ON TO THE FOURTH WEEK OF GENDER MONTH!
Each week of this month I’m focusing on a different theme in relation to Queer/Trans/Intersex fabulousness. If you missed any of the last three weeks on NATURE, MULTICULTURAL AWARENESS, & INDIGENOUS HISTORY, check those posts out here.
WELCOME TO U.S. HISTORY WEEK!
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.
“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.’”
“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.”
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.
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
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.
“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.”
“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.
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.”
There’s also Charlie Parkhurst a notorious stagecoach driver in the Old West.
Once 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.
HERE ARE MORE LGBTQI2A+ PIONEERS FROM EARLY US HISTORY:
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, “one of the earliest transgender people in American history, although whether she was a gay crossdresser or a transsexual woman is not known.”
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.”
IMAGINE FOR A MOMENT…
Imagine everything you ever learned about the history of the United States included contributions made by queer/trans/intersex Americans. And it didn’t end there. Imagine that everything you learned was couched in the fact that these ancestors did it while facing complete erasure, some living in fear and secrecy, all of them stepping outside of social norms and trusting their own hearts and truth…you begin to sense the power and strength of their presence and take to heart that their contributions were not solely historical or social, but emotional, spiritual, hopeful and far reaching.
This is the power of queer/trans/intersex people in our society.
Imagine honoring queer/trans/intersex ancestors with statues, poems, songs, stories, books, even naming schools and buildings after them. Imagine our presence permeates everything, because it does.
WHAT IS COMMONLY TAUGHT AND THOUGHT
The impact of separatist Puritans establishing the first colonies and serving as the ground from which our democracy rose cannot be underestimated. Their beliefs, thinking and practices initiated the original culture for European Americans here.
Laws against same-sex love were proposed in 1636 and were repeatedly put on the books, reinforced and adjusted as colonization spread across the land. The first laws explicitly against cross-dressing began in 1696.
Trans activist and educator Susan Stryker created a chart that shows the spread of legalized homo/transphobia across America throughout the 1800s into the 1900s in the form of anti-cross-dressing laws in her book, Transgender History/ The Roots of Today’s Revolution.
Perhaps one of the lasting and strongest echoes of the past can be seen in our country’s development of what AN AMERICAN MAN is supposed to be. Most of the founding fathers were not the kind of people who could personally, aggressively colonize the country from the advanced civilizations of hundreds of tribes of indigenous people living here. An exaggerated stereotype of the MANLY MAN was concocted and fused with the idea of America. This MAN could.
In many ways, this ideal was the antithesis of the founding fathers’ kind of character and served as a socio-cultural tool to distance themselves from a refined English culture, while instigating a fighting work force among the common man. It is conjectured that the perpetuation of legislation against same-sex love and cross-dressing were in part necessary to maintain pressure and value of this MANLY MAN stereotype.
There is some evidence among queer scholars that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, all experienced same-sex attractions.
It’s important to remember at the beginning and development of the United States the kind of thinking and culture that were present, because it was within this frame that our society began to grow and express itself.
For early politicians, the two most important pieces to address in the American psyche were the need to justify and maintain the colonization of the Americas from advanced indigenous peoples, and the desire to separate and stand apart from old England. They had to create and hold a distinct and wholly American identity based on the kind of person necessary to colonize and dominate what they considered a wild territory. Plays, literature and lectures conjured and confirmed the MANLY MAN persona, with one of the main characters in the first American play named Colonel MANLY.
Historians like Moore and Bronski acknowledge not only the power/ privilege framework of Western colonization, but include the intrinsic need for a ‘scapegoat’ to maintain this kind of social structure. Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans and queer/trans/intersex people were among those considered dangerous and polluting to American society.
Medicine, education, social norms, economic and political structures, legal systems, personal liberty, equity and expression, EVERYTHING has been impacted by the kind of cultural environment that our country developed in regarding gender and sexuality. These two aspects of human expression and experience touch everyone in some way and consequently deeply affect personal thinking and being in a community.
When communities are scapegoated and marginalized because of gender and sexuality to maintain privilege and power, the very fabric of society becomes dependent on perpetuating negative perceptions of those communities. A patriarchal society born of aggressive and dominating colonization is predisposed if not specifically scaffolded with misogyny, homo/transphobia and racism. This served as fertile ground for the kind of government we are still negotiating as marginalized Americans to grow and spread.
On LGBTQI2S+ Community:
When communities are scapegoated and marginalized because of gender and sexuality to maintain privilege and power, the very fabric of society becomes dependent on perpetuating negative perceptions of those communities.
