Saturday, October 14, 2017

A Man's a Man, For All That

by Jean Roberta

[This photo shows "Ken Lisonbee" with companion Stella Harper, 1929]

“In the mid to late 1860s, a trans man who went by the name of George Green married Mary Biddle in Erie, Pennsylvania. . . It is unclear where George and Mary lived immediately following their Pennsylvania marriage, but at some point in the 1870s the couple moved to the rural countryside seventy miles outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. . . At some point between 1900 and 1902, the couple moved 140 miles to the north, to the small town of Ettrick, Virginia."

Why is all this noteworthy? Because "George Green" (born in England in 1833), who spent all his life doing farm labour in the United States, was found to be biologically female after his death in 1902.

Were the Greens' rural neighbours shocked and horrified? It seems not. Here is what George`s widow had to say, quoted in a Virginia newspaper: "He was the noblest soul that ever lived. He has worked so hard through his life, and has been all I had to cheer me. No man can say he ever wronged him. He was a Christian and I believe he is now with Christ."

Apparently, Green's funeral was held in a local Roman Catholic church, and he was buried in the Catholic cemetery in Petersburg, Virginia.

"This is just one of the historical stories of "passing" women, or trans men, in True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (New York University Press, 2017) by Emily Skidmore, an Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University.

As Skidmore shows, most of these men (people?) lived in rural areas, not in urban communities where "queerness" might be less noticeable. Most of them married cisgendered women, and lived conventional lives as white male citizens. As the author shows, whiteness, hard work, and patriotism were all important components in their social acceptance in the American "heartland," even after their "true sex" had been revealed.

This book is one of a spate of recent studies that disputes what "Jack" Halberstam has called "metronormativity:" a widespread belief among students of "queer" history that before the Stonewall Riots of 1969 (in Greenwich Village, New York), LGBT individuals migrated to cities so they could live with any smidgen of safety.

The men (and this word seems much more accurate than "women") in Skidmore`s book lived far from any contemporary edgy, artsy, avant-garde communities, and most of them professed conservative values. For all practical purposes, they were male citizens. They ploughed fields, chopped wood, fought in wars, ran businesses, drank and smoked in saloons. And they voted in local and national elections before women were given the right to vote in 1920.

This is a fascinating book, and as the author explains in her introduction, the research was made possible by modern technology. She spent several years combing through digitized regional and national newspapers from about 1870 to 1940, and the thoroughness of her research wouldn`t have been possible while all this material only existed on yellowed paper.

For better or worse, this historical information throws a monkey wrench in the concept of a coherent "queer" community, "queer" identity, or "queer" history. Queerness has always come in a rainbow of colours.


  1. What an interesting post, Jean!

    Native Americans recognized those known as two-spirit people. They were apparently not only accepted but considered privileged because they bridged two existences. See either Wikipedia two-spirit people and/or:

  2. Fascinating, Jean!

    The quote from the widow almost sounds as though she did not know her husband was biologically female. Does the book make this clear?

    Much as I have come to distrust technology, it has definitely enabled more data-driven scholarship.

  3. Did the widow know? My guess is that she must have, but the public comments of the female companions of those “men” once the biological truth came out are mind-boggling. Newspaper often used the word “masquerade” for the trans men’s behaviour (as in “Miss Jane Doe masqueraded as a man for 50 years.”) IMO, their wives felt they had to “masquerade” just as much to avoid being stigmatized as lesbians. One said”We lived together as brother and sister” — but in the absence of witnesses, who would know? The trans men under discussion seemed to have no trouble finding long-term female companions, and I find this intriguing, because it points to a kind of underground lesbian culture far from urban, bohemian enclaves.

    1. Hmm. Would you label a relationship with someone who so strongly identified as a man "lesbian"?

      Of course, labels don't really matter. Every relationship has its own definitions.

  4. The cover photo of the lovers, “Ken Lisonbee” (born Katherine Wing, a granddaughter of Joseph smith, who founded the Mormon Church) and her childhood “friend,” Stella Harper, seems to speak for itself. Can anyone look at their body language and doubt that they liked to touch each other? (As far as I know, Stella never denied it, & public knowledge of “Ken’s” “true sex” did not split them up.)

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  6. I would say that any sexual activity between these couples had to come closer to “lesbian” than to normal, marital sex as it was defined in that era: an actual penis in a vagina, resulting in pregnancy.

    1. If you were a butch lesbian back then, masquerading as male might have been the only alternative to conforming to the expectations of femininity. I wonder to what extent it's possible to know for sure whether such a historical subject was transgender or a transvestite.

  7. Thanks for the review! I'm fascinated by the research method, and this sounds like a really interesting book. As far as the urban vs rural question, I think most small towns will accept and defend pretty much anyone, once that person has won their way into acceptance by the town. It can be super hard to win that acceptance, but presenting as a hard working white male patriot probably helps. So it makes sense to me that these people could pull off living in rural areas. If groups of trans men had tried to go to the same town at the same time, I think it would have been a very different story.

  8. True, and that fact probably discouraged te formation of trans men communities - each one had to be a lone wolf.


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