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
In many ways, Emily Skidmore’s True Sex picks up where Jen Manion’s Female Husbands left off with a few minor differences. Skidmore is only looking at US history, while Manion covered both the UK and the US. Manion, in theory, focused on transing gender in the context of marriages or marriage-like relationships, while Skidmore doesn’t have that as a specific focus (although many of the people she covers did marry). In terms of methodological approach they look at much of the same types of data, especially the spread of trans stories in news publications. Skidmore notes that the type of study she has produced would have been impossible before the era of massive digitization of newspaper archives.
Manion’s use of language highlighted the ambiguity of individual gender identity, systematically using they/them pronouns and providing information about the names her subjects used at different stages of their lives (which makes a lot of sense, given that her scope included people who transed gender in multiple directions at different times, and who lived in eras when modern understandings of gender identity don’t necessarily apply). Skidmore, whose work covers roughly the post-Civil War period up through ca. 1930, uses he/him pronouns for her subjects and focuses on their chosen names, not their birth names.
These choices make sense for the difference in subject. In Skidmore’s era of interest, there were multiple, individually distinguished modes by which PAF (persons assigned female) could diverge from cis-normative and hetero-normative expectations for their life paths. So the book’s focus on those who transed gender as a deliberate and permanent (or intended to be so) strategy are a somewhat more coherent and distinct demographic than the much wider range of motivations and strategies that Manion investigated. Skidmore’s era also reflects the growing dissemination of sexological theory and a reflexive interpretation that transing gender reflected sexuality, as opposed to economic necessity (even when the subjects themselves cited economics as a motivation).
As with other publications covering trans-relevant topics, I will default to following the language used by the author. I’ll also note that Skidmore explains that the phrase “true sex” – which is a common signifier in the newspaper accounts she uses – is employed strategically in the book (always in scare-quotes) to indicate assigned sex, and is not intended to be a judgment on validity.
The introductory chapter, in addition to the usual summary of the book’s subject matter, lays out some of the significant conclusions and patterns that Skidmore identified. While the majority of 20th century queer history has focused on urban centers and on self-conscious community building by people who understood themselves to live outside normative society, many of the people Skidmore identified chose to live in small towns and took advantage of personal connections rather than anonymity to build safe and stable lives. Many embraced an otherwise normative life as how they were read: an ordinary, hard-working, middle class, married white man. (Those who fell outside those parameters, especially in terms of race and ethnicity, often had different experiences, especially if discovered.)
Skidmore identified 65 persons assigned female at birth who lived as men in the USA during the 60 year scope of her study. A brief survey of the index suggests that fewer than half of those are mentioned by name in the text. (I imagine that many may have been brief newspaper accounts with insufficient context to be useful for discussion.) And these, of course, are only the ones whose stories did end up in the press—a factor that should always be kept in mind.
This chapter focuses on an individual who story is relevant to a transitional period in US history with regard to trans identities. In 1883 a man named Samuel Hudson showed up in the small town of Waupun with two children, and claimed that Frank Dubois, who had recently married Gertrude Fuller, was actually his wife and the mother of the children. It’s a tribute to the speed of communications and the extensive network of local newspapers that the story broke simultaneously, not only in the local paper, but throughout the US. The range of reactions to the DuBois case that appeared in various locations illustrate the many different attitudes towards trans men in the late 19th century. There was no one coherent narrative to explain the phenomenon. Some viewed Frank Dubois as a harmless eccentric, others viewed him as a runaway wife. Some tried to create a context for understanding his story that drew in the stories of other trans individuals such as Joseph Lobdell.
Information about Dubois’s background, motivations, and later life are missing from the narrative, but the date places his story at an interesting juxtaposition. Dubois’s story may have been the last context in which newspapers regularly used the phrase female husband. And Lobdell’s story--which was cited as a parallel case--was the first known context in which a US publication used the word lesbian in a sexual sense. This juxtaposition should not be taken as indicating a sharp, clear divide in attitudes and reactions in the 1880s. The sexological theories that were applied to Lobdell’s case took quite some time to become part of popular understanding of sexuality.
