“I Have Long Suspected My Condition and Now I Know”: Homosexuality and Gender Identity in the 1920s
By Desiree Root
*Authors Note: I use masculine pronouns (ie: he/him), in this project, including for the periods before Hart’s hysterectomy and before Hart began the use of testosterone. I made this choice because research and historical documents may not accurately reflect Hart’s personal pronouns. Scholars have commonly used feminine pronouns. What can be concluded from Hart’s comments is that he had always felt like a man, had desired to fulfill what he believed were masculine roles, and had identified strongly with the male gender. Hart’s discussions with his doctor, J. Allen Gilbert, published in 1920, demonstrate this, as will be discussed further in this writing. In an effort the honor Hart, I believe in this space it is appropriate address Hart with masculine pronouns and recognize Hart with the gender identity that he stated he was. I would like to note that this can be a complicated and delicate topic to navigate and I attempt, in 2018, to make every effort to do this in the most respectful way possible with the language that we have now. However, as is a theme in this essay, our language may continue to develop and change and what is appropriate and respectful in 2018 may not be the best option in the future. I encourage my readers to remain open to this discussion and be aware that the appropriate language around this topic may not always be stagnant as we continue to grow in our ideas and understanding around identity.
If Alan Hart considered himself male why may he be included in an exhibit on women and the ratification of the 19th Amendment? Simply put, some might argue that a man should not be included. Hart viewed himself as a man and not a woman. In my opinion, stories like Hart’s expand this project in that Hart is a great example of someone who transcends gender roles, expectations, and the gender binary in American society during this time. Many people viewed Hart as a woman and treated Hart as a woman even after his gender affirmation surgery. Hart’s stories give us a lot of information about what the gender binary and what “being a woman” meant in the 1920s. I believe it is important to examine the effects this may have had on his life-as Hart’s story provides us insight on the lives of many transgender individuals throughout the country during the 1920s. Further, Hart’s story provides us with insight on what gender and sexuality meant to our society 100 years ago.
During the early 1900s in the United States, the open discussion of sexuality, and gender identity was still rather scarce in America. Those who departed from their conventional gender roles or held romantic encounters with a person of the same sex were seen as sexual deviants, and often victimized by society. Furthermore, this “deviance” was often considered an illness and was a misunderstood concept throughout this time in the United States. Early 20th century Americans did not understand or even know about transgender identity. Dr. Alan L. Hart was born into a female body as Alberta Lucille Hart, and was among the first transgender individuals in the United States to acquire a hysterectomy and use synthetic testosterone in order to physically live out the duration of his life as a man. At a time in the country when citizens did not commonly live openly within the LGBTQ+ community, Hart’s story stands out. “Divergent” sexualities and gender identities were not only seen as a socially unacceptable, but also a sexual inversion and perversion. Alan Hart was an individual who acted upon honoring his inner identity. His story provides a deeper look into societal responses to identities that varied from “the norm,” and provides insight into the thoughts and mindsets of many during this time. This perspective also allows for a deeper understanding of both personal characteristics and attributes that were commonly considered inherently feminine or masculine in their nature, and the affects that these behaviors had on societies view of gender identity.
In his book, Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, historian Peter Boag discusses much of Alan Hart’s early life. Born in Kansas in 1890, with a move to Oregon after the death of Hart’s father at a very young age, Hart, when still identifying as Alberta Lucille (commonly called Lucille), is recognized as having a regular affinity toward “boyish pursuits.” (9) Boag discusses much of Hart’s early life through examples of his masculine identity. With much resentment toward his stepfather, at age five young Hart would commonly claim that he was the man of the house and would grow to be a man just like his late father. Boag notes that as a child, Hart made many comments about the desire to be a man “if only [his] family would permit [him] to cut [his] hair and wear trousers.” (10) It was also during this time that the young Hart began to develop romantic feelings toward the domestic maids hired by the family. (10) Hart excelled in school throughout his time in primary school and into his studies at Albany College (Now Lewis & Clark College) where he was featured in the 1911 Albany College Yearbook. This was also where he met his first intimate partner, Eva Cushman, who would accompany him through Stanford University. (10-11) In their book Intimate Matters, authors John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman note that often times “universities were a female world of love and passion, different from the same-sex ties of the mid-nineteenth century in that its participants were freed from the bonds of matrimony.” D’Emilio and Freedman state that it hardly came as a surprise that college-educated women formed relationships of passion as they were socialized into a world that valued female sensibility and bonds. (191) Even as Hart’s relationship with Cushman may have been recognized as a same-sex or lesbian relationship, it is important to note that he may have not seen it this way, as Hart expressed many times that he thought himself a man. However, for Hart and Cushman the relationship would not last. Hart returned to Oregon after a string of love affairs in San Francisco and the couple parted ways. Upon his return to Oregon, Hart studied medicine at the University of Oregon’s Medical School graduating with his M.D. in 1917.
