Autobiography of an Androgyne

[Writing about trans people who lived before the category of trans was identified is challenging. It’s hard to avoid language that we now regard as politically incorrect. The world in which the author lived – and to a great extent the world in which we live now – declared the genitalia to be the ultimate definition of sex and gender. Some scholars claim that it is wrong to ascribe the she pronoun to a historical figure who referred to herself as he, but that’s another rationalization that erases trans people from history. When someone describes themselves as a “woman whom Nature disguised as a man”, I don’t care that transgender was not yet a clinically defined term. It’s enough for me to use the pronouns that were denied her when she was alive.]

AutoAndrogynePeople we would recognize today as transsexual or transgender were called many different names before trans was identified as something different from homosexuality. A person assigned male at birth who was of slight stature and had a feminine voice and mannerisms and who was sexually attracted to men was an invert, fairie, fille de joie or, as the author of this autobiography preferred, an androgyne. She was regarded as a different type of homosexual from the so-called pederast. The latter practised homosexuality out of licentiousness and was regarded as immoral, while some more progressive voices recognized her feminine nature and argued that she couldn’t help herself and so should not be judged the same way. Homosexual still, but of a different sort.

It didn’t much matter, however, for the androgyne of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when this book was written, was much reviled. Earl Lind, who also called herself Jennie June, was born in 1874 into the upper strata of New York society and this autobiography is mostly a succession of chapters in which she sought out sexual contacts with men of the lower classes. It’s a short book, but the beatings and sexual assaults she endured, the robberies and threats of blackmail, the indifference of police and bystanders to the severe violence perpetrated on her often had me stop reading and coming up for air.

There is an unfortunate inclination to blame the author in some small measure for her own misfortune. Her relentless pursuit of fellatio caused her so much grief that you want to give her a metaphorical shake and tell her to stop already. She called her sexual impulses a corruption of the “procreative instinct”, and said she wanted nothing more than a monogamous relationship. What she got instead was a succession of men abusing and taking advantage of her. However, she also described herself as “sexually abnormal by birth”; that is, she had the temperament of a woman but the voracious sexual appetite of a man. (Women at the time were, of course, not judged to have much interest in sex beyond procreation. Not surprisingly, given the historical period, there is a huge subtext of sexism and classism that runs throughout the book.)

What this book did was convince me that the category of transgender had to be created to save a large group of people from being victimized by a hateful and uncaring world. Jennie June was well educated and would ordinarily have had all the privileges that her class bestowed upon her, but she lived a double life that repeatedly drove her to the brink of suicide. That she didn’t die this way may have been due to her strong religious beliefs and undoubtedly to her resilience, but it takes no great psychological insight to see she was a deeply traumatized human being. She had none of the options available to trans people now, and she paid the price for it.

There is an interesting appendix to this book titled “Impressions of the Author”. It was written by a business associate of hers who knew her only from that part of her life that was judged respectable. He notes that she was regarded by most as “rather eccentric”, but otherwise recognized for her “good qualities”. He describes a scene with Jennie that induced a wave of sympathy in me: “A third very early memory was of the author’s coming up to me, and saying after we had exchanged a few words, ‘Did you know I am a woman?’ After beholding for a moment my mystification, he said: ‘I was only joking.’ He went on his way, leaving me trying to unravel the question as to wherein the joke lay.”

There was no joke, of course. It was just a trans woman trying desperately to be seen. I’m sorry that my sister across time never saw that day in her life.

Autobiography of an androgyne, by Earl Lind. Mint Editions, ISBN 9781513296968. First published in 1918.