When One’s ‘True Sex’ Is Discovered in America

The rich portraits Skidmore creates of these trans men can help illuminate not only their lives but also the lives of many other trans people who remain undiscovered and anonymous.

Transgender people have been in the news a lot recently, often in connection with activities that cisgender people take for granted, like using public restrooms, acquiring official identification, competing in sports, or serving in the military. Given the tone of some of the news coverage, you’d think transgender people were a brand-new phenomenon, perhaps a product of our so-called modern liberal society or some kind of made-up thing invented to shock the public on slow news days. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Transgender people have existed for millennia and if many people today are not aware of that fact, there are two obvious explanations at hand. First, throughout history, most trans people hid their identity out of concern for their own safety and fear of public retaliation against themselves and their families. Second, lots of people are afraid of anything unfamiliar, particularly when it comes to sex, so that even when presented with clear evidence that gender identity is not quite as simple as they believe it to be, they resist understanding.

Chipping away at ignorance and bigotry is a long-term process, and every contribution to the effort is welcome. Emily Skidmore’s True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century is an important addition to the literature on transgender history, offering a fresh approach to studying the subject and a wealth of new information that will help to broaden our understanding of sex and gender roles.

Skidmore, an Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University, looks at the lives of a number of trans men living in the United States in the decades before and after 1900—her research identified 65 such individuals, but she focuses on a smaller number of their stories so as to go to greater depth. Her primary sources are contemporary accounts of the “moment of discovery” for each of these trans men—primarily newspaper accounts from the time when each individual’s “true sex” was revealed. Such narratives could get quite creative in explaining what seemed impossible to readers of the time. For example, in West Virginia in 1901, the apparently male Ellis Glenn was arrested and it was discovered that he was anatomically female. How did contemporary newspaper accounts explain this conundrum ? By suggesting that Ellis had a twin sister who switched places with him just before he was arrested. That explanation may sound silly today, but the attitudes that lay behind the belief that this was the most reasonable explanation why someone with female anatomy would present as a man may not be any sillier than a lot of beliefs about transgenderism held by people today.

Skidmore’s research demonstrates that trans people do not exist in big cities alone. It’s often easier to study an established community of individuals and before the digital resources she used to write this book were available, concentrating research in metro areas may have been the only practical way to study transgender people. However, a story based on urban populations alone is necessarily incomplete and her research demonstrates that trans men lived in rural areas and small towns all across the America, often blending in quite well with the cisgender population. This broadening of perspective is similar to that produced by Gary Gates’ research on Census data, which contradicted the common belief that gay couples live only in urban areas (in fact, Gates found that most counties in the United States include at least one self-declared, cohabiting same-sex couple).

Once “discovered”, the trans men documented in True Sex encountered a variety of reactions. George Green, a farmhand who settled with his wife in Ettrick, Virginia, was only revealed to have female anatomy when his body was being prepared for burial. Rather than condemning him, reports in local newspapers lauded him as an honest, hardworking individual and noted the grief felt by his widow after his death. In contrast, the story of Nicolai de Raylan, a Russian émigré whose female anatomy was also discovered only after his death, was covered in a sensationalistic manner, with much speculation about whether his choice to assume a false identity (in the judgment of the day) was related to espionage or criminal activity.

True Sex is of obvious interest to those working in gender studies and American history, but it will also interest those working in the digital humanities. Skidmore’s methodology is based on digital resources, specifically access to multiple databases including digitized versions of newspapers from many small towns across the country. In the old days when such sources could only be accessed by scrolling through the microform of individual newspapers, one issue at a time, writing this book would have been like searching for the proverbial needle in a million haystacks. I’m sure researching True Sex was still a strenuous process but it would have been considerably more difficult without the digital resources available today.

True Sex does not claim to provide a comprehensive survey of trans life during those years—such a study would not be possible even today, given the lack of data about trans people—but a study of the lives of a number of specific individuals. The rich portraits Skidmore creates of these trans men, the circumstances in which they lived, the choices they made and the tradeoffs they accepted, can help illuminate not only their lives but also the lives of many other trans people who remain undiscovered and anonymous.

RATING 7 / 10