Skip to content Skip to navigation

LHMP #333e Skidmore 2017 True Sex Chapter 4: Gender Transgressions in the Age of U.S. Empire

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 4: Gender Transgressions in the Age of U.S. Empire

* * *

American imperialism in the early 20th century meant the rise of models of masculinity that were not only racially coded but that expected certain types of performance with regard to militarism. This chapter looks at several trans men who either tried to manipulate those models to support the acceptance, not only of their masculinity, but of their Americanism, or who were doubly targeted due to the conflation of “foreignness” and sexual deviance.

Babe “Jack” Bean/Jack Garland (born Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta) was born to an Anglo mother and a Mexican father. Both parents came from a politically prominent background: his mother was the daughter of a congressman and his father was a general and later consul in San Francisco (where the two met). The legacy of the Mexican-American war in American minds, and the resulting rise of prejudice against those of Mexican ancestry (regardless of birthplace or nationality) may explain why Jack (let’s settle on Jack from among the multiplicity of labels he used) in adulthood avoided using any part of his name that made that connection.

Jack treated the gender binary as a permeable border. When he begins appearing in records as an adult in his late 30s in Stockton, California, he is dressing in male clothing, using the name “Babe Bean,” and known to the community as assigned female. Both in the choice of name and in how he described his background, he signaled people to assume a purely Anglo heritage. That this was deliberate can be seen in two contrasting incidents when other claim to know his “true identity”. A claim that he was actually a Hispanic woman named Clara Garcia was met with indignation and denial; a claim that he was the long lost sister of a white man from Montana was countered more neutrally. But Jack did not insist on being accepted unquestionably as a man. Both early on in Stockton (where perhaps he had initially appeared in female clothing?), and at several later points when his “true sex” was made public, he put forth the explanation that masculine clothing made travel and his stated profession (journalism) safer and more convenient. [Note: Unless one chooses to entirely disbelieve Jack’s own testimony, his life comes across as more gender-fluid than anything else. But as Skidmore’s position is to treat all the subjects of her book with masculine language, I follow this.]

Journalism was, perhaps, an outcome of Jack’s notoriety rather than a coincidence. His image in Stockton was that of a good-looking, perhaps androgynous youth, known to be assigned female, whose name and appearance seemed designed to signal harmless eccentricity. Having appeared in the local paper in context with the “true identity” claims, he was offered a position as a guest correspondent.

Jack did not simply distance himself from his Mexican heritage, but actively participated in, and associated himself with, U.S. imperial projects. When he shifted to presenting entirely as masculine, he stowed away on a ship heading for the Philippine-American war. When identified as assigned female during the course of the voyage, Jack returned to explaining his presentation as being for mobility and safety as a journalist. He seems to have been adopted as something of a mascot among the troops who knew his history, and otherwise was accepted as male by those who didn’t. Despite being identified regularly as a journalist in the records, he doesn’t seem to have published any stories until returning to the states, at which he published a personal memoir “My Life as a Soldier” under the byline “Miss Beebe Beam.”

Skidmore suggests that Jack’s embracing of U.S. military ventures and performance of military pride (including a tattoo that celebrated his arguably fictional participation in a unit in the Philippines) helped defuse concerns about his gender transgression. Back in San Francisco, Jack took up his mother’s maiden surname, Garland, possibly to move away from the publicized Beebe Beam identity which was considered female. But both suspicions of foreignness and of femaleness followed him and on the eve of WWI he was arrested on suspicion of being a female German spy in disguise as a man. Here the themes of foreignness and gender deception were conflated in a hazardous manner, and Jack once again countered them by references to U.S. military activity (a possibly fictional claim to have fought in the Chinese Boxer rebellion) and the argument that wearing masculine clothing was necessary for that purpose. He also reverted to using the name Beebe Beam (or Babe Bean) in support of this role.

Skidmore notes an interesting contrast between treatment in the local papers (in Los Angeles at this point) where Jack’s own explanations were foregrounded and the clearance of all charges was noted, and treatment in other national papers which focused on aspects of mystery and suspicion and were silent on the resolution. Even in urban settings, the ability of a trans man to elicit local identity and sympathy as a complex and individual human being was a defense against concerns over gender transgression. At least if one could be accepted as white (which those of German heritage were evidently no longer able to do).

