Establishing a Holistic Gender Perspective

US History: Intro

5 Part Gender Series - Part 4: Early US History

WELCOME TO PART 4: U.S. HISTORY (1600s-1800s)!

In PART FOUR of the gender series we open our eyes to the history of the United States. While often invisible, suppressed, even illegal for being who we are, trans/queer/intersex people have been pushing American society forward and influencing it in surprising and often profound ways. This is a look back to the early days and development of our country.

This part focuses on early American history until the close of the 1800s. The contemporary queer/trans/intersex movement through the 1900s and up until our current time will be a separate section added later.

 

A PURITANICAL NEW WORLD BEGINS

What we call the United States of America began in the 1620s when separatist Puritans left England and began to colonize what they perceived to be ‘available land.’

Of those original settlers,

“…Thomas Morton broke from Plymouth Colony and founded Merrymount, which celebrated same-sex desire, atheism, and interracial marriage.”

In a fairly unusual act, when put on trial for his behaviors he was not executed, but instead sent back to England. The standard homo/transphobia embedded in Puritanical/patriarchal thought were at play but there was more to his expulsion than that.

It was Morton’s social egalitarianism, his openness to treating the Algonquians as relative equals, and his theological liberality that set him decisively apart from the Puritans. – from A Queer History of the United States

British historian, R.I. Moore on England’s society, “argues that a series of fundamental social changes—including the rapid growth of town and cities, broad changes in agricultural distribution networks, and a radical shift in how hierarchical power was distributed—created this new set of social classifications. Its purpose was to create clear social and cultural boundaries that would stabilize society by safely containing groups designated as dangerous pollutants. This fear of pollution was less about sex or death than about power and social standing.”

What Moore names the persecuting society seems to be at the heart of what Thomas Morton wrote about his experience with the Puritan community,

“Pollution fear…is the fear that the privileged feel of those at whose expense their privilege is enjoyed.”

Despite the progressive inclination of some colonies, the persecuting society persisted. Colonists continued their sexualized treatment of native people, sodomy laws proliferated, and the legal, economic, and cultural institution of slavery was introduced into the colonies. It is impossible to understand American history—including the position of LGBT people—without acknowledging the overwhelming, debilitating effect that slavery has had on this country. From the mid-seventeenth century, organized, profit-driven slavery influenced all aspects of American life. Slavery struck at the heart of the ideals of individualism, personal liberty, and equality that were present, in sophisticated and rudimentary forms, at the birth of the colonies. Slavery was integral to how the colonies, and later the Republic, continued to reconceptualize individual freedom, race, property, and the rights and responsibilities of the individual. – from A Queer History of the United States

And still queer/trans/intersex people persisted.

Homo/transphobia, intolerance for actions that lead to inclusion or equity, racism, severe social control of sexuality, presentation and personal expression, these are the hallmarks of the separatist Puritans that colonized the people and land of the future US. And still queer/trans/intersex people persisted.

Frontis portrait of Frederick Douglass from his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom
Frontis portrait of Frederick Douglass from his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom

To shed light on same-sex experiences of American slaves, author Charles Clifton suggests re-reading narratives written by former slaves. For instance, in The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, former slave Equiano discloses that, on his passage from Africa, a white co-voyager named Queen ‘messed with me on board’ and ‘became very attached to me, [saying that] he and I never should part.’ Equiano ‘grew very fond of’ another white companion. On many nights they laid ‘in each other’s bosoms.’

About his fellow slaves, Frederick Douglass writes in My Bondage and My Freedom, ‘No band of brothers could have been more loving.’ He leaves un-detailed his ‘long and intimate, though by no means friendly, relation’ with a former slave master. And he alludes to the ‘out-of-the-way places . . . where slavery . . . can, and does, develop all its malign and shocking characteristics . . . without apprehension or fear of exposure.’

– from Same-Sex Desire and the American Slave Narrative

“In the European mind, the non-gender-normative and non-sexually-normative body—however defined in each period and circumstance—was the dangerous body, the less-than-human body, even the disposable body. This wedding of draconian moral judgment to the need to separate and punish led to violence, particularly sexual violence, that was to shape attitudes in future centuries…In this view, the founding of modern society was predicated on the creation of minority groups whose only purpose was to be vilified as unclean and prosecuted for the illusion of a comprehensive sense of societal safety.”

– from A Queer History of the United States

Documentation clearly shows that we have always existed, even amongst the Puritans, and invisibility is relative to the time. Who is able to see us and how they frame us, dictates our ability to be seen by the larger society and how. Many queer/trans/intersex people and experiences were known in their lifetime, but attempts are often made to wash off any hint of queerness through the documentation process or the passage of time. There were also many queer/trans/intersex people who found it necessary to remain hidden and/or underground during their day for reasons of safety, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t known by at least some or someone.

America’s history is layered and to hone a queer eye it must be looked at from multiple angles to understand.

