless I kowtow to the demand that I deny biological reality, then the issue becomes political, as my right to freedom or thought and expression is being taken away.
Unfortunately the trans zealots have imposed a cost on being polite and humouring gender dysphoriua sufferer. By being polite I would now be outwardly tacitly showing acceptance and support for the absurd ideology of the vicious, intolerant trans zealots who are hacking away at the established rights and protections for women and children and the rights of freedom of thought and expression.
When the zealots have been defeated and retreat, then we can go back to being polite. Until then this is a serious political battle about rights and reason.

Last edited 1 year ago by Marcus Leach
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

OK, this is not just about politeness. But I would rather look for a tolerable compromise than saying ‘once we have total victory, we shall be magnanimous’. Total war comes with high costs.

The best I can think of is to *avoid* the argument what a woman ‘really’ is, because it leads to all-or-nothing thinking. That means refusing to accept “I am really awoman so never mind my anatomy I have the right to access women’s prisons and sports teams”. And also avoiding “You are really a man so never mind what you feel like I will call you ‘he'”. ‘Woman, as a word, means people with a female body, a female sense of self, female behaviour, female rights and obligations. Unfortunately there are people who tick only some of the boxes and refuse others. Instead of refusing to acknowledge their existence (or demanding that they take over completely), let us just look on this as a series of separate, practical problems. Does person X have the right to be refered to as ‘she’? to appear on a Labour all-women shortlist? to use female loos? to compete as a female in sports? Then we can solve each problem by itself to minimise friction and suffering, without being obliged to give the same answer to very different questions. If it offends some people’s sense of self to not be treated as their chosen gender in each and every case that is just tough, but at least we can accommodate them where the costs is reasonable on balance.

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Woman as a word means: adult human female.
Female means: “of or denoting the sex that can bear offspring or produce eggs, distinguished biologically by the production of gametes (ova) which can be fertilized by male gametes”
Once we start with that, we can add the sopistication of an individual being described as a feminine male or a masculine female. In doing that we have not compromised objective biological science but have accounted for the fact that many individuals show atypical behavior from that normally associated with their biological sex.
Now we have three categories.

  1. Males/Females whose behaviour accords with that typically associated with their biological sex
  2. Males/Females whose behavior does not accord to some degree with that typically associated with their biological sex (effemiminate males and masculine females).
  3. Sufferers of the mental illness of gender dysphoria who are afflicted with an internal conflict between their conception of their biological sex and the objective reality.

Both one and two are completely normal aspects of human behaviour and require no delving in to postmodernist anti-scientific fiddle faddle to accommodate. Three is a longstanding recognised and well documented mental illness that deserves sympathy and proper treatment; not medical health professionals legitimising delusional beliefs and pushing mentally ill people ,to pump their bodies full of hormones and disfigure themselves with ammutations.
These categorisations have sufficed for humanity since time immemorial, and there has not been any new scientific discovery that puts a question mark over their legitimacy.

Last edited 1 year ago by Marcus Leach
Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

These categorisations have sufficed for humanity since time immemorial,

That is not quite as true as you think it is. There are examples of societies (uncommon, but real) that operated with more than two genders (some Asian of native American societies), or where you could be treated as e.g. a man socially, even if you are a women biologically (herders in Montenegro e.g.). It can be done. Once you get into ‘behaviour associated with biological sex’ you have multiple things associated with the words, and they can sometimes split.

For comparison, consider the word ‘mother’ We all know what a mother means. Yet in the real world we have surrogate mothers, gene mothers, birth mothers, adoptive mothers, stepmothers, and foster mothers. Would you say that (most of) these are not mothers after all? If so I know some adoptive mothers who will have your hide. For mothers we can mange the whole thing quite easily. The word ‘mother’ means the same as it always has, someone who has *all* the necessary characteristics. The groups I mentioned above all count as mothers – of sorts. Whether a given person qualifies as ‘the mother’ depends on circumstance, whether we are talking about permission for a school trip, inherited disease, emotional bonds, or whatnot. And we avoid a divisive and damaging discussion about what the word means and who is a ‘real’ mother. Maybe we can do the same with the word ‘woman’?

