tags: gender, transgender, LGBTQ history
Jen Manion is associate professor of history at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Their books include Taking Back the Academy!: History of Activism, History as Activism (2004), co-edited with Jim Downs; Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America (2015); and Female Husbands: A Trans History (2020).
One summer night in 1836, police found George Wilson drunk on the street in the Lower East Side in New York City. An officer took Wilson to the station. The officer believed that Wilson was a sailor, and also suspected that Wilson might not have been a man. Wilson had been legally married to a woman for 15 years, and living and working as a man for even longer. They told the police that their masculine gender expression was a temporary disguise for safety and ease of travel while they pursued the man they loved who had abandoned them.
The best defence against a hostile police force was to emphasise heterosexual romance and minimise the significance of gender nonconformity in one’s life. The truth came to light, however, when Wilson’s wife stormed through the police station to retrieve her husband. In an interview, Elisabeth disclosed that 15 years earlier she was not at all disappointed when she learned of her husband’s sex, and that they were happily married. Like the policemen who detained and harassed George and Elisabeth, the journalists who would later report on the incident were derisive. But George and Elisabeth were released without formal charges.
Female husbands were people assigned female at birth who ‘transed’ gender, lived as men, and entered into legal marriages with women. The phrase ‘female husband’ was first used to describe such a person in 1746 by the British playwright and novelist Henry Fielding. It circulated for nearly 200 years before losing meaning in the early years of the 20th century. It was never a self-declared identity category. No one was known to walk up to someone and say: ‘Hello, my name is George Wilson and I’m a female husband.’ Rather, it was a term used by others – usually male writers, policemen, judges and doctors – in reference to people whose gender expression was different from their assigned sex. Far from being a recent or 21st-century phenomenon, people have chosen to trans gender throughout history. ‘Female husband’ was a label predominantly used to refer to white working-class people.
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