Tensions rose across the US when lawmakers in some states debated which door transgender people should enter when using public restrooms. That prompted a Texas Tech assistant history professor Dr. Emily Skidmore to explore the history of transgender men in the US. Her new book dispels the idea that the issue is new in this country.
“One thing that I hope readers will take away is just the fact that there’s a long history of trans-men existing in the United States,” she says. “It’s not a new phenomenon.”
As a scholar, Texas Tech assistant history professor Emily Skidmore typically feels skepticism when she hears that a topic or issue being debated in the US is new. That’s what led her to research the history of transgender people in America. And what she found, through searching digitized archives of US newspapers, was that transgender men have been part of the fabric for more than 125 years.
Skidmore teaches women’s history prior to 1900, general US history and the history of gender and sexuality Her recently published book, “True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century,” tells the story of 18 women who lived as men between 1870 and the 1930s. She found about 65 cases overall.
There was no gender reassignment surgery then nor was hormone therapy available. So the women transitioned by cutting their hair short and dressing like men. If they played their part well, people around them overlooked their higher-pitched voices and lack of facial hair that needed to be shaved.
“Trans-people have existed for a very long time and the stories that I uncover in my book are often the stories of trans-people being important parts of their community—being accepted and tolerated by their community,” she says.
The book, Skidmore says, centers on the moments when the transmen’s true gender was discovered. Sometimes, that happened in life, other times, in death.
“When a community realizes that an individual is different than what they had assumed, what happens next? Are they arrested? Are they buried in male clothing? Are they buried in female clothing? How is their life as a man told? And how does a community deal with the fact that they had been, in a way, mislead,” she says.
Skidmore’s research revealed that of the 65 cases of transgender men’s she found, about half were either married or engaged. For the married ones, that meant they claimed to be male and have a man’s name on a legal document. “It seemed to me that for many of the individuals that I write about in the book, their way of survival was to live as conventional men…for many of them, getting married was another vehicle for them to be accepted as a normative, or respectable man.”
Some of the transgendered men’s spouses claimed to not have known their husbands weren’t biologically male.
“The wives, saying ‘I didn’t know,’ was a way for them to absolve themselves of any suggestion of sexual propriety and it also provided an out for the newspapers to avoid talking about what was going on in the intimate aspects of these relationships.”
Skidmore says she’s hopeful the book will add to people’s understanding of transgendered men and show them the issue isn’t new.
“Importantly in our current political moment, is the fact that these trans-men were at least tolerated by their communities and contributed positively to their communities,” she says.