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Ann Garvald Blog –The Book That Changed My Life

If this was Readers Digest, a title like the one above would almost certainly suggest an article about The Bible. Well, that’s not the case here. Not that I have anything against The Bible, although I do wish that the born-again types who have hijacked the name “Christian” would pay more attention to Christ’s message of love and tolerance in the New Testament and less to a God of vengeance and retribution that they seem to think is the only message in the Old Testament.

No, the book that changed my life was a very different one.

Most people can remember when historic moments touched their lives. Anyone in the boomer generation can tell you where they were the moment they heard that JFK had been assassinated. I can remember the moment when, four years later, while driving on Highway 2 just east of Toronto, I heard on the radio that World-Champion racecar driver Jim Clark had been killed.
(I was then, and still am, a motorsport nut). I can recall the exact stretch of the Metropolitan Autoroute, over the top of Montreal, where I heard, again over the radio, that Pope Paul VI had decreed that use of the birth-control pill was morally wrong. (Goodbye Rome for me). Or the time, when standing outside B.C. Place before the start of the 1997 Molson Indy Vancouver, I heard of Princess Diana’s death. And we can all remember where we were when the second plane crashed into the World Trade Center……

Those were public events. But surely everyone has had personal moments to be remembered for the rest of their lives. And the purchase of this book, as a paperback, was one such pivotal moment for me — I can still recall the emotions that tore me apart as I picked it off the book rack.

I was single, on business trip in the Maritimes, in the winter, in the late 1960’s. It was late afternoon and it was snowing (of course). I was heading by car to PEI and wanted something to read on the ferry (this was before the days of the Confederation Bridge) and for when I would be holed up in a Charlottetown motel later that evening. So I ducked into a variety store in Moncton. In among the usual whodunnits and Harlequin novels I found the book — or maybe it found me. And I knew I had to conquer my 20-something embarrassment and buy it. Things weren’t helped when the clerk, an attractive teenage girl, looked at the title, showed it to the girl beside her, and they both giggled. I was probably beet red when I left the store but, never mind, I had the book.

I thought it was probably a cheap paperback, just something put together by some hack writer for the newsstands, to appeal to people’s taste for the sensational. I was so wrong. The book was The Transexual Phenomenum, by Dr. Harry Benjamin. It opened the door to a realization that I was not alone. The accounts of individuals’ experiences seared me. I could so clearly identify with what was being described, and I remember almost crying – but grown men don’t cry – as I sat in the ferry lounge, with the book cover carefully concealed, and read, for the very first time, about people expressing the same thoughts that I had kept secret for much of my teenage years and early adult life. This was before the internet. Until that November evening I had never read anything like this. I had once seen a fleeting mention in the Playboy Advisor to crossdressing, with a reference to Virginia Prince as a pioneer for the gender dysphoric, but I hadn’t been able find anything more about her. And I recalled my carefully disguised fascination, many years before, around age 14, when I read in Picture Post – a sort of People Magazine published in Britain in the 1950’s – of a Robert Cowell, an English racecar driver, who had gone to Scandinavia to become Roberta. (Cowell’s transition was, incidentally, ahead of Christine Jorgensen’s). But until that November evening it had all been very vague and far beyond my reach.

Unfortunately I no longer have The Transsexual Phenominum — it was a casualty in a purge a few years later, one which, of course, I later regretted. Today maybe it couldn’t tell me much that I don’t know now. But it was what I needed then. And it changed my life.

I love reading and there have been other books since then striking familiar chords, although none with the incredible impact that The Transexual Phenomenum had for me. A few months later I found another paperback, an account of a transition from boy to girl; she called her new self Canary Conn. That also went out in the purge and has not been replaced. Then in the mid-seventies a suggestion of sensitivity towards transsexualism arrived with the publication in the U.K. of Conundrum, a personal account by a famous Times of London travel writer of her journey from being James Morris to being Jan Morris. In the U.S., in the last decade, Deirdre McCloskey, a right wing economist, has published Crossing – A Memoir, recounting her transition, one which was horribly traumatic because of the virulent opposition she suffered from close family members.

There’s one recent book that I do have: Make Haste, Slowly by Michelle Ann Duff. It combines my love of Canada, my love of motorsport, and my almost lifelong gender confusion. Michelle was once Mike Duff, the first Canadian ever to win a World Championship motorcycle race. The book is almost all about Mike’s racing career so unfortunately — for us — only in the last few pages does Michelle write about how Mike became Michelle. A while back I heard her interviewed on CBC by Shelagh Rogers. Shelagh didn’t have a clue about motorcycles – Michelle still rides road bikes enthusiastically – but in other respects the interview was great, Shelagh treating Michelle intelligently and tastefully.

What about fiction ? Full-length novels that deal with transgender subjects in an thoughtful and sympathetic manner ? I’d love to discover some like that, but to date have found only one – The Endless Knot by Saskatchewan author Gail Bowen. Any suggestions anyone ?

Ann Garvald

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