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

The wide angle

For a long time, histories of the LGBT community were often based in urban areas. George Chauncey’s Gay New York, published in 1994, is an early example of this. Chauncey’s work was path-breaking in the field of LGBT history, and influenced many other historians who followed in his footsteps. Many borrowed his approach of writing a case study about one particular city. There have since been great books on the queer communities of Philadelphia, San Francisco, among others, and another book, on Miami, Welcome to Fairyland by Julio Capo Jr., will be published soon.

This focus on urban areas, while resulting in the publication of many great books,  has also resulted in relatively scant attention being paid to queer histories in non-metropolitan areas. This tendency is what gender studies scholar Jack Halberstam has coined “metronormativity.” My book is part of an emergent field of scholarship in queer studies that challenges metronormativity, and looks at queer history beyond large cities. I think such work is especially important in today’s political climate, wherein anti-transgender legislation is often justified in non-metropolitan areas by calling on images of rural America as untainted by the queerness purportedly endemic in large cities. True Sex pulls the rug out from under that argument by showing that trans men have just as much claim to rural histories as do ranchers, farmers, and miners. In fact, many trans men worked in these professions.

The relative silence around histories of gender transgression in rural areas is part of what drew me to this project. I began this research in graduate school after stumbling upon a series of photographs within a digital collection of images from the Old West on an archive’s website. In the photographs were a group of women, about eight of them, posing in men’s clothing. In one image, they were smiling and laughing, while posing with beers and cigars while dressed in black suits and ties. In another image, they were outside, posing by a mountain stream, this time with top hats. These images captivated me, because they suggested a history that has been hidden from view: a history of individuals in rural spaces, experimenting with gender and challenging proscribed gender roles. Ultimately, stumbling upon those images ten years ago is what led to the research that resulted in True Sex.