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White Privilege and the Limits of Trans Acceptance

Tuesday, September 21, 2021 - 07:00

Skidmore seems to be doing the same thing that confused me a little in Manion's book: assigning themes to chapters, and then working hard to shoehorn a set of biographies into the theme. I can see the structural reason for doing so if the book isn't simply to be a biographical dictionary. But it strikes me as odd to have a chapter focusing on the role of whiteness in the acceptability of specific trans-masculine lives without discussing specific non-white trans men in that chapter. (Some are discussed elsewhere in the book, so it's a matter of the organization of the subject matter.) Still, it's good that the subject is being tackled overtly.

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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

Chapter 3: The Trouble that Clothes Make

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.

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