Will Rolf
Will Rolf
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

What you are saying is that gender non conforming people have always existed. The previous comment addresses this in point number two. We have always had ‘two spirit’ people, it is not a new thing. What is different now is the medicalizing of the ‘two spirit’ condition. If you can find a culture that mutilated the genitals of GNC people to ‘cure’ them then I might grant the relevance of your point. The difference now is not that we are more inclusive and understanding of GNC people but more barbaric.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

There are examples of societies (uncommon, but real) that operated with more than two genders (some Asian of native American societies), or where you could be treated as e.g. a man socially, even if you are a women biologically (herders in Montenegro e.g.). It can be done. Once you get into ‘behaviour associated with biological sex’ you have multiple things associated with the words, and they can sometimes split.

These cultures made social space for non-gender conforming males, rarely were females given the same leeway, except in dire economic circumstances. None of these cultures ever lost sight of what it was to be biologically male or female. Other social institutions like marriage and child care were not touched by the small accomodations made. 21st century western liberals are a historical anomaly in denying the material reality of sex.

Yet in the real world we have surrogate mothers, gene mothers, birth mothers, adoptive mothers, stepmothers, and foster mothers. Would you say that (most of) these are not mothers after all?

All these varieties of mothers are female. Let’s not play silly games here.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Generalizing about “Native American” (or any) cultures to which you do not belong, is risky. The so-called “contraries” were called that just because they were the exception rather than the rule.

M. Jamieson
M. Jamieson
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Even these societies did not think that people living in something like the opposite sex role had really changed sex. Instead, they saw them as a means to deal with exceptions to what were typically extremely narrow gender roles in the society – most often around male homosexuality. Notably, such males usually had a lot more sexual freedom than actual women did in the same culture.

T. Lister
T. Lister
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach
  1. Males/Females whose behaviour accords with that typically associated with their biological sex
  2. Males/Females whose behavior does not accord to some degree with that typically associated with their biological sex (effemiminate males and masculine females).
  3. Sufferers of the mental illness of gender dysphoria who are afflicted with an internal conflict between their conception of their biological sex and the objective reality.

Number 1 is erroneous as what you describe as ‘typical’ is mostly (though probably not all) socially constructed. Number 2 sets forth what is needed (and that we had come to understand and accept) is that a more expansive way of being M/F is natural and normative and thus is not ‘atypical.’ Many of these people grow up to be LGB and until the T force-teamed itself onto the LGB and parasatised the entire movement we could maintain women’s/girls’ single-sex spaces and opportunities. And no ridiculous, fraudulent pronouns were required nor was there a need to hormonally and surgically mutilate people’s bodies to create simulacrums to perpetrate a fraud on the public. LGB people required none of this trans lunacy. LGB is a sexual orientation based on the material reality of sex but trans is an ‘identity’ based on no material reality and reifies old stereotypes–two different things. LGBs just wanted equality and to integrate into society but Ts want to deconstruct society and eliminate the reality of sexual dimorphism. No.3 I would say is accurate in that I think mostly young people have been sucked into a cult that is more funded and promoted by and in service to mostly trans, heterosexual, male cross-dressers w/ a fetish, autogynephiles/transvestic fetishists (see the 11th Hour blog). These men w/ paraphilias are under the trans umbrella (as are other pervs) and some of them are dangerous to females. So in accepting and legalizing ‘gender identity’ we are legalizing male fetishes and trashing females and their rights, dignity, safeguarding,and entire lived experience by considering these pervy men as any kind of woman. And we are resurrecting homophobia as trans is not only misogynist but is also deeply homophobic.

Una-Jane Winfield
Una-Jane Winfield
1 year ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Only when my now dead ex-H left us did he reveal that he was a transsexual. I considered carefully how to reply to his e-mails from a new gmail account with first name “Elizabeth”. I decided to call him “Paul/Elizabeth”. I wanted him to understand that I did understand his delusion: his real name followed by a forward slash and then the new female name conveyed correctly that he was confused. This was not a criticism: it was a fact.
I was trained as a physical scientist. I deal in facts. He had not and never would “change sex”.
And when I found out that in his last years his prostate problem recurred despite the estrogen he was taking, I didn’t laugh but I did sigh: you just have to wait for people to learn the truth.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

It is not polite to ask me or anyone else to lie in order to affirm a persons perceptions or delusions. The “polite” argument is false.
As for it being “cost free” it isn’t. As it is the first step in allowing men access to female spaces. If you wish to preserve those, no quarter should be given. None.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
1 year ago
Reply to  N Forster

There are transsexuals in the UK who are quietly living their lives without fuss or bother. I know and love two who I do use the pronoun “she” for in the same way as I call them both Aunt when with them as I have done for the last 52 years. Both will tell you if you ask that if they had lived in other times and been brought up in a different place, they would now be the gay men they were born to be.

