"I am happier since I made this change than I ever have in my life, and I will continue this way as long as I live[...] I have never concealed anything regarding my [change] to men's clothing[...] I came home to show my friends that I am ashamed of nothing."
– Alan L. Hart
The study of queer history, like any study, is complicated. There is a significant amount of nuance that needs to be addressed, and because of this, it can become difficult to come to final answers. It is important to recognize that final answers are not always meant to be reached. This is particularly evident in the case of Alan L. Hart (1890-1962), the doctor and novelist who we look at this week.
It was clear from a young age that Hart was not comfortable with the gender he was assigned at birth nor the roles that came along with it. Alan himself made this very clear, telling his parents that if they let him cut his hair, he could finally become a boy. After his father had died when he was just two years old, he told his mother he would be the “man of the house” now. While his mother called this foolish, there wasn’t much more backlash from his family on this issue.
His mother remarried, and they moved to live with his grandparents in Oregon. In this time Hart was cared for by his mother, stepfather, and his grandparents, and he developed a solid bond with his grandparents. His grandparents respected his gender identity, to our knowledge, without too much question, even naming him as a grandson on their epitaphs. They allowed him to go around in clothes that were traditionally seen as masculine in that time and perform tasks that were done by men. His grandfather became a role model for him, making him toys and allowing him to follow him around while working. It was only in later years, when the family moved to Albany, New York, that this dynamic shifted.
When he was enrolled in school in Albany, Hart was expected to dress in traditionally feminine clothing which he resented. It was also at this age that his attraction to women became evident. He developed crushes on female classmates and teachers, while he did not act on any of these attractions beyond fantasy, he built solid friendships with most of the women to whom he was attracted. He also began writing under a male name, a decision that was not uncommon at the time, and he wrote about subjects he may not have been able to under his birth name.
After high school, Hart found a place for himself at Albany College (now Louis and Clark College). He participated in numerous school activities and became an engaged and passionate student. It was here that he began a relationship with a woman named Eva Cushman who played a significant role in his life.
It is important now to note that at this time most people perceived Alan L. Hart as a girl and his relationship with Eva Cushman was seen as a lesbian relationship. This went over rather well with the student body and fellow students even referenced their relationship in supportive ways in school publications. At one point Hart even published a poem about Cushman in the school newspaper, written from the perspective of a man who had fallen in love with her.
As Hart gained approval from his peers, he grew to accept himself more, and he began again to wear traditionally masculine clothes to formal occasions. Unfortunately, this caused a rift in his relationship with Cushman as she wanted him to wear more dresses. Hart began to make more female friends, some platonic and some less so, finding relationships with men harder to maintain and having trouble with some male students who didn’t react well to being rejected by him romantically. As Hart excelled both socially and academically, his financial situation went the opposite way.
The money he had inherited from his father was spent mostly on Eva, and he concealed his debts from her as they continued to grow. After their relationship had ended Hart was able to receive support for his troubles from an older woman he had struck up a relationship. From that point, Hart cycled through several relationships with different women without too much societal backlash. It was only when he was well into adulthood that he fully realized his feelings were not considered appropriate by society at the time.
It is here that we find ourselves in murky waters. Hart went to a psychiatrist to cure a fear of the sound of gunfire, but this quickly morphed into something else. The psychiatrist, J. Allan Gilbert, narrowed down on Hart’s attraction to girls and Hart, who now knew that this was inappropriate by his society’s standards, asked to be cured of his sexuality. As with all conversion therapy though, it failed, and Hart became frustrated.
After a period in unsuccessful conversion therapy, Hart came into Gilbert’s office and asked for gender confirmation surgery be performed on him. He used many cases to debate this, including one of eugenics, suggesting that it was better to sterilize him, so he did not pass on his sexuality to a second generation. He reasoned that his attraction would not be going away and he wanted to present and be known to society as a man. After some consideration, Gilbert agreed, and Hart became the first case in America where a psychiatrist recommended the removal of a healthy organ based solely on an individual's gender identification. Hart received gender confirmation surgery in 1918.
It is hard now to identify the truth of Hart’s life because so much conflict exists. We have little record of Hart’s life from Hart himself, as after his death he requested that all of his letters and photographs be destroyed. In Gilbert’s notes, it seems clear that from a young age Hart identified with men and felt more at home in more masculine settings but it is possible that these records were biased. Hart would not have been the first case of attempting to disguise same gender attraction by presenting as a different gender than was assigned at birth, and so it is difficult to tell what is the truth of Hart’s identity. Hart had expressed a desire to marry a woman before discussing his transition, and without his transition, he would not have been able to do this legally. So it is not out of the realm of possibility that his transition was a way for him to have his relationships recognized by the law. However, to say that as a certainty is dismissive of the entire second half of Hart’s life after his transition, which is what we will be exploring in the second part of this article.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material.]
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