We are our own Keepers II
Being Transgender in the Age of Individual Truths
By Matthew Herzog
In this second and final article on Transgender Artists, we hear from Emily Skidmore - Assistant Professor of U.S. History, Gender, and Sexuality at Texas Tech University and Author of True Sex - The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century.
If you haven’t seen last month’s piece, Visual Artist, mentor, author, Armani Dae, talked about his work and being Transgender.
As mentioned in the previous piece, Emily and Armani Dae serve as temporal bookends, capping a hundred years of challenges and triumphs. Maybe, by the collage of their knowledge we may predict our future.
Matthew Herzog - How did you come to investigate the scholarship of Transgender History?
Emily Skidmore - I’ve always been interested in issues of gender—especially how normative definitions of masculinity and femininity have been constructed. Perhaps this is based in my own sense of my own gender; I am cisgender, yet I have always identified as somewhat masculine. As a child, I was often mistaken for a boy. Thus, when I became a historian, I brought my questions regarding gender to the past. I became interested in transgender history early in graduate school when I happened upon a photograph from the 19th century of women posing together in tuxedos. The picture captivated me, as I hadn’t imagined a long history of gender transgression, and that photograph encouraged me to look for more examples. The result of that research is my book, True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.
MH - In your book, you investigate local and national media, specifically during the turn of the 20th century, to understand how that period's language depicted their developing grasp (misunderstanding) of the subject. Has your study aided in understanding the current popular discourse on the Transgender community?
ES - It’s interesting; mainstream conceptions of American history fall along what historians refer to as a “progress narrative,” meaning that we tell ourselves that things are always getting better, that the story of America is the story of rights expanding, and of people’s experiences getting easier. And yet, this breezy narrative, the story of moving from oppression to liberation is frequently incomplete.
One of the surprising things I found in my research is that trans men at the turn of the twentieth century could find tolerance—even in rural areas—as long as they lived according to the prescribed standards for masculinity. In short, as long as they were seen as a “good man,” their anatomy could be overlooked. Given the prosecution that trans people have faced since the mid-twentieth century, this earlier history of toleration seems impossible, and yet there it is. Thus, I hope my research pushes us to think more critically about the current justifications being used to legitimate bathroom bans and other forms of discrimination, as trans people have lived in, and contributed to, our nation since its inception.
MH - Has the expansion of individual voice (social media, twitter, Instagram, art) shifted the contemporary conversation on being Transgender?
ES - I think so. In the period I study, it was incredibly difficult for trans people to have a voice that reached beyond their own community. As I discuss in my book, as stories of trans men circulated away from the pages of local newspapers and onto the front pages of national sensational newspapers, the subjects had very little control over how they were represented. Often, the national press depicted trans men as deviant and dangerous, even if their local newspapers had published supportive accounts. With the advent of social media, however, trans people can now control their representation much more directly. It’s a very powerful thing.
MH - Lastly, since this is an Arts and Culture publication and most of the readers are artists, do you have any words/hopes/critiques for young artists who are also Transgender?
ES - I would say: thank you! Thank you for being who you are, and for adding your voice, your perspective, and your truth to current conversations in the art world. You and your art are valuable and important.
To purchase Skidmore's Book, True Sex - The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century , click here.