But they both grew up in the Bible Belt of America (100 miles apart) with fathers who were pastors and who could not have homosexual sons because homosexuality was illegal. They met in Argentina where German surgeons operated on them. And they came to the UK in the hope they would pass as women and be able to get on with their lives. My mother met them at a youth and community event and brought them home for tea. The rest is history.

They are happy to tell you they are biological men who present as women. They support our fight to keep women’s spaces free of biological men. I have never known either to use a women only space.

They are now elderly transsexual women hoping to carry on living as they do for the rest of their lives. I will fight for that to happen as they are not hurting anyone or taking space from any biological woman.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Okay. Yeah, you do look fat, says a mother to her anorexic daughter. Feel better?

T. Lister
T. Lister
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

Nice and polite is/was the ‘camel’s nose under the tent,’ language matters and is important in describing reality, so a hard no to pronoun nonsense.

Last edited 1 year ago by T. Lister
Scott Buchanan
Scott Buchanan
1 year ago
Reply to  Rasmus Fogh

What an awful analogy: calling Robert Zimmerman Bob Dylan is quite unlike the practice of using “she” to refer to a biological male. The latter is a corruption of word’s relationship with reality, since it is tied specifically to femaleness.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

It’s funny how current society has so readily accepted the physically extreme changes for the body and brain of men claiming to be women because they feel as if they are women, and yet they completely reject the concept of white people claiming to be black because they feel as if they are black, requiring no physical or mental change at all, but a mere adoption of cultural attitudes, and tanning product.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ian Stewart
David Baker
David Baker
1 year ago

“Our great-grandchildren may come to view the idea that only natal women can bear children with a mixture of condescension, alarm, and laughter.”

I was going to make an analogy about denying some even more basic truth to show how ridiculous this statement is. But there might not be a more obvious truth than women being the only ones capable of giving birth.

So congratulations on hitting the bedrock of reality I guess, hopefully our great-grandchildren don’t crack their skulls ramming their heads against it.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  David Baker

Indeed, I would say the opposite: in the future the fact that surgeons in our time were operating on and prescribing unnecessary medicines to sexually-confused children will be viewed with the same horror and disgust we have when we hear about the lobotomies performed on the depressed women of the nineteenth century.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Please can you explain why you have specified “depressed women” ? Lobotomies were performed from the 1880s up until the 1950s on both women and men with all kinds of mental problems, from relatively minor – depression in both sexes, to severe – psychizophrenia in both sexes.

T. Lister
T. Lister
1 year ago
Reply to  Claire D

Apparently also on homosexuals.

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
1 year ago
Reply to  David Baker

There simply wont be many great grand children to mock us ancients if biological women arent the ones getting pregnant and delivering children! Yes, the great Technology Gods may create an artificial uterus or two, but the expense and stupidity of that venture will mean only a tiny population of future humans.

Christine Hankinson
Christine Hankinson
1 year ago

Yes, the problem with James/Jan Morris’s interpretation of being female was so damagingly stereotypical. I am a woman and accept that, because it is a fact and I have necessarily enjoyed and suffered the physicality of my sex. However I have always resisted stereotypical gender expressions of femininity. Equally although I was always aware of the privilege of males and how relatively easy their social and professional lives were, I never would pretend to be one.
What you can do is constantly fight to extend the boundaries of acceptability of gender expression. To be small soft and sweet, caring and male, or large ambitious, brave, tough and female, without ridicule.
That’s where freedom lies.
That’s the dog wagging the tail.
There is NO reality of male humans giving birth in the future, only a man could think that. Women can now choose not to bear children, but they will never be able to inseminate. As Philip K d**k memorably said ‘reality is that which when it is no longer believed doesn’t go away’ gender is a belief. Sex is real. It would have been much braver for James Morris to have challenged the limits of masculinity than to have become a fantasy female.

Dermot O'Sullivan
Dermot O'Sullivan
1 year ago

‘What you can do is constantly fight to extend the boundaries of acceptability of gender expression.’

The nub of the problem in my opinion. There is no need to fight any such thing.

Ludwig van Earwig
Ludwig van Earwig
1 year ago

You were aware of the “the privilege of males”? Like getting blown to pieces in wars, like doing the dangerous jobs and so making up most workplace deaths?

