Emily Skidmore

 

On her book True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

Cover Interview of October 16, 2017

In a nutshell

True Sex discusses the lives of eighteen individuals who were assigned female at birth but who lived as male in the decades around the turn of the twentieth century. By looking closely at their lives, I argue that much of what we think we know about queer history in America is not true.

I uncover a past where everyday Americans frequently encountered newspaper stories about “female husbands” and other gender transgressors, and where trans men lived in communities, large and small, throughout the nation. Perhaps most surprising of all, my book reveals that non-metropolitan spaces could be tolerant of trans men, as long as those men conformed to the normative expectations of masculinity. As long as they were economically productive, law-abiding, supportive husbands, and helpful neighbors, their masculinity was valued, not derided. Perhaps unsurprisingly, trans men of color found such tolerance more difficult to come by, and often found their best bet was to try to pass as white in order to attain the privileges of whiteness, including the presumption of innocence.

Much of True Sex challenges what we might assume transgender history looks like. Often, as Americans, we tell ourselves that our history is one of consistent improvement; that while things may have been hard in the past, they are always getting better (e.g., while slavery exists as a blight on our nation’s past, it was followed by Emancipation, and eventually Civil Rights). Given this frame of reference, we might expect that transgender people in the past experienced much worse treatment than they receive today. Yet, my book reveals many cases of trans men who were able to find tolerance instead of condemnation.

One such example is the case of George Green. Green was assigned female at birth in Ireland around 1833. He emigrated to the United States in 1865, and two years later, married a young woman in Erie, Pennsylvania. The pair moved East, and finally settled in the rural town of Ettrick, Virginia, where George worked as a farm hand. The couple was well-respected in the community—a community that appeared genuinely shocked when, after George died suddenly in 1902, neighbors discovered the body lacked the traditional markers of masculine anatomy. However, their shock did not translate into condemnation, and George’s life was positively memorialized in local newspapers. He was celebrated for having been a hard worker, a kind husband, and generous neighbor. In addition, his funeral was held in the local Catholic Church, and his body was buried in the parish cemetery—two actions which attest to the fact that the people of Ettrick were willing to stand by their queer neighbor in life and in death.

Green’s story, and the stories of the other trans men in my book, force us to confront the progressive narrative of history, and think more critically about transphobia that exists in present-day America.