If the personal details of Dubois’s case were mysteriously absent from the newspaper stories, his identity provided a context for discussing all manner of issues around gender roles and sexuality in general. These included the topic of same-sex marriage, the question of female sexual desire, and the subject of how sharp the practical divide was between male and female abilities and characteristics.
This chapter also provides context for why certain issues were prominent in the national debate, particularly those around the rise of the “new woman” as well as racial conflicts in the wake of reconstruction.
In this chapter Skidmore talks about trans men who live in rural communities and small towns within the period of her study. Of the 65 cases she studies, a third lived in non-metropolitan areas and perhaps another third lived in small towns or small cities rather than major metropolitan areas. While the mythology of queer history often emphasizes urban areas as the safest and most promising location for queer lives, the trans men who lived in small towns often deliberately chose those locations, suggesting another parallel view. As Skidmore demonstrates the acceptance trans men found in small communities wasn’t due to an absence of knowledge of sexuality in non-urban communities. The newspaper articles often demonstrate a clear familiarity with sexological theory and with the possibilities for homosexual and transgender lives. However small towns and rural communities seem to have offered latitude to trans men who performed normative masculinity in acceptable ways, sometimes even with the awareness of the transness. The mythology that associates rural communities universally with conservative values and sexual narrowmindedness can be demonstrated to be false.
The story of George Green is relentless in its ordinariness. George immigrated from England is in his 30s and married a few years afterwards. Mary Green later reported that she had been unaware of her husband’s trans status prior to the marriage but learned of it afterwards and chose to keep the secret to support him. She implied that the relationship was platonic. They spent all their lives living in rural communities first in Pennsylvania then North Carolina than Virginia. George was not publicly known as a trans man until after death when preparation of the body for burial uncovered the fact. Rather than reacting with shock and outrage, the local newspapers commended his hard-working, virtuous life, his devotion to his wife, and honored Mary Green’s sorrow at her husband’s death. The local papers bristled clearly at the idea that George Green‘s life and death were of national newsworthy importance. The acceptance by his community is reflected in that George Green was buried with Catholic rites in the Catholic cemetery. While it’s possible that the level of acceptance might have been different if George hadn’t been safely deceased, the reactions of his community argue against popular images of queer life in rural contexts.
The highly similar story of William C Howard challenges the idea that rural communities might be less supportive of living trans men. Stories sparked by Howard’s death hit the papers just days after Green’s obituaries, though curiously many papers described each as if they were isolated, unprecedented events.
Howard’s transition can be traced in census records. Born Alice Howard in the 1860s, Howard was later described as having a fondness for masculine attire and work from an early age. By age 20, the 1880 census lists William Howard as a resident in his mother’s household in upstate New York, along with other extended family members. Later interviews with family members suggested that they had tried to pressure Howard away from a masculine presentation but eventually accepted it, even as Howard began to court young women in the neighborhood. In his early 30s, Howard married Edith Dyer and the couple adopted a daughter. Community members claimed to have been unaware of Howard’s trans status and praised him as a hard worker and devoted husband. A decade into the marriage, Howard died of a sudden heart attack, but because the death occurred hours after taking a medication, the widow requested an autopsy, at which Howard’s anatomical sex was made evident. Two of Howard’s step-brothers attended his funeral, and may have provided the information about his youth in that context. As the story spread to non-local newspapers, the positive and accepting tone of the stories shifted to one more objectifying and mythologizing. These stories emphasized the “mystery” of his death, implying that poison was involved (in contradiction to the actual autopsy findings), erased the support and acceptance the couple had in their community, and altered some details of Howard’s life to conform to an established template for trans narratives.
