Manning the Gender Barricades

In True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century, Emily Skidmore describes how manhood in that day was as much a moral status as a sexual category, writes Scott McLemee.

September 6, 2017

The digital-humanities aspect is hardly the most interesting thing about Emily Skidmore's True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century (NYU Press), but it's the whole project's sine qua non. Without the ability to search the text of dozens of newspapers across decades of publication, the author, an assistant professor of history at Texas Tech University, would likely have been able to find just a few of the 65 individuals who, identified as female at birth, lived as men in United States between 1870 and 1930. In almost half of the cases, they were described in the press as either married or planning to marry. Often the discrepancy between biology and personality came to light only after death.

A 21st-century reader may suppose the revelations to have been sensational at the time. And, in some cases, they were. A few of the trans men (the expression feels anachronistic, but no alternative is available) were rogues, involved in swindles or scandalous behavior. One became known for "a proclivity for carriage rides with women who were not his wife." The discovery that a Tammany Hall operative who "spat like a man, drank like a man and swore like a man," as a neighbor put it -- a point confirmed by another acquaintance's reference to "the exceeding warmth and volume of [his] profanity" -- inspired a colleague to call for "facial hair as a prerequisite for political activity." And the rise of press agencies and newspaper syndicates meant that what once would have been a local development often enough became a national event.

But surprise did not always turn into shock. Few of the cases Skidmore describes set off anything like a cultural panic at the violation of norms. This was the era when medical science began to inspect, label and catalog the numerous varieties of human sexual behavior that departed from what Queen Victoria would have recognized as acceptable -- and one tends to assume that the press took part in policing the gender binary. But in fact Skidmore's most remarkable finding is how often trans men were accepted as pillars of the community, even when their gender assignation at birth was known or suspected. In one case, an individual's sex was listed as "uncertain" in the census data, collected by a neighbor of long acquaintance who presumably was too courteous to ask.

Manhood was at least as much a moral status as a sexual category -- one established through hard work, good behavior and the ability to provide for family. "Lazy husband" laws existed to enforce such norms on those with the anatomy but not the diligence to qualify as real men. A woman plausibly embodying manhood was, in effect, achieving something admirable. Her decision to dress in men's clothing could be explained as an eccentricity of taste or even a completely understandable matter of comfort or convenience. (On this point, the author might well have taken a brief detour to consider the women's dress-reform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.)

Once in a while, newspaper writers drew more or less feminist conclusions: "At last, woman has proven her equality with man," in the words of one editorialist. "At last Susan B. Anthony is vindicated. The astounding career of Murray Hamilton Hall, a woman, known all her life as a man, demonstrates Miss Anthony’s claim that women can hold their own with men in all departments of life -- in business, in politics and in public affairs."

But the general tendency was for such revelations of gender-bending to be assimilated into the prevailing mores as, in effect, exceptions to the rule that did not threaten the rule. In an especially intriguing aspect of Skidmore's analysis, she notes that the familiar gay-history thesis that urbanization has been a major force in defining gay and lesbian identities has little traction in making sense of the figures she has studied. Many lived in rural areas or small cities, evidently by preference, while the metropolitans among them seem not to have formed networks or communities.

A possible exception may be the trans man from Buffalo, N.Y., who, in 1902 claimed to know at least 10 others in the city "who wear men's clothes and hold men's positions." Sitting "over our beer and cigars in the saloons," he said, they enjoyed "many a good hearty laugh at the expense of the men." The author passes along these quotations without questioning the validity of the newspaper article in which they appeared, but they strike me as being perhaps somewhat embellished by the reporter. In any event, it seems clear that these guys were, for the most part, pioneers, and they took their individualism rugged.

A historian by training, Skidmore shows no impulse to quantify. Her analysis is just about statistic-free, at least with respect to the individuals it discusses or the frequency and depth of news reports about them. One of her most interesting general points concerns the somewhat counterintuitive place that scientific expertise occupied in the journalistic discourse.

Newspaper editors, particularly those who wrote for the community wherein a trans man was “discovered” … looked to sexology to provide one possible explanation, but they also sought out local experts -- people who knew the individuals personally and could attest to their character and their standing in the community. It continued to be the case that the opinions of neighbors, coworkers and wives mattered much more on the local level when it came to determining the reaction to trans men than did the “expert” opinion of sexologists.

But you don't have to be a cliometrician to wish the point were enriched with evidence about the number of articles citing sexologists, which ones they cited and the frequency of references by year or decade. Other researchers may want to return to this as a point of departure.

And indeed there are a number of such grounds for further inquiry. For example, True Sex quotes a remark from an article called "The Peculiar Mania Which Drives Some Women to Adopt the Clothes of Men" that ran in The Washington Post in 1907. "Negroes are frequent offenders, the police say," it states, with a vile offhand smirk, "but owing to the peculiarities of the negro’s [sic] physical construction, the officers have difficulty in distinguishing a man from a woman when both are dressed alike, unless the opportunity is exceptionally good -- another case of all colored peopled looking alike."

The author cites this as demonstrating "how normative expectations of gender are conceived relative to native-born, white, male, middle-class bodies." And, of course, it does -- and in a more palpable way than the book's many invocations of heteronormativity, "exclusionary logics" and whatnot. But it is of considerably more value as evidence of another, deeper, more violently subdued layer of history. Valuable in its own right, True Sex posts a notice to other scholars saying, in effect, "Dig here."


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