Farm Boy, City Girl

From Gene to Miss Gina

Non-Fiction - Memoir
260 Pages
Reviewed on 07/10/2020
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Author Biography

John "Gene" E. Dawson also was known as "Miss Gina" in his younger days. He considered himself a farmer at heart and also worked in factories and as a waiter, beautician, and tax preparer.

Before Gene finished his book, his life story had piqued the interest of documentarian Geoff Story, who is working on the upcoming LGBTQ-history documentary, "Gay Home Movie." Gene was interviewed for the documentary for background history. Gene and director Story also were interviewed for the article, "L.G.B.T.Q. in the Midwest, Where the Fight Is Still Happening," which was in "The New York Times" in May 2019.

An excerpt from Gene's book was included in "Sweeter Voices Still: An LGBTQ Anthology from Middle America," which was published in January 2021.

His story will continue on for future generations.

    Book Review

Reviewed by K.C. Finn for Readers' Favorite

Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina is a work of non-fiction written in the form of a memoir by author John "Gene" E. Dawson. A memoir penned in three distinct stages of life, this is an incredible life story which will be an important read for LGBTQIA+ community members and their allies to understand the experiences of those Midwestern pioneers who came before them and campaigned for rights. Gene’s tale takes us from a stark and strict upbringing in a farming family to his initial stage of adult life as a gay man, and then through to his full freedom to live as Miss Gina in the city of St. Louis.

Author John "Gene" E. Dawson delivers a superb life story with pathos, heart, and a whole lot of valuable wisdom that future generations must hear. One of the things which the narrative really explored was the cultural perceptions and the real struggles of being a young gay man in small towns and big cities, proving that the journey was never an easy one and rights were difficult to come by. Dawson’s enigmatic narrative style shows readers his true heart, and the expressions of his life are laced with nostalgia, love, humor, and heartache as we undergo his truly emotional and ground-breaking tale. By its end, this is a memoir where you really fall in love with the author and wish them every bit of good they’ve found in life. Overall, I would highly recommend Farm Boy, City Girl to all readers as a lesson in fortitude, love, and strength.

Jack Magnus

Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina is a nonfiction memoir written by John "Gene" E. Dawson. In her foreword, Tamara Dawson Bonnicksen wrote, “I knew there was something different about Uncle Gene.” When she penned that, she was recounting a time in 1971 when her dad had to stay in the hospital for three weeks, and she and her siblings were looked after by her Uncle Gene and her grandfather. She had always been fascinated by her uncle, and the time she got to spend with him back then was special. Tammy said he made the afternoon they spent cleaning the house fun, and afterward, he shared a peek at the fishnet underwear he had in his suitcase. Gene was the eldest of six children born to John Paul Dawson and Mary Helen Agnew Dawson in 1931, in rural Iowa. Indications that Gene was not your typical farm boy who’d grow up, get married, and have lots of kids came as early as when he was six years old and told his mom that he wanted to marry his friend Albert when they grew up. He also had an inclination for more traditionally feminine pursuits, such as cooking and baking. Gene enlisted, covering up the fact that he had polio as a child and had a weakened leg. He ended up in the Marines in 1952 at the age of 21. It was the start of a different life for him, however; a welcome change from rural Iowa. He was finally able to begin living a life that was far more authentic and meaningful. He was becoming Miss Gina.

John "Gene" E. Dawson’s Farm Boy, City Girl immerses the reader in the history of the Dawson and Agnew families, and far from being overwhelmed, I found myself drawn to his easy, conversational, and fluent writing style. I could visualize so much of what he was sharing and found myself wondering just how he managed to stay a part of his family despite the problems he had with his father accepting him for who he was. Dawson’s accounts of the beatings and attacks that were, and still are, a problem for transgendered individuals as well as gays are powerful and sobering. His joy at being able to express himself and become who he was inside is transcendent and eloquently shared with the reader, as are the stories about the years he and his brother, Lee, lived and worked together. Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina is a grand story about a life well-lived. It’s most highly recommended.

Grant Leishman

Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina tells the sometimes sad, sometimes humorous, but always fascinating story of author John E. “Gene” Dawson’s life as a good Catholic Iowa farm boy in the thirties and forties, who realized in his teens that he was gay and that conservative, straight-laced, rural Iowa was not going to work out for him, his desires, and his lifestyle. It seemed from an early age that Gene preferred to associate with girls and do things that at that time were strictly considered to be “girl’s” work. Once he had the opportunity, he and his also gay brother Leroy would head out of the Iowa backwoods and eventually end up in St Louis, where Gene was relatively free to express himself as both an openly gay man and a transvestite. Although the brothers would still face difficult and sometimes violent situations because of their sexual preferences, fortunately, they had each other and a close collection of friends to rely on, as well as not burning the bridges at home by being discreet whilst visiting family. In what was still very much the segregated South, Gene as a marginalized person also found himself drawn to others in that situation, which resulted in him having a wide coterie of African-American and Latino friends and lovers long before it was deemed appropriate for good, Southern white-folk to associate with people of color.

I found Farm Boy, City Girl: From Gene to Miss Gina to be a thoroughly enthralling and relaxing read. There is nothing of a literary gem in this work but it is a heartfelt description of a life well lived, often in difficult and dangerous situations. It is hard for us to imagine the prejudice and vitriol that author John E. “Gene” Dawson faced in those long-ago days but one couldn’t help but admire his commitment to his family, his friends, and the gay community that existed at the time. What impressed me most was the simple rules he chose to live by and even when alcohol and depression seemed to be getting the better of him, through family, friends, and his incredible love of all animals he was able to drag himself out of those dark days. The author’s undying faith in his God and his belief in the inherent goodness of others did much to sustain him in a world where he often felt unwanted and an outcast. The inclusion of many photos of Gene or Gina at all points of his life was an incredible bonus and allowed the reader to identify, empathize, and understand the author so much more. What the photos also show is that Gina was an incredibly attractive “woman” and it is easy to understand why he was mistaken for being a “real” woman on some occasions. Now 89 and living out his days in relatively poor health in an assisted living facility, Gene or Gina is able to look back on a life of some difficulty in which he made some poor decisions at times but one thing he always did was to stay true to himself and that indeed is the lesson we can all take from this memoir. God loves ALL his children, even the unusual ones, and the ones that don’t always conform to society’s conservative mores. This was an incredibly satisfying read and I can highly recommend it to all.