To better understand our history we must also bring in the shifting perspectives regarding gender and sexuality. Lines that separate transgender from homosexual experience were not as firmly defined in the past as they seem to be today. Some, especially privileged, effeminate men and masculine women could adhere to enough overall social standards of gender stereotypes to remain public. Often accused of being the ‘opposite sex,’ they still moved through society semi-openly. Lines of affection were also drawn differently in some periods, specifically the concept of romantic friendship in the 1800s, which often held in it queer/trans/intersex experience.

Judgment against queer/trans/intersex people often compels people to snap history back to a more controlled version where we magically disappear.

In painstakingly sifting for reference in old documents while understanding the nuance of the era and the current vernacular, a faint vision of a queer past comes into view. Legal documents, public records, news, journals, diaries, travel documents, etc… All this can validate our presence to some degree. But what can seem like cold, clear facts to us can easily be twisted and distorted to erase our presence. Judgment against queer/trans/intersex people often compels people to snap history back to a more controlled version where we magically disappear.

Wilkinson-Jemima-1752-1819
aka Publick Universal Friend, queer American preacher, woke from a near-death experience in 1776 with the sense of being neither male nor female.

Occasionally a treasure is found when a person from the past wrote down and expressed their experience clearly. The vast majority of queer/trans/intersex Americans traditionally led their ‘real’ lives outside of the publicly documented sphere. Just like today, life was made up of friends and lovers, home gatherings and holidays, work and play. Finding love songs between cowboys far from society’s eyes, or private letters between women never meant to be seen by anyone else, these are the documents that sing our song throughout time, but they are the hardest to find. Photographs that hold ‘the look’ or even boldly show affection are even better, but even more rare.

1775 PUBLICK UNIVERSAL FRIEND

One well known person in their time was Publick Universal Friend.

“Jemima Wilkinson (1752-1819) was a queer American preacher who woke from a near-death experience in 1776 with the sense of being neither male nor female. Adopting the name “Publick Universal Friend,” the preacher fought for gender equality and founded an important religious community.” “Wilkinson is recognized as the first American-born woman to found a religious group, but is also called a “transgender evangelist.” The breakaway Quaker preacher spoke against slavery and gave medical care to both sides in the Revolutionary War.”

1800s ROMANTIC FRIENDSHIP AND THE ARTS

Statue of Deborah Sampson at the Sharon Massachusetts Public Library.
Statue of Deborah Sampson at the Sharon Massachusetts Public Library.

Becoming aware of the expression of same-sex attraction and/or gender expansion beyond societal expectations in dominant literature is one of the most important ways that we can track our presence through the history of the US.

Queering our eye as we look back, we can sift through the voices that are undeniably queer. These are not just a few names, but many of the most influential names of the 1800s literati. Emerson, Thoreau, Alcott, Melville, Dickinson, Whitman, Stein, and more. Besides this queering of lit, women having male experiences in real life and popular literature held the public entranced and was in high demand during this time.

Real life:

Deborah Sampson is best known for disguising herself as a man to serve in the Continental Army from May 1782 to October 1783. She was also one of the first women to receive a pension for her military service and the first woman to go on a national lecture tour of the United States.

Fictional:

This is the first complete modern edition of The Female Marine, a fictional cross-dressing trilogy originally published between 1815 and 1818. Enormously popular among New England readers, the tale in various versions appeared in no fewer than nineteen editions over that brief four-year span.

WARS AND ECONOMIC BOOMS CHANGE EVERYTHING

Huge shifts in society, specifically wars and economic booms, create huge shifts in social structures, especially for marginalized communities. In a patriarchy like the US, this proved especially true for women, POC and queer/trans/intersex people.

The Civil War, expansion into the West, the Gold Rush all created possibilities for people to have different experiences, including passing as the other sex. While some frame it as a complicated, humorous, even unpleasant experience necessary for women to have access to greater freedom, a queer eye sees access to greater freedom of queer/trans/intersex expression.

This is one of the areas where erasure is easy and at times confusing to decipher especially when you read definitives like this from Wikipedia, “Women used cross-dressing to pass as men in order to live adventurous lives outside of the home, which were unlikely to occur while living as women. Women who engaged in cross-dressing in earlier centuries were lower class women who would gain access to economic independence as well as freedom to travel risking little of what they had. Cross-dressing that consisted of women dressing as men had more positive attitudes than vice versa; Altenburger states that female to male cross-dressing depicted a movement forward in terms of social status, power, and freedom. Men who cross-dressed were looked down upon because they automatically lost status when dressed as a woman. It was also said that men would cross-dress to gain access around women for their own sexual desire.”

We can’t know how some people would identify if magically transported to our current time and given the options of LGBTQIA2S+. A personal measure I used to use, but no longer, is whether someone retains their trans identity beyond the time that seems necessary for an experience. We cannot know from this time and perspective what circumstances people were living under that may have influenced their identity and presentation.