Alan Girling
Alan Girling
1 year ago

The ‘privilege’ of males is real, as are the great responsibilities that have always come with that privilege, the absence of which have been the ‘privilege’ of females.

Nicola Bown
Nicola Bown
1 year ago

The article almost entirely erases Morris’s wife Elizabeth and his children. As Germaine Greer remarked, ‘Elizabeth’s silence is the truest measure of Morris’s continuing masculinity.’ No commitment to his wife or family could be allowed to get in the way of the fascinating drama of his identity, and this article, I’m afraid, simply admires that drama. It’s always, always about how important and interesting men are, isn’t it, even when they pretend to be women – as if they do the business of being a woman so much more interestingly than actual women, who might as just well stay silently in the background, where they belong.

Last edited 1 year ago by Nicola Bown
jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
1 year ago
Reply to  Nicola Bown

In a 2008 interview Morris tells us that he has headstone prepared for use after his death. He states that it’s for him and his ‘partner’- apparently Elizabeth is no longer his wife, despite their marriage cert and all those children. It reads ” Here are two friends,Jan and Elizabeth Morris at the end of one life’. Says it all. We’ll never know what Elizabeths thoughts were on it.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Nicola Bown

“ 
the fascinating drama of his identity, and this article, I’m afraid, simply admires that drama. It’s always, always about how important and interesting men are, isn’t it 
”
It’s not as if the writer has made up things or even exaggerated them. Your feelings about men do not reduce the interesting nature of Morris, good or bad. What would you want in an article about Morris? Obviously not a person who’s personality was not just a man who claimed to be a woman, but something far more complex and interesting, and fascinating.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Andrew Blake
Andrew Blake
1 year ago

I like the thesis here that Morris’s decision was a response to the end of British power and authority. Ergo, Morris thought, we were collectively castrated, and the trappings of gentlemanly masculinity – stoicism, duty, consensual competition – should be replaced by feminine gentleness expressed both collectively and in his case personally. Very neat.
Trouble is, he always looked and sounded like a man in a frock pretending to be a caricature of 1940s femininity; he always seemed very male in his (understandably) prickly defence of his lifestyle choice. He was trying to ‘perform’ gender, as the prophet Butler has it – and the result was amateur dramatics.

bill blax
bill blax
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Blake

Yes, your (Andrew Blake’s) use of the word “caricature” I think is very apt. A biological male can at best only become a caricature of a female, and the reciprocal is also true.
That’s not to say that one should be rude to people who think they are of the other sex, but to legislatively require all of society to treat them in all respects as if they truly are is to privilege them in a way that places society and culture on a foundation based not on realty but on illusion..

Mirax Path
Mirax Path
1 year ago

Nora Ephron wrote in an Esquire article (now taken down) :

“I always wanted to be a girl, too. I, too, felt that I was born into the wrong body, a body that refused, in spite of every imprecation and exercise I could manage, to become anything but the boyish, lean thing it was… I wanted more than anything to be something I will never be – Feminine and feminine in the worst way. Submissive. Dependent. Soft-spoken. Coquettish. I was no good at all at any of it, no good at being a girl; on the other hand I am not half bad at being a woman. In contrast Jan Morris is perfectly awful at being a woman; what she has become instead is precisely what James Morris wanted to become all those years ago. A girl. And worse, a forty-seven-year-old girl. And worst of all, a forty-seven-year-old Cosmopolitan girl.”

It was a prescient observation : nearly every transwoman of recent vintage self-identifies as a girl even if they are 75 and grizzly with a beer gut. Often a flirty barbie girl in a miniskirt, knee-high socks and bangs. Funny how the ineffable essence of femininity is so narrowly manifest.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  Mirax Path

“Funny how the ineffable essence of femininity is so narrowly manifest.”
The lost mens’ fantasy of women.

Last edited 1 year ago by Brett H
Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

“Biological facts exist only up to a point. Power is more important.”

Ah, post-modernism, don’t you just love it ?

The whole world is nothing but power games on top of more power games. If so the only possible goal is to take some power for yourself, and it will have to be taken from others.” Foucault.

Just to be clear, I don’t agree with this but Will Lloyd appears to.

Biological facts exist, not up to a point, they exist. But power comes and goes, shifts from one group to another, in the case of Jan Morris’s imagination – from Men to Women in the late 20th century.
Humans are capable of extraordinary behaviours under particular conditions, eg, the flagellants during the black death, the skopits in Russia, and trans now, here, in the West.
It is highly likely male-to-female trans activism has much to do with power, but ordinary trans who just want to get on with their lives in peace ? or underage children getting caught up in it ? I don’t think so.

