George Green died In the tiny rural community of Ettrick, North Carolina, near Raleigh, in 1902. He was known to be a hard worker and he and his wife were considered to be good neighbours and upstanding members of the community.
But, when Green’s body was being prepared for burial his friends were baffled to find that he was anatomically a woman. The story made it to the national newspapers of the day in a lurid fashion, but the community seems to have accepted the situation and Green was given a funeral in the Catholic church and was buried in the Catholic cemetery.
Green’s is just one of the stories in Emily Skidmore’s fascinating new book, True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, which explores the lives of trans men (her preferred term) who although born anatomically female lived much of their lives as men.
Skidmore is a professor of history at Texas Tech with an interest in the history of gender and sexuality. Her book encompasses the years from the 1870s to the 1930s. Her primary research technique involved searching the many digital databases of newspapers, many of them small town dailies or weeklies, now available.
Skidmore contrasts the coverage of the lives of these trans men in the local press, which is generally low key and accepting, with the coverage in the national and big city papers, which tended to be more sensationalist.
Her search found 65 stories of men who lived outwardly heteronormative lives, including being married to women, but whose “true sex” (she always uses the term in quotation marks) was eventually discovered. Most often this discovery came after they died or were involved with the law. In the book she tells the stories of 18 of these trans men.
Among the surprising things that Skidmore discovered is that many trans men chose not to live in large cities where there was an underground “queer” community. Instead many settled in rural areas where they sought to blend in and adhere to white masculine values of hard work, neighbourliness and productive economy.
Most were married, and Skidmore admits that she can only surmise as to the erotic content of these unions but indications seem to point to satisfying relationships.
The lives of most of the trans men Skidmore profiles are seemingly unremarkable (apart of course from the very fact of living life as outwardly male).
She discovered that “trans men at the turn of the twentieth century were not always urban rebels who sought to overturn normative gender roles. On the contrary, they often sought to pass as conventional men, aligning themselves with the normative values of their communities.”
When Ralph Kerwineo’s “true sex” was revealed in 1914, for example, the local papers were “full of testimonies attesting to how conventional Kerwineo’s life as a man had been.”
His neighbor told a reporter “In the neighborhood it was frequently remarked what a nice married couple [Kerwineo and his wife] were. After having seen the ‘husband’ help his ‘wife’ across a muddy street[,] my mother said to me: ‘How nice he is to his wife.’”
The period Skidmore covers is one when the new scientific field of “sexology,” pioneered by Havelock Ellis and others, was beginning to take hold. The category “homosexual” was newly minted.
Previously, sexual acts were treated as separate from those who practiced them, but increasingly your sexual preference designated who you were.
Attitudes toward gays and lesbians were hardening but Skidmore was surprised to find trans men and their wives were more likely to be accepted by the communities they lived and worked in because they shared the same values.
This made them non-threatening to community norms. Many trans men whose “true sex” was revealed while they were still alive were even welcomed back into their communities.
Part of the acceptance, Skidmore argues, also related to the then popular belief that women lacked a powerful sex drive, and so again, even when the “husband” was revealed to be “female” there was no threat since there was no predatory male sexual aggression to deal with.
Skidmore has written a careful, concise, well-researched study, mostly free of jargon. Occasionally she makes some sweeping statements that are hard to support from her small sample group, but she has certainly opened the door wide for further research on an intriguing topic.
True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century by Emily Skidmore, New York University Press, 272pp.