Sunday 19 November 2017

Queer Achievement : A Transgender Pioneer

[Achievement – the name given in heraldry to the full pictorial representation of a coat of arms.]

Tomorrow is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. My commemoration this year takes the form of the coat of arms of a transgender pioneer, Dr. Michael Dillon (1915-1963). There are two historic facts about Dr. Dillon and his coat of arms. First is Dillon being the first female to male transgender to undergo surgical gender reassignment in history. Second, this also means that his coat of arms is the first ever borne by any member of the transgender community.

Michael Dillon was the second child of Lt. Robert Arthur Dillon of the Royal Navy. Michael was assigned female at birth and was baptised with the name Laura. His only sibling was his older brother Robert Dillon (1914-1982).

Here is my rendition of Michael Dillon’s armorial achievement.
The Dillon family were Irish and trace their line back to Robert de Dillon (sometimes called de Leon), an Anglo-Norman knight who arrived in Ireland with Prince (later King) John in 1185 and was granted lands in what are now the counties of Longford and Westmeath. Robert de Dillon’s coat of arms, the original Dillon arms (below) are slightly different to Michael’s.
What is common to both are the lion and crescents. The lion may be a cant (a direct reference to the owner’s name) on the name de Leon. Michael Dillon’s branch of the family descends from the Dillons of Poundstown, who were created Earls of Roscommon in 1622. The 1st Earl of Roscommon used the same shield and crest as Michael Dillon several centuries later. It’s not certain when this particular design was chosen over the original Dillon arms but they seem to have been first used by Sir Richard Dillon of Poundstown in the 15th century. There is a family legend which describes how the change occurred.

The story goes that Richard Dillon fought at the Battle of Verneuil in Normandy in 1424. He brought 600 Irish soldiers with him and with the English won the battle against the French. Richard was rewarded with a knighthood from the Duke of Bedford, the English Regent of France. In addition the duke granted Sir Richard a new crest, the falcon, and a new configuration of the arms on the shield into the form inherited by Michael Dillon and the Earls of Roscommon. The falcon has been depicted with its wings in various positions over the centuries. One of the leading heraldists of the 20th century, A. C. Fox-Davies, wrote that there is a lot of confusion and no consistency over the falcon’s wing positions in English heraldry, and the Dillon falcon is no exception. The form I have chosen is described as “wings addorsed and elevated”.

Analysing the arms we can determine how the charges (the objects on the shield) looks this way. First of all, the lion. The original Dillon lion was passant (looking as if it is walking past us). Sir Richard’s 1424 lion is rampant (standing up). This is obviously because a lion passant would be virtually hidden behind the blue band (called a fess). The lion in the original Dillon crest is also standing upright.

Second, the crescents. The three crescents from the original arms now have 6-pointed stars between their points. These are representations of the black star held by the lion in the original Dillon crest.

Another alteration to the arms made by the Poundstown Dillons at some unknown stage was to include a chapeau (the medieval-looking red cap) on which the falcon stands.

The blue band, the fess, is said to have been a special augmentation granted by the Duke of Bedford. Upon it is another crescent which in this case indicates that Michael Dillon is the second son of his father, which he became after his reassignment surgery after 1949. Whether the heraldic authorities at the College of Arms at the time considered this appropriate is not certain.

In 1801 Michael Dillon’s direct ancestor, John Dillon (1739-1805), was created a baronet, a hereditary knighthood. In 1783 John Dillon had been created a baron of the Holy Roman Empire by Emperor Josef II. Sir John was given permission to use this title in England, which was not usually possible for people with foreign titles. Michael Dillon’s older bother Robert was the 8th baronet and 8th Baron Dillon. After his transition Debrett’s Peerage, one of the leading works on the British nobility, acknowledged Michael’s gender by declaring him to be the male heir to his brother’s titles. Sadly, Michael predeceased Robert and there were no more heirs. The titles disappeared into history.

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