Last edited 1 year ago by Claire D
Michael Kellett
Michael Kellett
1 year ago

I’m sure that HM the Queen was perfectly well aware of who Jan Morris was and the assertion that she gave a ‘sharp’ reply is probably just an example of Morris’ ‘complicated’ persona.

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
1 year ago

You are perfectly right here. The Queen was always well informed on who was in the room. The author make out as is she was a sheltered fool, of course she knew all about Ms Morris.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  jules Ritchie

“an example of Morris’ ‘complicated’ persona.”
Self aggrandisement.

Michael Askew
Michael Askew
1 year ago

The technology does not exist (as the writer claims) to socially engineer us into believing manifestly untrue notions. Biological men cannot ovulate, conceive and gestate a baby. The End.

Sandra Currie
Sandra Currie
1 year ago

Gender express away as your little heart desires – just don’t expect the rest of us to deny reality because you can’t accept it.

Russell Hamilton
Russell Hamilton
1 year ago

“If power decides that fantasy and feeling take precedence over evolution and biology, then fantasy and feeling become fact”
Or rather, fantasy and feeling may become accepted as fact. But as Will goes on to write, Jan Morris didn’t actually seem to genuinely feel that s/he was really a woman, try as s/he might, the fantasy just wouldn’t become a fact.

Last edited 1 year ago by Russell Hamilton
E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 year ago

Surely, things don’t “become fact”… they either are, or they aren’t.

Sandra Currie
Sandra Currie
1 year ago

Jan was born a man and died a man. There is nothing progressive about believing you can change sex, and wanted to do so because you have some or all of the traits the social construction of gender assigns to women. The backlash against second wave feminism started almost immediately when we raised our heads above the parapet and continues to this day. No one seems to remember that we wanted people to be free to be themselves, unrestrained by gender stereotypes. Now we have been captured by an ideology that says those stereotypes are more real than biological sex and intelligent people are going along with this in the name of diversity and inclusion. Sex is why women are oppressed-gender is how.

David Whitaker
David Whitaker
1 year ago

I don’t think anyone knows what anyone else feels like, or what it might feel like to be someone else. We might think we do, but I’d say that was a delusion: no doubt some people are capable of more empathy than others, and they may get closer to feeling what it is like to be another person, but we are all guessing. So for someone to be sure that they feel as another person (of the opposite sex) feels is remarkable. And to be so certain of it as to have surgery etc is beyond remarkable.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
1 year ago

The author almost gets to the essence of the question at the beginning of the penultimate paragraph: will the spread of this ideology make anyone happier?

Has feminism made people happier? Has any ‘progressive’ ideology made people happier?

Yersinia pestis
Yersinia pestis
1 year ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Well, it certainly makes me very happy that I’m living in times when I’m allowed to choose who I’ll mary or if I’m going to marry at all, vote, own property, open my own bank account and be protected from sexual violence.

Claire D
Claire D
1 year ago

None of those things were brought about by feminism. Women have’nt been dragged to the altar for hundreds of years and the ability to choose independence over marriage is linked to post industrialisation and the consequent increase in value of women’s labour outside the home, enabling them to earn enough money to live alone.
Same with the Property Acts in the late 19th century. Thus, the vote was given to property owning women in 1918 after they showed their courage and willingness to share in the war effort, not because of their terrorist activities as suffragettes before the war. The franchise was only extended to all women in 1928 because almost all nations around the world were doing the same and women were behaving themselves.

Banks decided to give women bank accounts when they realised in the 1960s how lucrative that would be with more and more women working. Nothing to do with feminism.

The change in the law around sexual violence, again had little to do with feminism and much more to do with the change in a woman’s status as a wage earner and tax payer due to labour demand in the modern era. Plus the development of Human Rights post WWII.

Last edited 1 year ago by Claire D
Rose D
Rose D
1 year ago

Times have changed.

The misogyny of men who fancy themselves women has not.

Last edited 1 year ago by Rose D
Jane Watson
Jane Watson
1 year ago

I was having breakfast in Durrants hotel in Marylebone in maybe 2006 with my mum. As we went to sit down we walked by a smartly dressed couple of mature years, the woman with her back to me.

Very soon I became aware that the animated conversation from the nearby table was in fact man to man. I looked over my shoulder and recognised Jan Morris.

