New York, NYOct. 10, 2022In celebration of LGBTQ+ History Month, the website OutHistory announced a groundbreaking discovery: the probable identity of Jennie June, the pioneering LGBTQ+ author who bravely defended same-sex love and gender nonconformity in three memoirs published in the 1910s and '20s, a particularly repressive and dangerous era in U.S. history.
Jennie June's books The Autobiography of an Androgyne (1919), The Female-Impersonators (1922), and The Riddle of the Underworld (unpublished) describe the author's experiences of gender nonconformity, sexual attraction, and physical intimacy with men from the 1870s to the 1920s before today's terms for sexual and gender identity had been coined. The books were shocking for their time, and the publisher restricted their sale to physicians, lawyers, and the like in order to avoid obscenity laws. Because same-sex intimacy was illegal in many parts of the United States, the author carefully hid his legal identity to avoid prison time or worse.
Now, in an article published on OutHistory, journalist and queer-culture historian Channing Gerard Joseph explains why the archival evidence strongly suggests that Jennie June was Mowry Saben, a largely forgotten early advocate for what we now frame as LGBTQ+ rights. OutHistory's announcement comes almost exactly 100 years after Jennie June's book The Female-Impersonators was first published in October 1922. Joseph's analysis marks the first significant breakthrough in the search for Jennie June's legal identity since scholars began puzzling over the mystery in 1905, when a U.S. Army doctor described the author in an article about "perverts and inverts.
Jonathan Ned Katz, founder and director of OutHistory, praised Joseph's "clever, detailed research." He added: "That Mowry Saben had a sister named Jennie May is the bit of evidence that finally convinced me that Joseph's analysis is correct, that Saben was Jennie June. I believe that further exploration of Saben's world will provide valuable new insights into the early-twentieth-century society of gender and sexual non-conformists. In any case, Mowry Saben was an important defender of persecuted people, he deserves further attention, and his discovery is a significant achievement. I'm delighted to add Joseph's discovery to OutHistory's many other original revelations."
Throughout the trilogy, Jennie June described himself as a "fairie," an "androgyne," an "ultra-androgyne," a "passive invert," an "effeminate man," and a "bisexual" (by which he meant that he had female and male characteristics). Although some historians have described Jennie June as "gay" and as "transgender," using those and other modern identity terms can be misleading because people of his era embraced other identity categories, and thought about gender and sexual desire in ways that were substantially different from what we now find familiar. At the time he was writing, the term "gay" was not yet in wide use as a descriptor for someone experiencing same-sex attraction, and terms such as "transgender," "gender-nonconforming," "nonbinary," "genderqueer," and "genderfluid" had not been coined.
More on Mowry Saben
Mowry Saben (b. 1870-d. 1950) was an author, essayist, lecturer, and onetime aide to a U.S. Secretary of Labor. He was born in Uxbridge, Massachusetts, and went on to study at Harvard, Oxford, and the University of Heidelberg. Remarkably, Saben's only sister was named Jennie May.
In both public and private writings, Saben spoke favorably about same-sex attraction and gender nonconformity, demonstrating a remarkable frankness for the era.
In his 1914 book, The Spirit of Life, Saben wrote: "It will not do for the man or woman who indulge from necessity their hetero-sexual tastes to throw stones at the man or woman who indulge from necessity their homo-sexual tastes. One might as well stone a painter because he is not a sculptor, or a sculptor because he is not a painter."
He added: "The tenderness of Gautama [Buddha] was feminine, and was not Jesus very much of a woman in some of his characteristics? Goethe said that there was something feminine in all genius, while Coleridge went further, declaring that the mind of a genius must be androgynous. Tennyson dared in The Princess to prophesy that the sexes were destined to become more and more alike."
In the OutHistory essay, Joseph wrote, "Throughout Saben's work, we see a viewpoint and style that parallel Jennie June's. Both authors had interests in religion, spirituality, the Bible, art, and philosophy. Both expressed admiration for Walt Whitman, Michelangelo, and Oscar Wilde. Both read Latin, French, and German. And, significantly, both stayed current on the latest publications in the study of sexuality, referencing Havelock Ellis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, and 'other writers who have dealt with abnormal sexual psychology.' Though not unheard-of for doctors and other scientific researchers, it was rare and noteworthy in the first half of the 20th century for journalists like Saben to address sexuality so directly in public discourse.
Joseph's research confirms other commonalities as well. Like Jennie June, Saben was expelled from an elite university (Harvard), was disowned by his father, and was widely published in the field of journalism. He also had some legal training and lived in many cities across the U.S. and Europe.
For more details, read Joseph's article: https://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/wwjj/wwjj2
Images of Saben and Jennie June are available here: bit.ly/3yrtb6h .