US History and Gender

Here’s Albert Cashier. They began dressing male as a young person and continued as long as they had the power to do so.

“Reactions to Cashier himself were actually fairly positive. For the majority of his life, no one actually knew of his secret and those that found out were very supportive. When Cashier was under investigation for committing fraud, “His comrades from the 95th Illinois rallied and testified that this was not Jenny Hodgers but Albert Cashier, a small but brave soldier”. They also defended him when he was forced to wear a dress at the very end of his life. The senator who ran into him with his car agreed to keep his identity a secret, as did the physician. Interestingly, one soldier claimed that when they were in the army, they called Cashier “half and half.” At this point the meaning they intended is lost, but it certainly suggests that they knew something was different about him.”

“Returning back to civilian life, he chose to remain living as ‘Albert Cashier’ and performed civilian jobs such as street lamplighter and farmhand. While performing a job for Illinois State Senator Ira Lish, Cashier was hit by a car driven by the Senator. His leg was broken. The doctor who examined Cashier’s leg then discovered his secret, but “moved by Albert’s pleas, the doctor agreed to maintain his confidence”. At this point, it was decided that Cashier should move to the Quincy, Illinois, Soldiers and Sailors Home. In 1913, due to dementia, Cashier was moved to a state hospital for the insane. It was there that his sex was again discovered and he was forced to wear a dress. This was ultimately what led to his demise as he, wanting to remain comfortable, pinned his skirt in order to attempt to make pants, that he was accustomed to wearing. He tripped and fell, breaking his hip, which led to an infection that ultimately took his life. Albert Cashier passed away on October 10, 1915, and was buried in his full military uniform.”

– from OutHistory.org, Challenging Gender Boundaries

There’s also Charlie Parkhurst a notorious stagecoach driver in the Old West.

One Eyed Charley by Maya GonzalezOnce in winter, when the rain was coming down in sheets, as it had been for three days past, and the coach was laboring along through mud almost to hubs, Parkhurst was hailed by a stray wayfarer and told that the bridge across the Tuolumne river was in a shaky condition, and that it would not be wise to risk driving over it. Parkhurst answered never a word, but gathering up the lines with one hand, he cut the swings and wheelers across the haunches with the other, and pushed on. Soon the swollen stream came in sight. It was swashing and roaring like a mill-race. The bridge was next seen, and Parkhurst, clearing the rain from his eyes, perceived that in a very short time there would no longer be any bridge, for it was already shaking on its foundation. The solitary passenger begged of Parkhurst not to venture on the creaking structure, but Charley, setting his teeth together, and gathering the reins in a firm grip, sent the long whip-lash curling about the leaders ears and eyes, with so vicious a swing that giving a wild leap, they plunged forward on to the bridge. The planks trembled under the horses’ hoofs and rocked beneath the wheels. But with a final effort, a cheering cry from Parkhurst and a flying lash, the opposite shore was gained in safety; gained only just in time, though, for looking back at the turn of the road the further end of the bridge was seen to sway in the stream.

This account from The Wisconsin State Register gives a clear example of the reputation Charley carried. But, even more than being fearless of the journey’s difficulties, Charley is also attributed to being fearless of road-agents (bandits).

One danger for stage coach drivers was the possibility of robbery or murder. Similar to pirates taking over cargo ships, there were always road-agents willing to shoot and kill for money or loot the coach carried. After being robbed once in California, Charley is said to have invited a second attempt. It eventually came on a trip between Stockton and Mariposa where he shot an infamous road-agent named nicknamed Sugar Foot after he attempted to loot Charley’s coach at gunpoint. Due to incidents like this he gained a reputation of being a reliable carriage driver. He would even take on double duty; this meant not only would Charley drive the carriage but also keep his eye on the “treasure box” (the valuable material of the coach) night and day and receiving double the compensation. His roughness was further expressed by his nickname, “One Eyed Charley”, which came later, due to being kicked in the face by a horse and losing vision in the left eye. His career in stage-driving lasted twelve years ending around 1864. This is a highly laborious and skilled job for anyone to take on for twelve years.

– from OutHistory.org, Challenging Gender Boundaries

HERE ARE MORE LGBTQI2A+ PIONEERS FROM EARLY US HISTORY:

 

mary-walker
Mary Walker

Mary Walker, “commonly referred to as Dr. Mary Walker, was an American abolitionist, prohibitionist, prisoner of war and Civil War surgeon. She was the first and only woman to ever receive the Medal of Honor.”

Mary Jones
Mary Jones

Mary Jones, “one of the earliest transgender people in American history, although whether she was a gay crossdresser or a transsexual woman is not known.”

A depiction of the Memphis Riots

Frances Thompson, “was most likely the first trans person to testify before a congressional committee in the US. In 1866 she testified before a committee investigating a riot that had occurred in Memphis, Tennessee.”