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LHMP #333c Skidmore 2017 True Sex Chapter 2: Beyond Community

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

Chapter 2: Beyond Community

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In this chapter Skidmore talks about trans men who live in rural communities and small towns within the period of her study. Of the 65 cases she studies, a third lived in non-metropolitan areas and perhaps another third lived in small towns or small cities rather than major metropolitan areas. While the mythology of queer history often emphasizes urban areas as the safest and most promising location for queer lives, the trans men who lived in small towns often deliberately chose those locations, suggesting another parallel view. As Skidmore demonstrates the acceptance trans men found in small communities wasn’t due to an absence of knowledge of sexuality in non-urban communities. The newspaper articles often demonstrate a clear familiarity with sexological theory and with the possibilities for homosexual and transgender lives. However small towns and rural communities seem to have offered latitude to trans men who performed normative masculinity in acceptable ways, sometimes even with the awareness of the transness. The mythology that associates rural communities universally with conservative values and sexual narrowmindedness can be demonstrated to be false.

The story of George Green is relentless in its ordinariness. George immigrated from England is in his 30s and married a few years afterwards. Mary Green later reported that she had been unaware of her husband’s trans status prior to the marriage but learned of it afterwards and chose to keep the secret to support him. She implied that the relationship was platonic.  They spent all their lives living in rural communities first in Pennsylvania then North Carolina than Virginia. George was not publicly known as a trans man until after death when preparation of the body for burial uncovered the fact. Rather than reacting with shock and outrage, the local newspapers commended his hard-working, virtuous life, his devotion to his wife, and honored Mary Green’s sorrow at her husband’s death. The local papers bristled clearly at the idea that George Green‘s life and death were of national newsworthy importance. The acceptance by his community is reflected in that George Green was buried with Catholic rites in the Catholic cemetery. While it’s possible that the level of acceptance might have been different if George hadn’t been safely deceased, the reactions of his community argue against popular images of queer life in rural contexts.

The highly similar story of William C Howard challenges the idea that rural communities might be less supportive of living trans men. Stories sparked by Howard’s death hit the papers just days after Green’s obituaries, though curiously many papers described each as if they were isolated, unprecedented events.

Howard’s transition can be traced in census records. Born Alice Howard in the 1860s, Howard was later described as having a fondness for masculine attire and work from an early age. By age 20, the 1880 census lists William Howard as a resident in his mother’s household in upstate New York, along with other extended family members. Later interviews with family members suggested that they had tried to pressure Howard away from a masculine presentation but eventually accepted it, even as Howard began to court young women in the neighborhood. In his early 30s, Howard married Edith Dyer and the couple adopted a daughter. Community members claimed to have been unaware of Howard’s trans status and praised him as a hard worker and devoted husband. A decade into the marriage, Howard died of a sudden heart attack, but because the death occurred hours after taking a medication, the widow requested an autopsy, at which Howard’s anatomical sex was made evident. Two of Howard’s step-brothers attended his funeral, and may have provided the information about his youth in that context. As the story spread to non-local newspapers, the positive and accepting tone of the stories shifted to one more objectifying and mythologizing. These stories emphasized the “mystery” of his death, implying that poison was involved (in contradiction to the actual autopsy findings), erased the support and acceptance the couple had in their community, and altered some details of Howard’s life to conform to an established template for trans narratives.

A different type of experience, but again one that demonstrates a certain tacit acceptance for trans men in rural communities, is that of Willie Ray, who appears in various records in rural Mississippi in the 1890s and 1900s. Ray revealed his trans status in the context of filing assault charges against James Gatlin for assaulting him with a horsewhip for being too friendly with Mrs. Gatlin. During the trial, in response to the charge of having an improper relationship with another man’s wife, Ray revealed that he was biologically female. Evidently this was sufficient to counter the accusation, though at least some of the people present must have been aware of the possibility of sexual relations between women. But the stratagem worked. People who might have seen assault on a man as an acceptable and non-criminal response to intimacy with one’s wife, may have balked at the acceptability of physical assault on someone categorizable as a woman. Ray did have to deal with a charge of masquerading in male attire but was immediately released when it was determined that there was no relevant law, either on a local or state level, that had been broken. The newspaper reports characterized Ray as a hard-working, honest person, who was well known in the community and had recently moved from being a paid farmhand to having his own farm and running a small store. After the trial, Ray continued to live in the same community. An interesting coda is that in the 1910 census, Willie Ray is listed as living in the same residence as Mrs. Gatlin and her two children, with Mrs. Gatlin recorded as a widow. (She wasn’t. Mr. Gatlin is also recorded in the same county, living with his sister, and listed as divorced.) As in the case of William Howard, the more distant the newspaper reports got from Ray’s own community, the more the story was altered to fit a conventional and stereotyped narrative, including a false claim that legal authorities had forced Ray to resume wearing women’s clothing.

The last biography in this chapter is Joe Monahan who was born in New York state but spent his adult life on the frontier, primarily in Idaho, as a miner, farmer, and rancher. Monahan was something of a loner and never married, but was well known and respected in his community.  As with the previous examples, his trans status was confirmed after death when the body was prepared for burial, but evidently his community had a quiet awareness that this was likely the case. A neighbor who was a clerk for the 1880 census recorded his reported sex as male but made a marginal note “doubtful sex”, and others remembered people commenting on suspicions that Monahan might be a woman, though nobody felt it was important to challenge him on that question.

Together, the trans men encountered in this chapter provide a very different image of the options and acceptance of non-urban queer lives around the turn of the century than the popular motif that queer history is focused in urban centers. But this was acceptance of a very specific type of life: someone who embodied the normative live of a hard-working, reliable, community-minded man. Someone whose actions and relationships fit easily into rural, working-class ideals.

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