Updated: Jul 26, 2021
I want to give a sense of how I came to the project The Gentle Expert: Jane E. Westover, Barber of Connecticut. Less than thirty minutes from my home in eastern Connecticut is the grave of Jane E. Westover. I discovered this while reading Emily Skidmore's book True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (2019). Skidmore's book explores the lives of trans men and trans masculine people, gender non-conforming folx, and other gender benders between 1876 and 1936. She offers an insightful history of people assigned female at birth who dressed, lived, and loved as men. Skidmore's book also challenges the urban-centric, cosmopolitan idea of queerness as she looks at the lives of trans masculine people living in predominately rural areas across the United States.
I was shocked when I came across Skidmore's note on Jane Westover midway through the book. The pandemic had only recently pushed us all inside our homes and I was gleefully taking the extra time that I would have been commuting to and from work for reading. The chapter was on clothing and men's garb; Skidmore was explaining the New York World's coverage of Murray Hall, an individual who became notorious for his wearing men's clothing despite being assigned female at birth. Jane Westover appears in the spread on Murray Hall as one of the many other AFAB folx who wore men's clothing. As Skidmore says, the paper has "very little discussion or narrative framing" of the lives of the people they mention. The account of Westover from the New York World reads
For 20 years Mrs. Jane Westover was the town barber of Marlborough Conn. The best class of citizens would be shaved by no one else than this gentle expert with the razor, who had come to town one day in a man's coat, trousers and derby hat, and who never changed her style of dress.
As a trans masculine person myself, you can imagine my delight knowing that this person lived and died less than twenty miles from my current home. And for those who know me, you know I am very invested in good hair and I love a straight razor shave. I felt an immediacy to discover more about Westover's life as a self-starting barber, dressed up in a derby hat and overcoat. The digital archives for Connecticut have been good to me. Spending the last year of this pandemic pruning digital archives for Westover, I've been able to reconstruct quite a bit of her life in the middle of rural Connecticut. There is still much left to do with many lines of inquiry open and unanswered but I feel an urgency to tell Westover's story, even if only in fragments.
A final note for now. Last week when the birds were out and the sun let the grass breathe a bit more, I went to visit Jane Westover's grave in the Marlborough cemetery with a loved-one. We left Westover a No. 8 clipper to which I appended a sticker with a trans symbol on its edge (see the image above). I lodged it in the dirt near her grave and said some words. I hope that the book will say even more.