Book Review: True Sex by Emily Skidmore

Review by Laura Koch.

“Our nation’s past is far queerer than is generally discussed” (3).

Emily Skidmore’s historical examination of gender nonconforming lives begins with the story of Harry Gorman, a male-presenting individual who was found to be anatomically female during a medical examination in 1902. Drawing on Gorman’s story and dozens of others like it, True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century (New York University Press, 2017) offers a compelling history of individuals we might today classify as transgender men, recovering their experiences in an effort to understand the roots of modern queer theories of community. Skidmore is Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University, where she specializes in gender and sexuality studies. True Sex represents a culmination of her previous research, including a GLQ article published in 2014.

34791133In True Sex, Skidmore situates gender nonconformity within a range of discourses, examining not only journalistic and sexological perspectives on gender-crossing, but also the ways in which masculinity became inextricably linked to race and nationality during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Relying primarily on newspaper accounts, True Sex attempts to dispel historiographical misconceptions about queer lives and bodies as predominantly aberrant and ostracized during this period. Throughout the book, Skidmore refers to her subjects exclusively as “trans men,” as opposed to the female identities and pronouns typically used by journalists of the time. Skidmore chooses modern terminology “in hopes of conveying the open-ended nature of gender being made and remade,” despite acknowledgements that such a label “was not an identity category available to the subjects of this book” (10). She argues that the tendency of trans men to settle in rural America rather than gravitating towards urban areas suggests a surprising level of tolerance for gender nonconformity at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, acceptance was located only within the established boundaries of white American masculinity, a qualification which relied on media narratives and medical pathologies to determine which trans men would be accepted as productive citizens and which should be condemned as “deviant outsiders” (137). 

Skidmore’s most compelling argument proves to be her effort to decentralize the “metronormative logic” (44) of narratives about queerness in twentieth century America. The lives of her subjects, she writes, “suggest that perhaps an overreliance on the optic of [urban] ‘community’ has rendered a great deal of LGBT history illegible” by erasing rural narratives (67). In its careful distinctions between local and national press coverage, the book portrays rural America as a space of potential queer independence, not isolation, providing evidence that local journalists tended to discuss trans men as productive citizens rather than pathologized anomalies. As one of her case studies, Skidmore presents the story of Willie Ray, a white Mississippi trans man who was revealed to have female anatomy while on trial for engaging in a sexual relationship with a married woman. Despite almost certain awareness of sexological discourses condemning same-sex desire, local journalists did not censure Ray. Instead, by focusing on Ray’s consistent work as a farm hand, newspapers produced an image of “a ‘good man’– that is, a productive member of the community” and as a result of this characterization, “his gender transgressions were allowed to continue unabated” (63). Willie Ray’s story is one of many instances of rural queerness Skidmore identifies, yet each narrative appears in the book as a distinct case study, allowing the reader to conceptualize the subjects first and foremost as individuals.

Yet largely as a result of her chosen terminology, Skidmore’s attempt to illuminate overlooked queer lives falls short of its goal to dissociate queerness from identity-based communities. By assigning a transgender identity to historical subjects who cannot speak for themselves, Skidmore implicitly compels the reader to associate her subjects with modern discourses and connotations, shifting away from the narrative of queer autonomy she works so hard to establish. While undoubtedly effective as a means of identifying the roots of modern identity categories, assuming transgender identity nevertheless removes the case studies from their historical contexts, obscuring the complex, often contradictory, processes through which modern understandings of gender and gendered language have taken shape. Indeed, the presumptuously feminine terminology favored by the contemporary accounts Skidmore analyzes seems significant precisely because it shows a willingness to impose gender upon journalistic subjects; only by understanding these impositions can historians trace a path to modern shifts towards self-identification. Skidmore’s decision to categorize her subjects as trans men therefore seems to serve little purpose beyond a presentist desire to claim historical subjects as members of modern queer communities, a line of inquiry which often detracts from the book’s other, more compelling arguments concerning sexology, race, and citizenship.

True Sex will likely appeal primarily to historians of sexuality and gender, as much of its argument assumes familiarity with the tendency of writers of queer American histories to focus their studies on urban spaces and narratives of social rejection. However, the difficulties of chronicling queer history are evident in the book’s struggles to quantify tolerance and find adequate language to describe identity. One wonders, for instance, how much acceptance “trans men” truly experienced in rural areas if the only way they could avoid widespread press coverage of their personal lives was to convincingly perform the behaviors of normative white masculinity and white male citizenship. Despite problems of terminology, Skidmore’s efforts to recover the overlooked stories of gender nonconformity nevertheless highlight the importance of the personal narrative in queer history. If Skidmore’s analytical arguments at times fall short of convincing the reader, this is because the real strength of True Sex lies in its function as biography, as it works to uncover the lost stories of queer lives at the turn of the twentieth century.

Laura Koch is a current undergraduate at Simmons College, where she studies History, English, and Women’s and Gender Studies. Her research interests tend to focus around gender, sexuality, and feminism in history and literature. She is currently working on a thesis about “passing women” in the nineteenth-century United States.

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