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Moving from Female Husbands to Trans Men

Monday, August 30, 2021 - 08:17

I'm glad I decided to cover Manion and Skidmore back to back (well, with the exception of that little blip I posted last week) because they cover similar material, use similar research sources, and overlap slightly but not significantly in time scope. Reading them together not only provides a broader picture for the topic, but points out significant shifts in experience and reception that occurred around the late 19th century. While Skidmore's book, in isolation, is much more tenuously relevant to a blog focused on lesbian-like lives than Manion's is, the fuzzy boundaries around gender categories and the ways that different types of experiences shade into each other make it useful for understanding what can and can't be projected backwards based on the 20th century experience of gender and sexuality. And--let us be clear--people are writing historical sapphic fiction set in the early 20th century that involves gender-disguise motifs, and the experiences of trans men during that period will also speak to the possibilities for those who understand themselves to be women but are presenting themselves to the world as men. So this book fits solidly into the type of research material that my intended readership should find useful.

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Full citation: 

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

Introduction

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.

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historical