On the Science of Changing Sex

Invisible Transgender People: Stolen History

Posted in Editorial by Kay Brown on May 20, 2018

Stolen History — Secret Lives

{Note:  I wrote this essay nealy twenty years ago as supporting material for my TransHistory class at the Harvey Milk Institute.}

Transgender people are often disrespectfully addressed by the wrong gender pronouns. It should come as no surprise that historical figures are wrongly assigned to their birth sex, their gender identity ignorantly or deliberately disregarded. The reason that this is done bear examining. One clue to the possible reason is found in the glaring disparity in gender vector of those whose identity is stolen. It is far more likely that a female-to-male transgendered person is to have his life misinterpreted.

The explanation is that those who willfully steal FTM identities hold to the Oppression Theory to explain the presence of transgendered people. Oppression theory relies on historical oppression experienced by homosexual people and women in many professions. The professional discrimination theory does not have any explanatory power for the presence of male-to-female transgendered people, but the gay oppression does. However, a woman is still more likely to experience greater discrimination in most professions than a closeted gay man. Thus Oppression Theory is easier to apply to FTM people as it easier to imagine a ‘woman’ to be willing to hide her sex to gain entrée into a profession than for a ‘man’ to hide his sex to gain access to male lovers, though it is sometimes applied.

Dr. Joshua Gilbert, who assisted Alan Hart with his transition, published Hart’s case in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders in 1920, but kept his patient’s identity a secret. The fact that Dr. Gilbert’s “H” and Dr. Alan Hart were one and the same was first publicized by Jonathan Ned Katz in his Gay American History (1976). Katz portrayed Hart as a victim of internalized homophobia, who assumed a false identity as a man to love whom “she” chose and who even had surgery to lessen her “guilt” about her Lesbianism. Katz says of Hart, “The story of [Hart] illustrates only too well one extreme to which an intelligent, aspiring Lesbian in early twentieth-century America might be driven by her own and her doctor’s acceptance of society’s condemnation of women-loving women.” But the facts of Hart’s life clearly show that he was not a victim, but rather a transsexual man who had the courage to be true to himself, who sought help to live in his gender of self-identity.

It is perhaps revealing that the gay historians who revealed Dr. Hart’s secret life were unable to interview his widow, “Ruddy” Hart, because they had alienated her by referring to her dead husband as a lesbian, and by association calling her a lesbian. Mrs. Hart insisted to her dying day that Alan Hart was a man.

Some historians dispute applying the term “transsexual” to Hart since he himself did not use the term. But why should he? The term was not coined until 1923 and not widely used until the 1960’s, around the time of Hart’s death. Although, according to Dr. Gilbert, Hart “accepted [his] condition as one of abnormal inversion,” it must be recognized that in the early 1900’s the concept of sexual inversion blended aspects of what today are considered entirely separate issues of gender identity and sexual orientation. After his transition, Hart had no desire to identify himself as anything other than what everyone accepted him to be: a man. Thus he was a transsexual — a true pioneer — one that is seen as a hero by today’s transsexual community.

In the 1980s, a Gay and Lesbian political action committee in Oregon, the Right to Privacy PAC (RTP) , named an award and annual award dinner after Alan Hart… or rather after his birth name, Lucille Hart. While there were occasional complaints from transgendered people they were ignored. It took united transgendered community protests at the dinner in 1995 to force the board of RTP to listen to the Ad Hoc Committee of Transsexuals to Recognize Alan Hart. In early 1996 they dropped all reference to Dr. Hart.

{Personal Note:  I co-chaired the committee with Ken Morris, himself a transman.  Misgendering and stealing our history wasn’t the only issue the trans community had with RTP.  They had repeatedly thrown transfolk under the bus in political maneuvering in lobbying the state government.}

Transgendered man Billy Tipton died in 1989 and was ‘outed’ by the coroner. Soon after, non-transgendered people speculated as to why a “woman” would live fifty-six years as a man, not telling even his wife and kids! The notion that he was transgendered did not often enter their thoughts…. Columnist Clark Humphrey however quipped, “… only wish Billy Tipton, the deceased Spokane jazz “man” who wasn’t, had recorded a duet with Wendy Carlos.”

Diane Wood Middlebrook, an english professor at Stanford University, wrote a well researched book, Suits Me, on Mr. Tipton’s life and times… unfortunately, she is unable to acknowledge Tipton as a transgendered man, taking great pains to ‘prove’ that this was a woman who needed to present as a man in order to survive… and failing miserably. Middlebrook’s thesis is that Tipton began ‘passing’ as a man to play jazz in the ’30s, was trapped by his success at passing as a man, and would have ended it if he could. However, Tipton had many opportunities to step back from his life as a man, and refused to his dying day. Many of Tipton’s friends, his ex-wives, and his children, now knowing full well that he was female bodied, insisted that he was a man in the psychological and spiritual sense. His friends spoke for him… when he could no longer speak for himself.

Brandon Teena who was murdered along with several roommates, because he was transgendered, became the subject of an independent film by two women. The women consistently refered to Brandon as a lesbian, thus stealing even a contemporary transgendered man.

While FTM transgendered people are usually usurped by those who want to use their putative victim status to make a political point, MTF trangendered people are usually belittled and denied their accomplishments, sometimes their very existence.

In Out For Good, the authors usually mention transgendered people only by their description, their names are lost to history. The only two transgendered people mentioned by name are Beth Elliott and Silvia Rivera. Ms. Elliott is mentioned only in connection with her appearance at the West Coast Lesbian Conference in 1973, and her subsequent transphobic expulsion from the Daughter’s of Bilitus. No mention is made of her work to reform California’s anti-sodomy laws, or her work in founding the Alice B. Toklas Gay Democratic Club. Nor are her years as a columnist in a gay & lesbian newspaper mentioned. Her life and contribution to the formation of the Gay Rights Movement is conveniently ignored. Sylvia Rivera gets more mention, but with a knife that is twisted, as she, along with Ms. Elliott, is constantly referenced by masculine pronouns. Ms. Rivera is further denigrated by reference to her attire as campy and slovenly. No surprise, not one FTM person is mention in the entire book!

Thus, are transgendered people made invisible.

Addendum 6/24/18:  Interestingly we now have a mea culpa from the lesbian who broke the Brandon Teena story in the Village Voice and set the tone of misgendering him and stealing our history,

“It also proved to be the most insensitive and inaccurate piece of journalism I have ever written.

For years, I have wanted to apologize for what I now understand, with some shame, was the article’s implicit anti-trans framing. Without spelling it out, the article cast Brandon as a lesbian who hated “her” body because of prior experiences of childhood sexual abuse and rape. … I saw this youngster’s decision to lead a life as a straight man as incredibly bold — but also assumed it was a choice made in fear, motivated by internalized homophobia.

At the time, I was extremely ignorant about trans people. Like many other cis queer people at the time, I didn’t know that there were gay trans men, trans lesbians, bisexual trans folks, that being trans had nothing to do with whether you were straight or gay, and that trans activism was not, as some of us feared, an effort to stave off queerness and lead “easier,” more conventional heterosexual lives.”

“How I Broke, and Botched, the Brandon Teena Story”
The original writer of the Village Voice story that inspired “Boys Don’t Cry” looks back on her reporting — and the huge error she still regrets

Comments Off on Invisible Transgender People: Stolen History

%d bloggers like this: