My heart breaking, I read about Alan L. Hart.
Alan L. Hart was born Alberta Lucille Hart in Kansas, on October 4th, 1890. Growing up, she spent time on her grandparent’s farm, playing in boy’s clothes with boy’s toys. It is a now familiar story of a girl breaking free of gender roles: “[He] hated traditional girl tasks, preferring farm work with the menfolk instead. The self reliance that became a lifelong trait was evident early: once when [he] accidentally chopped off [his] fingertip with an axe, [Alan] dressed it [him]self, saying nothing about it to the family.”1
Although often writing under a male name, Hart graduated from college as a woman and obtained a Doctor of Medicine degree as a woman – with top honors – the only woman in the class.2 She was attracted to women, despite confessing to “a loathing of the female type of mind.” Under a false male name, she married a woman. Later that year, 1917, she sought a hysterectomy from a psychiatrist, who described her as “extremely intelligent and not mentally ill, but afflicted with a mysterious disorder for which I have no explanation.” Again, a familiar story.
What is not so familiar is a facet of Hart’s personal position in requesting the hysterectomy, a radical surgery for a healthy young woman in 1917. Hart invoked a eugenic argument, insisting she was a person with an “abnormal inversion” who should be sterilized. At the turn of the century, homosexuals were thought to be “sexual inverts.” Many women who were sexually attracted to women and defied gender norms were subjected to inhumane treatment, and some instead chose to live, as best they could, as men. Apparently, some, like Hart, retained the belief they were indeed abnormal specimens of humanity.
It is one thing to want to live as a man out of necessity and wish to be free of the hassles of menstruation. It is one thing to know you do not wish to have children. But it is another thing, entirely, to believe you are such an aberration your genetic material has no place among your fellow human beings.
Alan L. Hart was an intelligent, learned Doctor of Medicine, a woman living her life as a man, and believed she should be sterilized.
My heart breaks for Alan L. Hart. My heart breaks for Alberta Lucille.
After a successful career as both a doctor and novelist, after a long and happy marriage to a woman, Alan L. Hart died in 1962. Eight years before, Alan Turing had committed suicide after enforced chemical castration. Forty-five years before, Alberta Lucille Hart had convinced her doctor she should be sterilized.
This was the environment for so much of the 20th century. Homosexuals were not supposed to exist: they were to be corrected; they were to be assimilated; they were to be erased. For the past 100 years, this has been the environment we have been trying so hard to change.
Thankfully, our environment has been changing. Today we are surrounded with examples of women living lives that for all intents and purposes look like the lives of men – the careers they pursue, the fashion they wear, the women they marry. Likewise, we see around us men who live lives resembling those of women. This is our reality, an observable fact. We know now, as a society, that in their personalities and expressions of themselves, women can be just like men, and men can be just like women.
We remain, however, still a little confused. We still fall back on familiar words, familiar stories. If a girl plays with boy things, she must be a boy, right? So confusing. If a man wears a wig and makeup and a dress, he must be a woman, right? Our little human brains keep ticking over the new information, trying to categorize and make sense of it all with new words, just as we did a hundred years ago. But today, many of those who defy their gender roles don’t see themselves as abnormal aberrations who must be sterilized.* They’re out and proud. There’s a whole movement behind them.
It is a wild, wild time, this reality, this confusion.
I look forward to the day when the reality, the fact, of sexual orientation clarifies the confusion for everyone. Apparently, human beings want to have sex with each other. In order to do so, they need to know who is male and who is female so they can hook up with the bodies they naturally desire. For some strange reason,** this is a matter of contention in all the confusion right now, but it simplifies everything beautifully: Change your lifestyle. Change your name. Change your clothing. Change your body however you wish. But don’t change that biological sex marker. That is important for finding the loves – or good times – of your life. Let people know if you are homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual, and whether you are male or female. It’s that simple. Then we can all respect one another, express ourselves fully and freely, and get along.
Our environment, right now, is fighting for that respect and freedom. We need to listen to one another, we need to be patient, we need to understand. We need to protect one another from violence.† But we are talking, and we are acknowledging reality, and we are nurturing an environment based on respect and authenticity and expression. There is a lot to work against, but so much that has already changed for the better.
I don’t feel like I need to be a man anymore. Not in the slightest. It never even crosses my mind. My environment has changed drastically from where I was when I thought that was the answer to all my problems. I haven’t moved (though I painted a room yellow) but I’ve changed who I spend time with, what media I put in my head, my political views. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve acknowledged so much trauma, so much history, both personal and shared with other lesbians. I’ve come to love my woman’s body because I’ve come to see myself in other women. The face I once never wanted to look at I realize now can connect with others who see themselves in someone similar, as I’ve seen myself in other’s faces. But I had to find those other women and construct my environment around them.
They are out there, for everyone. We just have to find them.
A remarkable thing happened the other night. I settled on my bed and turned on my iPad to watch some videos before I went to sleep. First I watched an episode of The Supersizers with Sue Perkins. Then I caught up with Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen. Then I turned on Saturday Night Live to catch the newest bit about the Presidential debates, with Kate McKinnon’s brilliant Hillary Clinton. And as I turned over to go to sleep, I realized I had just spent my evening watching three lesbians in a row, who I relate to in one way or another. I realized I no longer felt so strange and alone. I no longer felt abnormal, an aberration.
But it has taken me almost forty years to change my immediate – and internal – environment. It has taken me almost forty years to leave behind the homophobia of a conservative, sheltered upbringing and to create space amid my doubts and my fears for women I admire, women I’m attracted to, women I love – including myself. The clothes hangers full of men’s shirts in my closet and the big leather boots beneath. This haircut. The books on my bookshelves, the movies and TV shows, the websites, the pictures, and most of all, these thousands of words I’ve written that hopefully make some space for someone else.
Sometimes, we have to give ourselves a soft space in which to heal. We have to create a nursery in which to grow, a hearth in which to burn bright.
We change as our environment changes. There is a natural transition. It may occur half despite our actions and half because of them, but it will happen nevertheless. It is sometimes slow and often painful, but it is happening before our eyes, in ourselves and in the culture around us. We have to trust in that forward motion, and adapt our environment for the betterment of ourselves, for those we love, and for the evolution of our human society.
No more aberrations. No more “abnormal inversions.” No more erasure of any part of anyone, not anymore.
A small thing I have added to my environment in the past months are the words of lesbian poet Mary Oliver.3 I share a few of them here, in the hopes for positive change in everyone’s environment, and in everyone’s life:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.
3 – Oliver, Mary, Dream Work, Boston: Atlantic Monthly, 1986. p.38-39
* save for the children being sterilized by their homophobic parents
** lesbian fetishization, autogynephilia, patriarchy
† male violence