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Perhaps Not the Early 20th Century Trans Lives You Were Expecting

Thursday, October 7, 2021 - 08:00

This concludes my coverage of Skidmore's book, and of my recent mini-sequence of books on transmasculine history. I have to say that my own understanding of trans possibilities in the early 20th century was greatly broadened by Skidmore's detailed and extensive research. I knew about a few well-known biographies, like Billy Tipton, but not the utter normalness that could be the experience of many (though not all) trans men. And the surprising glimpses of acceptance, both by communities and families, in some cases. (Though far from all.) Skidmore also highlights how our understanding--in many cases our entire knowledge--of these trans lives is shaped by the dynamics and agendas of the American newspaper industry and what they felt was their role in not merely reporting events, but shaping responses to them.

Tying this book back to the through-line of the Lesbian Historic Motif Project: whether you're writing fiction about transmasculine experiences as trans men, or writing about characters understood as lesbians who are engaging in transmasculine presentation, a study of the lives of these real historic people can add nuance, detail, and realism to your fiction. Reading Skidmore's work as a parallel to Isabel Miller's Patience and Sarah could be a worthwhile experience, every bit as much as reading it in a purely transgender context. Transmasculine and "butch lesbian" themes are interwoven throughout history--up to the present day--and I think it's important to study them as such.

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Skidmore, Emily. 2017. True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century. New York University Press, New York. ISBN 978-1-4798-7063-9

Chapter 5: To Have and to Hold & Conclusion

This chapter looks at the role that marriage (to a woman) played within the lives of trans men. We start with the biography of James William Hathaway (Ethel Kimball), born in 1882, whose life history primarily seems to be one of lawbreaking, with gender a minor note in the tune. While living as a woman in her twenties, she was arrested for forgery and then again for using the excuse of test driving an automobile to go on a joy-ride with a group of female friends. At one point during this general period she married a man. But by the age of 38 Kimball had become Hathaway, was living as a man, and had married Louise Aechtler. An arrest a few weeks later for auto theft made public Hathaway’s “true sex” at which point Hathaway claimed that both the gender performance and the marriage had been a “prank” while Aechtler claimed no awareness of Hathaway’s history. Over the next several years, Hathaway was in and out of trouble with the law, often returning to living as a woman temporarily after these encounters. The marriage to Aechtler had evidently been dissolved, but Hathaway took up with a much younger woman, Pearl Davis, who was told that Hathaway was in gender disguise to make a real estate deal. The two got married and within a month were arrested for criminal activity. When Hathaway’s “true sex” was once again discovered, the pair were charged with perjury related to the marriage. While laws against cross-dressing were spotty and local at this period, misrepresenting one’s identity on a legal record such as a marriage license was definitely a crime.

Skidmore asks the question, why—given that formalizing a marriage meant putting one’s identity under scrutiny by the state (as well as the relationship meaning scrutiny by one’s spouse)—did so many trans men engage with this risks to become husbands? Skidmore proposes the answer that it was exactly that official state scrutiny that might make it attractive. A marriage license could be the equivalent of a certificate of masculinity. Just as being publicly in a romantic or sexual relationship with a woman was a way for a trans man to gain public recognition of male status, formalizing that relationship with a marriage license was a way to gain legal recognition of it. Skidmore argues that while the larger national discussion around trans men marrying women became increasingly negative and sensationalistic in the 1920s, the local, personal responses when such cases were discovered were often mild and indifferent. This points to the need to look beyond newspaper headlines to understand the everyday responses to trans men.

Skidmore presents a thumbnail history of the institution of marriage in the US and the ways in which it was used by the state to include or exclude particular groups of people from society and to promote a particular social understanding of gender roles. In the 19th century, informal “self marriages” were common, especially during westward settlement expansion, with the local community substituting for the state in policing behavior and expectations. A couple’s adherence to the expected archetypal roles of marriage were given more importance than the marriage’s legal status and paperwork. Westward expansion also meant a highly mobile population where long-term relationships and familiarity were less important than how a person performed the behaviors expected of a good, productive citizen.

Within this context, many couples involving a trans man established the reality of their marriages by moving to a new location and simply proclaiming themselves husband and wife. This was the approach taken by George and Mary Green, and by Ralph Kerwineo and Mamie White discussed in previous chapters.

Moving into the 20th century, states developed a stronger interest in regulating marriage, both in terms of who could enter into it and the expectation that marriage was defined by formal license. Even as the state began to apply age, racial, and eugenics-based tests for marriages, trans men were not necessarily categorized as being inherently criminal for entering marriages, or as being dangerous to the social fabric in the say way that non-supportive husbands or interracial marriages were. That began to change with the eugenics movement, which saw regulation of marriage as a means of keeping “undesirable” traits out of the gene pool. And thanks to the rise of sexological theories about the inheritability of propensities for non-normative sexuality. In this context, “fitness” for marriage was also a proxy for acceptance for full citizenship.

Skidmore returns to the story of Ralph Kerwineo to show how the scrutiny of his marriage to a white woman provoked a “eugenics panic” calling for even stricter limits on marriageability. Kerwineo had passed a pre-marital blood test—primarily intended to screen for diseases such as syphilis—but the eugenicists who promoted such tests were angry and anxious around the fact that marriage testing had failed to identify Kerwineo as Black and as a gender deviant. His case was used to argue for even more stringent testing, including a physical examination to determine assigned sex. But the responses to Kerwineo’s arrest and release show a diversity of opinion as to whether gender deviancy was considered a threat to society.

