Book Review

Bookworm Sez: ‘True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century’

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“True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century” by Emily Skidmore
c.2017, New York University Press
$27.00 / higher in Canada
253 pages

Always Be Yourself.

Pretty much since grade school that’s what you’ve been told. Take a breath and you do. People like you the way you are. You don’t have to try to be someone you’re not. Always be yourself — although, as you‘ll see in “True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century” by Emily Skidmore, that may have caused gossip a century ago.

In 1902, women in the United States could not legally vote. Many couldn’t hold property or get credit, and joining the military was likewise forbidden. None of that was a concern to Harry Gorman though: well-traveled, adventuresome and married, Gorman lived in Buffalo, New York, where he was known as a good man.

Except he wasn’t. Gorman was anatomically a woman.

Surely, that came as a surprise to doctors, jailers and undertakers who discovered the secrets of Gorman and men like him, but here, Skidmore says that the opposite is true of everyday folks: as evidenced by articles in many small-town newspapers, locals often knew the “true sex” of trans men in their midst and didn’t seem to much care.

Many trans men in the late 1800s and early 1900s, says Skidmore, married, perhaps to cement their appearance as “‘good men’ to their communities.” Once discovered, they were often known in the press as “female husbands” because the term “lesbians” hadn’t taken hold yet and, at that time, women were largely believed to be asexual or unable to be passionate. Even so, though titillated, small-town Americans then weren’t quite as naive as we might think they were.

Perhaps because the science of sexology was still in its infancy and words were lacking, many of the men explained their actions as a way to make a living, or because it was more comfortable to dress and live as a man. Some didn’t explain at all, while others said they lived as men to take advantage of the rights men had, and continued in order to avoid embarrassment by their new wives. In many cases that Skidmore found, those reasons were no matter to neighbors. But intolerance was never far away.

When one considers the attitudes toward LGBT individuals, pre-Stonewall, it’s quite eye-opening to know that tolerance was practiced well before discrimination was. It gives you more respect for your elders — and yet, as you’ll see in “True Sex,” laissez faire attitudes weren’t widespread.

Using the tales of many trans men, as garnered from newspaper accounts of the day, Skidmore shows how small-town residents around the turn of the last century viewed trans men and, at the same time, women who loved women. Not only are those stories fascinating, but they contain a certain quaintness that belies what’s between the lines: the newspapers had a lot to say, but there was an equal amount that they didn’t say but that readers, Skidmore believes, surely implicitly understood.

This book veers off into the scholarly now and then; even so, it’s readable by anyone who’s interested in this history. If that’s you, “True Sex” is a book you’ll want for yourself.

Terri Schlichenmeyer

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a prairie in Wisconsin with two dogs, one man, and 17,000 books.

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