For the hour we were in proximity I was fascinated by how different that conversation was, in tone, substance and opinions shared than a conversation between a man and woman would be.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

A very fine essay, imo. I had never heard of Jan Morris. I suspect a lot of modern trans people haven’t either. They don’t seem to be much into history, least of all their own personal history. If you don’t like who you were, there’s something attractive about the eternal now.

Andrew Boughton
Andrew Boughton
1 year ago

Another beautifully written and well-argued piece in UnHerd, by far the best journal of its kind, at least of which I know. Though I tend toward Marcus Leach’s comment here, this is a really interesting thesis. But perhaps Jan Morris might also just have wanted to experience everything, the entertainment principle made manifest, as in the rest of his/her life. A bit like the kind of person who wants to own, not just visit, a large number of diverse homes in diverse places, in case there’s somewhere they haven’t lived. And they just can’t stand it.

Rasmus Fogh
Rasmus Fogh
1 year ago

Lots of posts have disappeared. For a site that prides itself on starting discussions on edgy topics Unherd is sure censorious.

Josef Oskar
Josef Oskar
1 year ago

I have Morris’ book Pax Britannica, it is excellent. Apart from that people have the most peculiar of fixations. In the second half of the 19th century an important banker in Wien suddenly started to dress like a woman. He became a sensation and the first psichiatrists of the fin de siecle in town rushed to examin him. It always existed and it is not new. What is new is the proportions it has taken. Decades of affluence and relative peace gave certain people time to meditate on many unusual matters as other more basic worries were less urgent. These days are approaching their end, dark clouds are gathering above our skies like not seen since the first half of the twentieth century. I am curious to see what will happen in ten or fifteen years time.

Last edited 1 year ago by Josef Oskar
Smalltime J
Smalltime J
1 year ago

Morris’ book on Venice is one of the best pieces of travel writing ever imho. I agree she is an interesting figure – her ‘out-of-timeness’ in being such a pioneer does invite questions about how our current sexual politics will be seen in generations to come.
I enjoyed this essay but for this line: “In her life as a woman, we can detect something quietly unwell about Morris.” I’m not sure that this assertion is in fact supported by the remainder of the article. And it seems a bit intrusive to pick over the dead for evidence of malcontent to support a social theory. Most of us have some melancholy in our lives by the end.

jules Ritchie
jules Ritchie
1 year ago
Reply to  Smalltime J

As are millions of others, I have been a fan of Morris since those early books but in the live interviews after his transformation I found him to be unsettling in an undefinable way. Certainly his clothing choices, jewellery etc reminded me of aged aunts. Perhaps because I was a fan I was unwilling to see him as he really was. A boy grown into a man, lived life as a man but who all the time regretted that he’d never been a little girl with access to those clothes and styles that he simply found attractive. I’m 70 yrs old and all through my life I’ve met and observed men dressed as woman mingling socially. They didn’t present any challenge for those of us broadminded enough to believe they were free to live as they desired. It’s the pure nastiness inherent in current times that is so repellent.

N Forster
N Forster
1 year ago
Reply to  Smalltime J

He. Not she. She is reserved for women. It is already taken.

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

The 9th Queen’s Royal Lancers used to rejoice in two nicknames, ‘The Magpies’ and ‘The Delhi Spearmen’.
How very apposite!

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

9/12 Lancer.. so… no surprise!

CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

Don’t blame the 12th, it was still just the 9th when Jan/James was in the saddle.

carl badgley
carl badgley
1 year ago

I’m wondering why more genders haven’t been created.

cara williams
cara williams
1 year ago

there is no such thing as transition

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 year ago

A very brave human being.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Not brave, but intensely sad.

Martyn Clayton
Martyn Clayton
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Regardless of what you think about the gender change, I’m not sure you can really describe the life of Jan/James Morris as ‘sad’. Queens Royal Lancers, outstanding Times journalist, part of the 1953 Everest Expedition, Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, Golden PEN Award, an incredible bibliography. A very long life well lived. If that’s a ‘sad’ life then, most lives are complete and utter failures.

Brett H
Brett H
1 year ago
Reply to  William Shaw

“In post-Imperial Britain, if Morris could not be a wolf, she would be a lamb. She would escape into her own romantic idea of femininity. To be a woman rather than a man, she argued, was simply a matter of “good taste”.”
This story suggests something far more complicated than just being brave, that she adjusted her gender in tune with a perception of empire and manhood. People are complicated, no doubt, but their actions are not so simple as “brave”.