The next biography is of Nicolai De Raylan, a Russian-born immigrant who possibly was already living as a man when he immigrated to the US in his late teens. His assigned sex was discovered when he died of tuberculosis around age 30, leaving both an ex-wife and a widow…and a much larger estate than his known career could account for. This anomaly, along with his foreign associations, no doubt contributed to the framing of De Raylan as a possible Russian revolutionary and anarchist. The press about his identity and speculations about his life were consistently negative and his purported political activities and gender transgression were treated as threads in the same strand. Both of the women he had married (and evidently there were also a large number of other women as well) rejected the claim that De Raylan was a woman. His widow went further and claimed that since the female body identified as De Raylan could not be his, that he must still be alive and in hiding. In contrast to other cases, this personal loyalty was not counted in De Raylan’s favor but treated as further evidence of deceit.

Ralph Kerwineo, like Jack Garland, manipulated people’s perception of his background to create a space in which to live his life, but worked from a more restricted standpoint being of mixed African American heritage. Born Cora Anderson, he had been living as a man for an unclear amount of time when he first appears in records around age 30 in 1906. He had been living with (but apparently not married to) a woman named Mamie White for at least 8 years when he left her in 1914 for another woman, Dorothy Kleinowski, whom he married. Mamie  was sufficiently upset by this that she reported Kerwineo’s assigned sex to the authorities, triggering publicity and an investigation. Throughout the matter, the press highlighted the contrast of Kerwineo’s “foreignness” with the conditionally white Dorothy (whose Polish heritage was elided in order to frame her as a sympathetic victim).

But Kerwineo’s “foreignness” was itself something of a construction. Presumably to avoid anti-Black prejudice in his Milwaukee home, and taking advantage of the larger proportion of “conditionally white” residents there, Kerwineo originally presented himself as South American (sometimes specifically Bolivian) with Spanish ancestry. This was later explained as being considered plausible due to the “soft ways and effeminate mannerisms” attributed to men from South America. But in the wake of being outed, and in the context of anti-Hispanic prejudice, this claim became more of a liability—with newspaper reports foregrounding this (fictitious) foreign connection by referring to him as “Señor Kerwineo”. Dorothy Kleinowski’s self-reported love and loyalty for Kerwineo were discarded by the press as not fitting the desired narrative and she was instead cast as a naïve blonde white woman, victimized by a racialized deceiver. In this case, however, the local press in Milwaukee were more sympathetic, not only rejecting the “foreign” characterization, but assisting in Mamie White’s reframing of Kerwineo’s “true identity” as being Native American (also presenting herself as part Native American rather than Black). This enabled the press to focus on Kerwineo’s contributions to the local community as evidence of good character (in contrast to the stereotypes of Native Americans) and accept an economic rationale for his gender-crossing. Economic motivations dodged the question of sexual deviance for both Kerwineo and his partners.

The charges against Kerwineo eventually resolved into “disorderly conduct” of which he was acquitted, with the support of the local papers, and most likely through the argument that he was an economically stable, contributing member of society. The national papers, however, continued to run with the more sensational version of his story, emphasizing the “foreign” aspect but not invoking themes of sexual deviance.

The last biography in this chapter involves cultural foreignness rather than racial issues. Peter Stratford (born Deresley Morton) was an immigrant form New Zealand, initially living in New York as a woman, but later using the name Stratford, and living as a man. In the early 1920s he took up with a woman he met through a metaphysical organization and moved to rural California, living a transient life and becoming interested in a number of non-Western religious traditions. In this case, when his assigned sex was determined after death, it was these religious and spiritual associations that were foregrounded as the accompaniment to his deviant sexuality. The newspapers created a larger, and almost certainly imaginary, context for his activities, claiming association with a number of women (who had then “disappeared”) who together formed a secretive cult. Stratford’s gender performance was identified as being part of the cultic practices, suggesting a dangerous infiltration of American society by “Oriental” spirituality. Once again (and part of a general pattern of isolating sexual deviance to the “transgressing” party), the newspapers worked to rehabilitate Stratford’s surviving female partners as a “normal” middle-class (white) women who had been duped and led astray.

Time period: 

Add new comment