More importantly, in a homo/transphobic culture negative messages, not historical contributions are meant to be internalized by Americans, especially LGBTQIA2S+ ones. This perpetuates the physical, emotional, spiritual and mental trauma of real people being scapegoated in our society. It also clearly marks who it is appropriate to lash out at and not be punished.
BACK TO THE TRUTH and PRACTICAL, DAILY APPLICATION
I thought I was the only one, has been a common sentiment expressed by queer/trans/intersex people struggling with being a part of American society. Most of us grow up in isolation from the truth of our history or the presence of LGBTQIA2S+ people in our lives. That’s changing. But there’s more to do.
We must spread the truth that we have always been here. And not only have we been here, we have worked to expand and improve our society, and done so generally under great and direct stress.
We are courageous, tenacious, hopeful, strong and eternal. We will always be part of society because we have always existed. We are gorgeous and true. We are here. We are everywhere.
We simply ARE.
It is imperative that we and all Americans begin to internalize the truth of what is. Queer/trans/intersex people have contributed to the United States of America from the beginning. Despite being judged and scapegoated, we are an important and valuable part of society.
Here are 4 areas where you can put truth to action:
- 1. Think differently. When we begin to understand the development of our country, we can better understand where many of the cultural standards and stereotypes come from. The American necessity to be a MANLY MAN, mock effeminate men or masculine women, shun LGBTQIA2S+ people, scorn expansive thinking, and cling to systems that perpetuate privilege and power while scapegoating people for their gender and sexuality, these are all rooted in our past and the development of our country. And they still play out in our society today.
- Being able to see that our oppression is a tool to control society and perpetuate power-over dynamics is an important step. The more we can see through the lies and judgment and what purpose they serve/d, the more room there will be for the truth and for a renewed respect for queer/trans/intersex people in America.
- This is what we and all queer/trans/intersex should be internalizing. Truth. Presence. Power.
- 2. Speak truth. By acknowledging queer/trans/intersex people in US history alongside the popular figures our country focuses on, you begin to dismantle the silence and invisibility our community has endured since our country began. You bring our presence back into awareness. You begin to change history.
- The people are the ones who made the country–for better or for worse. And we, the people can heal our country from the damaging perspectives and dynamics that created it. It’s not enough to know history, we must also place it in real life, human context. We must include the heart, the body, the spirit, the mind of our ancestors. They were real people negotiating challenging lives because of who they are naturally. Allow the truth of your LGBTQIA2S+ experience to mingle with theirs. Infuse your stories with what it feels like to experience this kind of oppression. Engage your heart when you speak the truth. Allow your humanity to reflect back and bring greater emotional presence to our ancestors’ stories.
It’s not enough to know history, we must also place it in real life, human context.
- 3. Interrupt falsehoods. The compulsion to snap US history back to one that does not include queer/trans/intersex people and experience is powerful. Our marginalization is confirmed and enforced from many directions in American society. It takes concerted effort to dismantle our erasure with documentation, and even then our impact, importance and presence can be dismissed as meaningless or worse.
- You may find people, even yourself, protecting US history from being revisioned. But the truth is the truth. We have been part of America from the very beginning. Understanding history in relation to our experience changes the way all of US history is seen. And that’s exactly what we need. A change in perspective that includes everyone’s experience, especially those communities most marginalized, LGBTQIA2S+ Americans, African Americans and Native Americans and Mexican Americans.
- 4. Educate toward truth/children’s books and adult resources.
- Gender Now Coloring Book
- Download another coloring page from Gender Now – (1 page, 1MB)
- Gay and Lesbian History for Kids: The Century-Long Struggle for LGBT Rights
- Queer, There and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World (Young Adult)
- Quist LGBTQ History App (Young Adult)
- Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Dennis Rodman
- A Queer History of the United States
- Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A.
- Gender Now Coloring Book
Resources and References:
- Looking at internalized homophobia
- Looking at internalized transphobia
- Bullying linked to gender and sexuality often goes unchecked in schools
- Homosexuality in Puritan New England
- When cross-dressing was criminal: Book documents history of longtime San Francisco law
- “America is Queer” article by Michael Bronski
- Transgender History: The Roots of Today’s Revolution, by Susan Stryker, covers mid-twentieth century to today
Maya Gonzalez is a ferociously quirky queer femme with a deep love for daily drag and dress up. She’s also an artist, progressive educator and award-winning children’s book illustrator and author. She has been a close ally of the trans community for over 30 years and her partner is trans. Her work focuses on art and story as powerful tools of reclamation and transformation both personally and culturally. Currently her primary tool of activism is creating and publishing radical children’s books that tell the truth of who we are and what we can be. She invites grown-ups and kids alike to do the same through her online school and free kids program that teach a holistic approach to creating and publishing children’s books.