With the completion of school, and his career underway, Hart sought help from a well-known Portland physician, J. Allen Gilbert, who Boag notes was “rather progressive.” Hart initially met with Gilbert in relation to a phobia around the sound of a shotgun. Their sessions soon morphed into an examination of Hart’s sexuality and gender identity. After some hesitation, Hart made the decision that this was an appropriate time to tackle his affinity toward women and his masculine identity once and for all. In the Oregon Encyclopedia, Morgen Young notes that Gilbert “at first tried analysis and hypnosis as means of reverting his sexuality,” and that “Hart asked Gilbert to perform a full hysterectomy on him, citing the eugenic argument that persons with ‘abnormal inversions’ be sterilized.” By this, Hart was referencing the idea of eugenics in relation to sexuality, meaning those who had a romantic affinity toward another of the same gender should not be able to reproduce and pass on this characteristic to future children, as this was not a desirable trait. Gilbert and Hart together proceeded with the gender affirming operation in 1918 and Hart began to present and identify solely with a masculine identity soon after, as can be seen in the 1922 photo provided by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission. In 1920 Gilbert published Hart’s case as “Homo-sexuality and Its Treatment” in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. After his medical transition, Hart began practicing medicine throughout the country. His work in various clinics was short lived—as his identity was continuously discovered or threatened. Hart married twice, first to Inez Stark and then later to Edna Ruddick, and, as Young notes, began using synthetic hormones once they became available after World War II. Hart also wrote progressive novels based around themes of medicine and sexuality that reflected themes from Hart’s own life.
After Hart’s medical transitioning process in 1918, his troubles were far from over. As with many matters of sexuality, many people did not take fondly to the idea of gender transitioning. The language around the topic—and the idea of what it meant to be an individual who identified as transgender had not yet developed. Boag notes that Hart often turned to medical books with hopes of gaining a better understanding of his sexuality and gender, stating that “what [he] read, not surprisingly, considering the era, only caused [him] despair.” (11) Brian Booth notes in The Life and Career of Alberta Lucille Hart/ Dr. Alan Hart with Collected Early Writings that the challenges associated with Hart’s passing as a man in the medical and literary worlds led to a complicated life of “deception and discrimination” along with a need for multiple job changes, relocations, and financial struggles. (5)
In the analysis of historical newspapers throughout Oregon discussing Hart’s life, post-transition, we are better able to understand the experiences of Hart and the public reaction to Hart’s gender transitioning. Hart’s struggle with acceptance from society only became more complicated when, on February 5, 1918, Hart was outed as a transgender man in newspapers stories that were wired all throughout the Pacific Northwest. In one article from the Oakland Tribune for February 5, 1918 Hart’s “secret came to light only through the recognition of Dr. Hart by a fellow student from Stanford when the young intern went to the Lane hospital to apply for a position. In the office of Dr. Harry Alderson of Lane, where Dr. Hart sought a position in the laboratory ‘he’ came face to face with a fellow student from Stanford and there was an unbelievable start of recognition that betrayed the young co-ed.” This news spread over multiple states, causing many repercussions for Hart. Both Young and Boag note that this was the beginning of a long string of job-hopping for Hart, presumably due to security and social risks around being outed in his identity. Boag notes that a reporter who later followed up with Hart about the outings and his gender identity noted that Hart proclaimed, “I had to do it . . . . For years I had been unhappy. . . . I have long suspected my condition, and now I know.” (12)
Another newspaper that covered the story of Hart’s outing was the February 5, 1918 edition of the Daily Capital Journal, that stated “Dr. Hart has been noted for independence in thought and action particularly in the discarding of feminine frills and substitution of more simple and mannish modes.” This brings forth the concept of what society viewed as “mannish” in relation to “feminine.” Boag notes that from an early age, Hart saw himself in what he believed was, and what society understood as, a masculine role. From wearing trousers and other masculine apparel, to drinking and smoking, many believed that Hart was encompassing the role of a man. This emphasizes the importance of the role that clothing and behavior played in separating acts of masculinity from those of femininity during this time. In Hart’s conversations with J. Allen Gilbert while seeking treatment, he was not interested in having treatment that might deprive him of his masculine tendencies and desires, because, as Boag explains, Hart “did not want to exchange [his] male mental makeup for that of a ‘female type of mind,’” offering further proof that Hart admittedly identified himself as a man. (12)
An article from the Medical Sentinel from June of 1918 titled “Amazing Sex Discovery” discusses the outing of Hart from that past February, highlighting what was believed to be the betrayal that Hart had caused. The editors state that “for years to come the children of Albany will stop in their play and question the sex of their playmates,” and that “it seems strange indeed that the fixing of [Hart’s] sex was not determined long ago.” This article emphasizes the fear that many had towards “divergent” sexualities and gender identities during this time, highlighting that in the act of “pretending” to be a man, Hart was portrayed as dishonest and manipulative. It also brought forth many questions about what this change meant in relation to politics and law. The editors discussed this in relation to the draft: “this change of sex places Doctor Hart under the workings of the draft, and it is to be hoped that the Draft Board which passes upon the sex of the doctor will use extreme diligence in ferreting out this sex discrepancy.” To this, the opinion of the editors was that “If Dr. Hart is of the male sex and representatives of our government say [Hart] is a male, we must accord the doctor all the privileges of a male. If the findings should be that the doctor is of a female sex, a monstrous inconceivable joke has been played on the children of our state who have heard the case discussed.”
