True Sex

The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century

272 pages

September, 2017

ISBN: 9781479870639



Add to Cart Available: 8/25/2017

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Emily Skidmore is Assistant Professor of History at Texas Tech University, specializing in the history of gender and sexuality in the United States. She lives in Lubbock, Texas.

All books by Emily Skidmore

Winner, 2018 U.S. History PROSE Award
The incredible stories of how trans men assimilated into mainstream communities in the late 1800s
In 1883, Frank Dubois gained national attention for his life in Waupun, Wisconsin.  There he was known as a hard-working man, married to a young woman named Gertrude Fuller.  What drew national attention to his seemingly unremarkable life was that he was revealed to be anatomically female.  Dubois fit so well within the small community that the townspeople only discovered his “true sex” when his former husband and their two children arrived in the town searching in desperation for their departed wife and mother.
At the turn of the twentieth century, trans men were not necessarily urban rebels seeking to overturn stifling gender roles. In fact, they often sought to pass as conventional men, choosing to live in small towns where they led ordinary lives, aligning themselves with the expectations of their communities. They were, in a word, unexceptional.
In True Sex, Emily Skidmore uncovers the stories of eighteen trans men who lived in the United States between 1876 and 1936. Despite their “unexceptional” quality, their lives are surprising and moving, challenging much of what we think we know about queer history. By tracing the narratives surrounding the moments of “discovery” in these communities – from reports in local newspapers to medical journals and beyond – this book challenges the assumption that the full story of modern American sexuality is told by cosmopolitan radicals. Rather, True Sex reveals complex narratives concerning rural geography and community, persecution and tolerance, and how these factors intersect with the history of race, identity and sexuality in America.


  • "The personal accounts are presented in compelling detail and with compassion, living up to the promise of intimacy suggested by the cover photo of trans man Kenneth Lisonbee and his wife Stella Harper from the unlikely year of 1929."

    The Gay & Lesbian Review

  • "A fascinating, humanizing look into the lives of trans men at the turn of the 20th century."

    Library Journal

  • "Dynamic, compelling, and wholly original, True Sex is an invaluable addition to LGBTQ studies."

    Foreword Reviews

  • "Though an influx of bathroom bills would have us believe that disrupting the gender binary is a new phenomenon, trans people have been here—living, assimilating, and creating families that protected them . . . You’ll be engrossed by their lives, and how Skidmore interweaves American history with their decisions."

    Bitch Magazine

  • "In True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the 20th Century, Emily Skidmore describes how manhood in that day was as much a moral status as a sexual category. . . an especially intriguing . . . analysis."

    Inside Higher Education

  • "True Sex explores the varied histories of American trans men long before that designation even existed. Reviewing newspapers and the literature of the field then known as “sexology,” as well as census data, court records, and trial transcripts, Skidmore weaves a tale of American gender that’s far more complex than many might think, one that reveals that [gender] has never been a fixed reality."

  • "Emily Skidmore's True Sex is an important addition to the literature on transgender history, offering a fresh approach to studying the subject and a wealth of new information that will help to broaden our understanding of sex and gender roles."


  • "Skidmore offers a three-fold critique. First, she provides well-drawn—and sympathetic—profiles of the compelling trans men considered; second, she offers a critical assessment of the press of the day and how it helped foster a new morality . . .  and third, she engages in an ongoing critique of her field of study, LGBT scholarship."

    New York Journal of Books

  • "True Sex is an important addition to queer and gender history and an insightful study of trans men that . . . challenge[s] several prevailing gender and queer theories. This brilliantly written and meticulously researched book should be part of all university gender curriculums."

    The Washington Bookreview

  • "Tracking revelations of “true sex” in the decades around the turn of the twentieth-century U.S., Emily Skidmore recovers a history full of surprises: one in which people assigned female at birth lived ordinary lives as men, often in small towns and rural outposts.  Newspaper revelations about trans men, Skidmore proposes, invited debate about queer embodiment and the porous boundaries of the gender binary.  True Sex contains provocations and insights for queer history, for trans history, and for American history."

    —Regina Kunzel, author of Criminal Intimacy: Prison and the Uneven History of Modern American Sexuality

  • "In this important account of the 'unexceptional queerness' of transmasculine people living, loving, working and dying in non-metropolitian locations throughout the United States around the turn of the last century, Emily Skidmore makes brilliant use of the searchable online databases of historical newspapers that have revolutionized our understanding of the past to tell us a new story about what the world was once like."

    —Susan Stryker, founding co-editor of TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly

  • "True Sex is a truly phenomenal book.  Expansive in scope and implication, Emily Skidmore’s meticulously researched study of gender non-conformity in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century United States is all the more impressive for its dogged insistence that local entanglements often mattered more than expert opinion where Americans’ shifting beliefs about gender and sexual difference were concerned. A major contribution to the study of rural and small-town America’s little explored queer history, and an equally significant contribution to our understanding of rural and small-town America’s crucially important place in the history of queer life in the United States."

    —Colin R. Johnson, author of Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America

  • "A lucid, compelling, and counterintuitive exploration of transmen at the turn of the twentieth century. In showing that many transmen were accepted by their communities, both in life and in death, Skidmore complicates a number of the accepted tenets of queer historiography: that queer people were persecuted, that sexology informed that persecution, and that queer people necessarily flocked to places where they might find community with people like themselves."

    —Nicholas Syrett, Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, University of Kansas

  • "The best sort of history – surprising and delightful. Emily Skidmore’s True Sex reveals ordinary American communities at the turn of the twentieth century to have been much queerer than commonly imagined. By reconstructing the lives of trans men whose stories appeared in newspapers between 1870 and 1930, Skidmore makes a major contribution to our knowledge of queer history."

    —Rachel Hope Cleves, University of Victoria