A different type of experience, but again one that demonstrates a certain tacit acceptance for trans men in rural communities, is that of Willie Ray, who appears in various records in rural Mississippi in the 1890s and 1900s. Ray revealed his trans status in the context of filing assault charges against James Gatlin for assaulting him with a horsewhip for being too friendly with Mrs. Gatlin. During the trial, in response to the charge of having an improper relationship with another man’s wife, Ray revealed that he was biologically female. Evidently this was sufficient to counter the accusation, though at least some of the people present must have been aware of the possibility of sexual relations between women. But the stratagem worked. People who might have seen assault on a man as an acceptable and non-criminal response to intimacy with one’s wife, may have balked at the acceptability of physical assault on someone categorizable as a woman. Ray did have to deal with a charge of masquerading in male attire but was immediately released when it was determined that there was no relevant law, either on a local or state level, that had been broken. The newspaper reports characterized Ray as a hard-working, honest person, who was well known in the community and had recently moved from being a paid farmhand to having his own farm and running a small store. After the trial, Ray continued to live in the same community. An interesting coda is that in the 1910 census, Willie Ray is listed as living in the same residence as Mrs. Gatlin and her two children, with Mrs. Gatlin recorded as a widow. (She wasn’t. Mr. Gatlin is also recorded in the same county, living with his sister, and listed as divorced.) As in the case of William Howard, the more distant the newspaper reports got from Ray’s own community, the more the story was altered to fit a conventional and stereotyped narrative, including a false claim that legal authorities had forced Ray to resume wearing women’s clothing.
The last biography in this chapter is Joe Monahan who was born in New York state but spent his adult life on the frontier, primarily in Idaho, as a miner, farmer, and rancher. Monahan was something of a loner and never married, but was well known and respected in his community. As with the previous examples, his trans status was confirmed after death when the body was prepared for burial, but evidently his community had a quiet awareness that this was likely the case. A neighbor who was a clerk for the 1880 census recorded his reported sex as male but made a marginal note “doubtful sex”, and others remembered people commenting on suspicions that Monahan might be a woman, though nobody felt it was important to challenge him on that question.
Together, the trans men encountered in this chapter provide a very different image of the options and acceptance of non-urban queer lives around the turn of the century than the popular motif that queer history is focused in urban centers. But this was acceptance of a very specific type of life: someone who embodied the normative live of a hard-working, reliable, community-minded man. Someone whose actions and relationships fit easily into rural, working-class ideals.
One of the factors that allowed the people discussed in the previous chapter to find acceptance in small rural communities was the fact that they were white. Minor fictions or eccentricities that were dismissed for individuals perceived as normative white men would have had more severe consequences for those who stood outside the norm racially as well as by gender. This chapter looks at the implications that whiteness head for the acceptance of trans men at the turn of the 20th century. The transgressive nature of trans men could be delegitimized or dismissed if the individual could be treated as female. Conversely trans men might be celebrated for their successful performance of masculinity. But while white trans men could be celebrated or critiqued as individuals, non-white trans men were viewed more through the lens of racial or ethnic categories.
[Note: Initially, with that introduction, I’d expected this chapter to focus on non-white trans men, but instead it seems to focus on examples where white identity was a mitigating factor in how a trans man was treated or described.]
The life of Murray Hall, born in Scotland and then active as a businessman and politician in New York City in the later decades of the 19th century, is used to illustrate how performance of a middle class white male life could defuse potential criticism for gender transgression. Hall’s “true sex” was not identified until after his death from breast cancer, which may have also mitigated potential criticism. New coverage, while focusing on the unusual aspects, also supported the picture of Hall as embodying masculine performance, not only through personal habits and dress, but by profession. His two marriages were treated in the press as part of the masquerade, thus dodging the question of sexual deviance. The only potential gender trouble came in some coverage that framed Hall’s life in the context of the suffragist movement, noting that he proved the case that women could “hold their own" in politics and public life. Through it all, Hall was depicted as unique and individual, rather than representing a type or category that might disrupt understandings of gender or social roles. Even references to sexological theory with respect to Hall’s life took care to frame it in positive terms, as having noble motives. He was placed in a framing where personal qualities and ambition were incompatible with the restrictions placed on women, and being thus exceptional, allowances should be made.
The second biography entered here is of Frank Woodhull, a US resident (but not citizen) who was detained when re-entering the US at Ellis Island and identified as assigned female. Woodhull’s story brought up issues of ablism as well as the power of the “success narrative”. Having become disabled by rheumatism in female-coded domestic labor, and being classified as unattractive in feminine terms based on features and a noticeable moustache, Woodhull decided that his best chance to earn a living was to take up a less physically demanding but male-coded profession as a salesman. When the Ellis Island authorities challenged Woodhull on gender grounds, he was able to convince them of his acceptability for entry on the basis of “not being likely to become a public charge” and the dedication with which he maintained his independent livelihood. The reduced economic options for women made them more likely to “fail” this economic test at immigration, particularly those assigned to racialized categories.
The biography of Eugene De Forest demonstrates the (conditional) acceptance of white middle class trans men even more solidly due to the relatively open nature of his transition. Born into an affluent family in New England the then Mary Bradley attended Vassar College and married Rev. John M. Hart. But the marriage failed several years later and Bradley moved to the opposite side of the country, establishing a career in San Francisco teaching elocution and acting, particularly in male impersonator roles, eventually adopting a new name, Eugenie De Forest. Sometime in the early 1890s, in his late 40s, De Forest changed Eugenie for the masculine Eugene and began living full time as a man, but in the same occupation, in the same city, and presumably interacting with at least some of the same people. Skidmore speculates that De Forest’s community in San Francisco may have consciously understood and accepted him as a trans man. By 1915 (this would have been around age 65) De Forest moved to Los Angeles (where his transition history was not known) and continued work as a drama teacher. This ended when De Forest was arrested, apparently for “male impersonation” though this isn’t clearly stated in the text. News coverage consistently framed De Forest as a respected, productive member of society, someone whose marriages escaped the suspicion of sexual deviance as being based on “pure companionship.” De Forest was granted space to construct and tell his own history, framing his gender identity as being caused by his parents desire for another son and being an uncontrollable identity. Further, De Forest was allowed to contruct and present legalistic arguments for why he should be allowed to continue in his present life (he claimed that authorities in San Francisco had given him a license to live as a man, and that forcing him to live as a woman would be fatal). These pleas were successful and De Forest was released with no penalty and allowed to continue unmolested. Sexological theories of “inversion”, though available to the medical authorities, were not invoked in discussions of his case.
While the above cases indicate the potential for varying degrees of acceptance for trans men who lived otherwise normative middle class (white) lives, the case of Ellis Glenn maps out the boundaries of how far one could transgress before those protections no longer applied. Glenn appeared in Illinois as a traveling salesman, wooed and became engaged to a local woman, and drew on her family’s economic and social support when evidence of financial misdealings began coming to light. During a trip to St. Louis to prepare for the wedding, Glenn staged his own death and changed his identity. When the new identity was connected to the fraud and Glenn’s “true sex” was discovered after his arrest, Glenn claimed that he was actually his twin sister in disguise, who had made the switch to protect her “brother.” This story began to fall apart when additional forgeries and swindles were identified. But the legal authorities had a tangled question: was the Glenn in custody a loyal martyr, taking on a disguise to protect a beloved sibling? Or was the Glenn in custody a female swindler who had used male disguise to enable her crimes? This question (in the face of public sympathy) resulted in Glenn’s acquittal in 1901, but several months later Glenn committed new frauds, this time being clearly identified with Glenn’s person in both gender presentations. Now, rather than Glenn’s gender being a cause of curiosity and sympathy, it was treated as criminally deviant and directly connected with his financial crimes, and the engagement to a woman of a prominent local family was no longer a matter of romance but a deliberate swindle. Now Glenn’s claiming of male prerogatives, including access to (white) women was itself treated as a criminal act in the press, potentially a driver of his other criminal tendencies, with a certain edge due to the sympathy he had previously evoked.
American imperialism in the early 20th century meant the rise of models of masculinity that were not only racially coded but that expected certain types of performance with regard to militarism. This chapter looks at several trans men who either tried to manipulate those models to support the acceptance, not only of their masculinity, but of their Americanism, or who were doubly targeted due to the conflation of “foreignness” and sexual deviance.