Laws reinforce gender role expectations in a number of ways one type of law employed in some states in the early 20th century focused on the expectation that a husband would provide economically for his family and the expectation that without a providing husband the wife and children would become “a burden on society”. If the husband were convicted of failing to provide financially for his family he could be sentenced to doing public labor for. While the state subsidized his family in the expectation that this would induce correct behavior. These laws have no direct connection to transgender men but appear relevant in the case of Robert Gaffney who was brought before the court on the charge of being a “lazy husband” when his wife Margrethe Gaffney and her three children were found to have been abandoned by him. Gaffney’s defense was that he was not a cis man and therefore could not be expected to fulfill the role of husband. The judge excepted this argument based on the conclusion that two women could not marry and therefore without a valid marriage there was no husband who could be expected to fulfill that role. But the judge wanted to charge Gaffney with something. The state of Washington did not have any laws against cross dressing so Gaffney could not be prosecuted simply for being a trans man. Gaffney’s story did not have the broad national circulation in newspapers but was restricted to the Pacific Northwest in states where he lived at some point. The public framing of the case based on Gaffney’s explanations was that Margaret Gaffney had been unaware of his “true sex” and that he had been on the verge of returning to living as a woman but he had married Margaret to “give her a home” and did not reveal his assigned gender to save her from embarrassment. There was an additional potential embarrassment involved as Margrethe conceived and born a child during the course of the Gaffney’s marriage. Though this was left out of most press accounts. Overall this resulted in sympathetic press coverage with Margaret’s supposed ignorance removing the threat of sexuality and Roberts stated motives removing concern about his motives. Roberts motives for initiating a trans life were never explored and the context of the revelation of his assigned gender reinforced notions of female weakness and distinction between the sexes, as the story indicated that he revealed his assigned gender for fear of the burden of hard labor assigned in punishment. Margrethe life history supports the version of Roberts motives presented in the press she had a troubled marriage previously and was abandoned while pregnant with her second child. The child born during the Gaffney’s marriage may well have been fathered Play her former husband. This puts a different context on Roberts explanation that he wanted to provide a home for her and save her from embarrassment. What can’t be known from the public records is whether the Gaffney’s genuinely had a romantic relationship that went sour but was left out of the narrative in court, and regardless whether Margaret knew about Roberts assigned sex. But what comes out of the court records is that the charge of failing to fulfill the expected duties of a husband was a more serious legal offense than being transgender and marrying a woman. Skidmore speculates that one reason the Gaffney story did not receive greater newspaper coverage was that it failed to fit the narrative of deviant and threatening behavior. But there’s limited coverage both in geographic scope and reaction points out how unremarkable the stories of trans men could be considered if no triggers for social anxiety were present in the narrative.

In the 1920s the context of press response shifted with changes in the structure of the newspaper industry. Independent local papers declined with the rise of networks of newspaper chains owned by men like Scripps and Hearst and even local papers began to send more extensively on wire service response reports and syndicated news items. Within the competitive world of the wire services sensational presentations of ordinary news items became the key to being picked up for use by local papers. The results of this shift can be seen in stories of trans men in the late 1920s.

The varieties of coverage different types of papers is saying around the life of Kenneth Lisonbee born Catherine Rowena Wing, in Utah, and initially living as Kenneth Wing by age 21 in Los Angeles. After the break up of a first marriage made complicated by his in-laws moving in with a couple Kenneth changed his surname to Lisonbee perhaps to avoid connection with the initial revelation of his assigned sex. After a visit to his childhood home in Utah Kenneth took up with a childhood friend Stella Harper and the two return to Los Angeles living as a couple. Suspicions by neighbors resulted in a police inquiry and the identification of Lisonbee’s assigned sex. Skidmore reviews a wide variety of takes on the story from newspapers of different sizes and natures. This range from mild interest to amusement to human interest story and show how Lisonbee manipulated the facts of his own history to evoke the Scripps that the public would most sympathize with. Central to Lisonbee’s narrative when it was included in the new stories was gender crossing as a means of economic improvement and to move safely through the world. His second relationship was stated to have been a means of enabling his friend Harper to travel back to Los Angeles with him. The possibility of same-sex desire was entirely removed from Lisonbee’s public story, as well as the idea of cross dressing as personal expression rather than practical reality on a Utah ranch. One Los Angeles paper commented that there seem to be no longer identifiable masculine or feminine dress in a “kids these days” type of statement. Does Lisonbee’s choice of dressing in male garments was framed as being an expression of freedom and modern styles rather than as being a transgression. But other papers did present Lisonbee and Harper as threats to society by living outside normative family structures.

Conclusion

As a coda to both the previous chapter and the book as a whole, Skidmore traces the life of Kenneth Lisonbee after the events that landed him in the eyes of the press. Lisonbee and Harper returned to their childhood home in Utah and were subsequently recorded in census records at the same address as Lisonbee’s parents (though Lisonbee is recorded as Katherine Wing). Local Utah papers indicated that Lisonbee’s parents were quite aware before the Los Angeles arrest that he had been dressing as a man, though he does not seem to have employed a male name and clothing while in Utah. Within the next decade, all four—Lisonbee, his parents, and Harper—returned to the Los Angeles area city where he and Harper had previously lived and he returned to his prior occupation there of barber. He also returned to dressing as a man and using the name Kenneth, as documented in a 1940 arrest for a traffic violation. Despite some research, the police could not find any statute that Lisonbee was violating by his life, and for some reason his previous legal issues were never brought up. Lisonbee’s fellow businessmen stepped up as character witnesses, and the evidence suggests that his community was well aware of his assigned sex and didn’t have a problem with it.

Overall, the lives documented in Skidmore’s book trace the wide variety of trans men’s lives in the decades around the turn of the 20th century in America, with a similarly wide range in how they were understood and treated by their communities and by the press. We also see how factors not directly related to genders affected that treatment, including race, economic status, reported motivations, and the extent to which they performed acceptable and admirable models of masculinity.

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