Beloit Grad Speaks on the Historical American Trans Man
On Friday night, Nov. 30 at 7:30 p.m. in Richardson Theater, 2012 Beloit graduate and professional speaker Tobias Gurl gave a presentation titled “The Unspoken History of the American Trans Man,” highlighting prominent trans male figures and how their stories have remained mostly ignored throughout history. The event was sponsored by the Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA) special interest group on campus.
The presentation lasted an hour and a half and began with an introduction by Max Nelson’20, the Vice President of SAGA. Gurl, who is a trans man, graduated with a major in Health and Society and a minor in Political Science from Beloit, then served as an honors term student for the Office of Academic Diversity and Inclusion (OADI).
Gurl began by explaining the history of the presentation, stating that it “started in 2014” when he heard Janet Mock deliver a keynote speech at the LGBT conference MumbleTech. Mock is a black trans woman and activist who wrote the bestseller Redefining Realness. After her speech, according to Gurl, Mock said that she wanted to thank “all of her sisters […] and I guess some brothers were there too.” Gurl said that he realized “when she said that, that I couldn’t think of any trans men who I could count among [the activists…] no one on the cover of TIME, no celebrities like Laverne Cox.” Since then, Gurl developed his presentation on trans male histories which he delivered before other audiences.
Gurl then invited the audience of 12 students to participate in an exercise in which anyone who recognized a name on his list of trans male figures stood up, showing that only two of the names were recognized by at least one person in attendance. The slideshow Gurl used had five sections moving from the past toward the present, and the first topic was the term ‘The Passing Woman,’ which Gurl explained was different from modern-day gender conversations. A passing woman was “a woman who presented or dressed as a man for economic or social advancement,” making it “very hard to look back and know how they would have identified with the terms we use today.” But, Gurl pointed out that there were several examples of famous trans men who “just don’t fit” the concept of the passing woman.
Under that category were Charley Parkhurst and Murray Hall, who lived their lives as men but would later be used in discussions as lesbian female heroes rather than trans male heroes. Gurl explained that “these folks were curiosities; their stories were treated as tabloids […] it hit the headlines, then disappeared shortly afterwards.”
The second topic of the presentation focused on ‘The Age of Scientific Curiosity,’ in which trans men were viewed through a scientific narrative around changing genders. Gurl discussed Alan Hart, the first American trans man to undergo any type of sex surgery; Mark Weston; and Michael Dillon, the first man to undergo a phalloplasty (the construction of a penis), who was also a surgeon who later performed testicular removal on a trans woman despite it being illegal at the time. Many of these men, Gurl explained, attempted to live their lives “stealth,” as “a trans person who transitions and does not want their identity [as trans] to be known.”
The third topic, ‘Race and the Two Musicians,’ was a comparison between two famous trans male musicians who presented as men all their lives, one of whom was black and the other white. Billy Tipton, the white musician, gained more fame and attention than Wilmer Broadmax, a black singer. “It is extremely difficult to find information on non-white trans men,” Gurl explained, clarifying that he had searched many archives in preparing his presentation in order to find historical articles on these men. “That is further erasure of the historical record.”
The fourth topic in the lecture was on the history of the ‘Gender Clinics System’, clinics one had to go to in order “to get permission to transition,” which meant patients “had to follow all their gender criteria” in order to qualify: dressing in the proper attire for the gender they identified with, and being attracted to the “opposite” gender. “What most people don’t know,” Gurl stated, “is that this [system] was made by trans people.” Reed Erickson, Gurl explained, was a wealthy, eccentric trans man who funded gender clinics. Around this time period, Gurl said, emerged Lou Sullivan, a trans male activist credited with separating sexual orientation from gender identity. Gurl then showed a talk show interview with Sullivan speaking about his experience being gay, being denied sex confirmation surgery due to his sexual orientation and seeing a private doctor to receive his operation. Sullivan was also open about his diagnosis with AIDS. Gay and bisexual trans men, Gurl explained, are “largely ignored” when it comes to the topic of AIDS.
The last subject in the slideshow was ‘Contemporaries,’ including Kylar Broadus, who founded the Trans People of Color Coalition, and who was the first trans person to testify before the US Senate. “The momentum of history has not been on our side,” Gurl concluded. “Trans men are left out of news articles and left out of studies […] being cut off from your history cuts you off from your present and your future.” Gurl added that “most of this information is easily available” if one simply goes looking. He finished by giving a special thanks to the trans archives he was able to access, and then took questions from the audience for 20 minutes.
During the Q&A, Gurl described his experience as a student arriving at Beloit in 2008, and thought “Beloit was not an unfriendly place” but that “it was very different” from today. Gurl was an activist in the trans community on campus and worked with other out trans students to get gender-neutral housing and bathrooms.
Gurl, who is bisexual, also touched on the animosity among bisexual individuals in the LGBT community, saying that “there have always been differences with how gay and bi trans men and women are received by their communities” from how straight trans people are received. Trans men in gay male spaces are often “ignored” or overlooked, said Gurl, saying the philosophy is “along the lines of ‘No dick, get out.’” “There are a lot of intersections among butch lesbians and trans men,” Gurl said, explaining that, historically, trans men who came out were deemed to be committing “butch flight,” similar to passing women, in which a lesbian woman passed as a man for the social hierarchical advantage.
More on the unspoken histories of American trans men can be found on Gurl’s blog, “The Queer-A-Day Project.”