Babe “Jack” Bean/Jack Garland (born Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta) was born to an Anglo mother and a Mexican father. Both parents came from a politically prominent background: his mother was the daughter of a congressman and his father was a general and later consul in San Francisco (where the two met). The legacy of the Mexican-American war in American minds, and the resulting rise of prejudice against those of Mexican ancestry (regardless of birthplace or nationality) may explain why Jack (let’s settle on Jack from among the multiplicity of labels he used) in adulthood avoided using any part of his name that made that connection.
Jack treated the gender binary as a permeable border. When he begins appearing in records as an adult in his late 30s in Stockton, California, he is dressing in male clothing, using the name “Babe Bean,” and known to the community as assigned female. Both in the choice of name and in how he described his background, he signaled people to assume a purely Anglo heritage. That this was deliberate can be seen in two contrasting incidents when other claim to know his “true identity”. A claim that he was actually a Hispanic woman named Clara Garcia was met with indignation and denial; a claim that he was the long lost sister of a white man from Montana was countered more neutrally. But Jack did not insist on being accepted unquestionably as a man. Both early on in Stockton (where perhaps he had initially appeared in female clothing?), and at several later points when his “true sex” was made public, he put forth the explanation that masculine clothing made travel and his stated profession (journalism) safer and more convenient. [Note: Unless one chooses to entirely disbelieve Jack’s own testimony, his life comes across as more gender-fluid than anything else. But as Skidmore’s position is to treat all the subjects of her book with masculine language, I follow this.]
Journalism was, perhaps, an outcome of Jack’s notoriety rather than a coincidence. His image in Stockton was that of a good-looking, perhaps androgynous youth, known to be assigned female, whose name and appearance seemed designed to signal harmless eccentricity. Having appeared in the local paper in context with the “true identity” claims, he was offered a position as a guest correspondent.
Jack did not simply distance himself from his Mexican heritage, but actively participated in, and associated himself with, U.S. imperial projects. When he shifted to presenting entirely as masculine, he stowed away on a ship heading for the Philippine-American war. When identified as assigned female during the course of the voyage, Jack returned to explaining his presentation as being for mobility and safety as a journalist. He seems to have been adopted as something of a mascot among the troops who knew his history, and otherwise was accepted as male by those who didn’t. Despite being identified regularly as a journalist in the records, he doesn’t seem to have published any stories until returning to the states, at which he published a personal memoir “My Life as a Soldier” under the byline “Miss Beebe Beam.”
Skidmore suggests that Jack’s embracing of U.S. military ventures and performance of military pride (including a tattoo that celebrated his arguably fictional participation in a unit in the Philippines) helped defuse concerns about his gender transgression. Back in San Francisco, Jack took up his mother’s maiden surname, Garland, possibly to move away from the publicized Beebe Beam identity which was considered female. But both suspicions of foreignness and of femaleness followed him and on the eve of WWI he was arrested on suspicion of being a female German spy in disguise as a man. Here the themes of foreignness and gender deception were conflated in a hazardous manner, and Jack once again countered them by references to U.S. military activity (a possibly fictional claim to have fought in the Chinese Boxer rebellion) and the argument that wearing masculine clothing was necessary for that purpose. He also reverted to using the name Beebe Beam (or Babe Bean) in support of this role.
Skidmore notes an interesting contrast between treatment in the local papers (in Los Angeles at this point) where Jack’s own explanations were foregrounded and the clearance of all charges was noted, and treatment in other national papers which focused on aspects of mystery and suspicion and were silent on the resolution. Even in urban settings, the ability of a trans man to elicit local identity and sympathy as a complex and individual human being was a defense against concerns over gender transgression. At least if one could be accepted as white (which those of German heritage were evidently no longer able to do).
The next biography is of Nicolai De Raylan, a Russian-born immigrant who possibly was already living as a man when he immigrated to the US in his late teens. His assigned sex was discovered when he died of tuberculosis around age 30, leaving both an ex-wife and a widow…and a much larger estate than his known career could account for. This anomaly, along with his foreign associations, no doubt contributed to the framing of De Raylan as a possible Russian revolutionary and anarchist. The press about his identity and speculations about his life were consistently negative and his purported political activities and gender transgression were treated as threads in the same strand. Both of the women he had married (and evidently there were also a large number of other women as well) rejected the claim that De Raylan was a woman. His widow went further and claimed that since the female body identified as De Raylan could not be his, that he must still be alive and in hiding. In contrast to other cases, this personal loyalty was not counted in De Raylan’s favor but treated as further evidence of deceit.
Ralph Kerwineo, like Jack Garland, manipulated people’s perception of his background to create a space in which to live his life, but worked from a more restricted standpoint being of mixed African American heritage. Born Cora Anderson, he had been living as a man for an unclear amount of time when he first appears in records around age 30 in 1906. He had been living with (but apparently not married to) a woman named Mamie White for at least 8 years when he left her in 1914 for another woman, Dorothy Kleinowski, whom he married. Mamie was sufficiently upset by this that she reported Kerwineo’s assigned sex to the authorities, triggering publicity and an investigation. Throughout the matter, the press highlighted the contrast of Kerwineo’s “foreignness” with the conditionally white Dorothy (whose Polish heritage was elided in order to frame her as a sympathetic victim).
But Kerwineo’s “foreignness” was itself something of a construction. Presumably to avoid anti-Black prejudice in his Milwaukee home, and taking advantage of the larger proportion of “conditionally white” residents there, Kerwineo originally presented himself as South American (sometimes specifically Bolivian) with Spanish ancestry. This was later explained as being considered plausible due to the “soft ways and effeminate mannerisms” attributed to men from South America. But in the wake of being outed, and in the context of anti-Hispanic prejudice, this claim became more of a liability—with newspaper reports foregrounding this (fictitious) foreign connection by referring to him as “Señor Kerwineo”. Dorothy Kleinowski’s self-reported love and loyalty for Kerwineo were discarded by the press as not fitting the desired narrative and she was instead cast as a naïve blonde white woman, victimized by a racialized deceiver. In this case, however, the local press in Milwaukee were more sympathetic, not only rejecting the “foreign” characterization, but assisting in Mamie White’s reframing of Kerwineo’s “true identity” as being Native American (also presenting herself as part Native American rather than Black). This enabled the press to focus on Kerwineo’s contributions to the local community as evidence of good character (in contrast to the stereotypes of Native Americans) and accept an economic rationale for his gender-crossing. Economic motivations dodged the question of sexual deviance for both Kerwineo and his partners.
The charges against Kerwineo eventually resolved into “disorderly conduct” of which he was acquitted, with the support of the local papers, and most likely through the argument that he was an economically stable, contributing member of society. The national papers, however, continued to run with the more sensational version of his story, emphasizing the “foreign” aspect but not invoking themes of sexual deviance.
The last biography in this chapter involves cultural foreignness rather than racial issues. Peter Stratford (born Deresley Morton) was an immigrant form New Zealand, initially living in New York as a woman, but later using the name Stratford, and living as a man. In the early 1920s he took up with a woman he met through a metaphysical organization and moved to rural California, living a transient life and becoming interested in a number of non-Western religious traditions. In this case, when his assigned sex was determined after death, it was these religious and spiritual associations that were foregrounded as the accompaniment to his deviant sexuality. The newspapers created a larger, and almost certainly imaginary, context for his activities, claiming association with a number of women (who had then “disappeared”) who together formed a secretive cult. Stratford’s gender performance was identified as being part of the cultic practices, suggesting a dangerous infiltration of American society by “Oriental” spirituality. Once again (and part of a general pattern of isolating sexual deviance to the “transgressing” party), the newspapers worked to rehabilitate Stratford’s surviving female partners as a “normal” middle-class (white) women who had been duped and led astray.
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.
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.