Much of the history that can be examined of Hart’s early years has been found through J. Allen Gilbert’s “Homo-sexuality and Its Treatment” in 1920. Gilbert not only performed Hart’s surgery but was also responsible for Hart’s psychotherapy. In his writings, Gilbert came to the conclusion that since there was no certain guarantee that intense therapy would not jeopardize Hart’s wish to avoid adopting a feminine state of mind, the next best option would be to accept the reality of Hart’s desires and to proceed with surgical action in an effort to complete Hart’s transition. Gilbert states that Hart “made up [his] mind that this was [his] chance to meet the difficulty and correct it, if possible; at least, to do the best for the condition that could be done.” (302) He notes that after the surgery his “hair was cut, a complete male outfit was secured and having previously identified [himself] with the Red Cross, [he] made [his] exit as a female and started as a male with a new hold on life and ambitions worthy of her high degree of intellectuality.” (321) For this time, Gilbert’s methods were progressive, as many would not believe that Hart’s transition would be seen as a “cure” to the same-sex desires Hart had as a woman. This was a rare perspective for Gilbert to have for this time. Even for this progressive type of thinking, Gilbert still claimed that Hart understood his condition (of same-sex attraction) to be an “abnormal inversion.” (321)
Gilbert’s article quickly became public news in Oregon, as the concept of this gender transitioning was brought into public light. Boag writes that “Medical science, at least through the eyes of J. Allen Gilbert, thought him a homosexual.” (15) Hart likely spoke to Gilbert using the terms ‘homosexual,’ and ‘sexual inversion,’ as they both appear in the medical records. (15) Boag states that “Hart’s well-documented life, however, reveals no precise term that he applied to himself. . . . What did seem clear was that Hart thought himself a man.” (15) It is fascinating that Hart, a doctor himself, did not initially know how to identify his own gender from his sexuality under medical terms. This shows, as Boag points out, that the idea of transgender individuals was so abhorred within society that any term outside of the realm of a symptom of medical illness was non-existent.
Even with this, Hart stood by his decision to live his life honoring his true identity. Dr. Alan Hart’s story is just one of many important stories about those who actively worked to renegotiate our understanding and views of LGBTQ+ individuals and what it meant to be transgender. Booth points out that “Hart deserves to be remembered as a remarkable person of tenacity, intellect, idealism, and courage, who made contributions to medicine, literature, and humanity under difficult circumstances.” (8-9) Hart’s story teaches us not only about the bravery of living out his true identity in a time where his choices were not widely accepted, but also works to paint a picture of how gender identity was looked at throughout the 1920s in America. His story further identifies the gender characteristics that were the foundation of what separated a man from a woman in the 1920s and identifies how these two genders were recognized in a binary at that time. Hart’s story allows readers to analyze what it truly meant for Hart to be a man, when the public saw him as a woman. His story serves as an example of the experiences and trials that transgender individuals faced throughout the country at a time when the discussion of gender, rights, and the privileges allotted by one’s identity had taken the national stage. Stories like Dr. Hart’s are remembered and honored for the bravery of those who worked as trailblazers, and ultimately paved the way for change not just in Oregon, but throughout our country.
Alberta Lucille Hart, Albany College Yearbook, 1911, 19. http://digitalcollections.lclark.edu/items/show/9876
“Amazing Sex Discovery,” Medical Sentinel, June 1918, 253.
“Attire Did Not Proclaim Man,” Oakland Tribune, February 18, 1918, 5.
“Dr. Alan Hart Said to Be Oregon Girl,” Daily Capitol Journal, February 5, 1918, 5.
Gilbert, J. Allan. “Homo-sexuality and Its Treatment.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease Vol 2, no.4 (October 1920): 297-322.
Boag, Peter. Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 9-15.
Booth, Brian. “Alberta Lucille Hart/ Dr. Alan L. Hart: An Oregon “Pioneer” Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission. 2000. http://www.ochcom.org/hart/.
Booth, Brian. The Life and Career of Alberta Lucille Hart/ Dr. Alan Hart with Collected Early Writings. Portland: Lewis & Clark College, 2003.http://digitalcollections.lclark.edu/items/show/6141.
D’Emilio, John and Estelle Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America 2nd edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Young, Morgan “Alan Hart (1890-1962)” Oregon Encyclopedia, https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/hart_alan_1890_1962_/
About the author:
Desiree Root is a senior at Western Oregon University, studying Elementary Education, Social Science, and Gender Studies with her major in Interdisciplinary Studies. She served as the assistant in Dr. Kimberly Jensen’s Honors Colloquium during the Winter Term of 2018. Her interests include, women’s and queer history, social justice, LGBTQ+ activism, and hiking.