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.
In 1856, Miss Lewis of Syracuse in New York state fell in love with Albert Guelph, a charming newcomer. After a brief courtship, they wed in an Episcopal church the same year. The bride’s father soon became suspicious of Guelph and called the police. Together, the policeman and the father interrogated and examined Guelph on the suspicion that Guelph was a woman disguised as a man. They arrested and imprisoned Guelph. Justice Durnford sentenced Guelph to 90 days imprisonment in the penitentiary for violating the vagrancy statute – a very vague ‘catch-all’ crime applied mostly to impoverished people for being poor, homeless, begging, drinking or simply existing in public spaces. Vagrancy laws were also invoked for minor social infractions against morals or order.
The Syracuse Daily Standard took great interest in the case and provided regular updates. When the judge asked Guelph directly: ‘Are you a male or female?’ Guelph refused to answer, instead deflecting the question back to the judge, stating ‘your officers can tell you’ or ‘have told you’. Neither Guelph nor their lawyer made any attempt to explain or justify the status of Guelph’s assigned sex or gender expression. Instead, the lawyer noted that there was no New York state law prohibiting ‘a person to dress in the attire of the opposite sex’. This was true. Guelph was soon released.
It was typical in such cases for people like Guelph to offer an explanation or excuse as to why they were presenting as male. As long as the accused spun a convincing tale, assured authorities that they were not threatening, and begged for forgiveness, they might be let go without further punishment or harassment. Those who worked as soldiers and fought in a war were the most sympathetic of such cases, as patriotism was deemed their core motivation. Others who were poor or alone and explained that presenting as male offered them safety while travelling and/or a higher wage than they could earn as women were also treated with a degree of compassion and understanding – provided that they were willing to change their clothes and resume moving through society as women. Guelph was different: they assumed male attire because they wanted to and because they could. They refused to offer any kind of explanation or justification – sympathetic or otherwise.
Female husbands in general were different from other groups who transed gender (such as soldiers or sailors) because they were in longterm committed relationships with women. Usually, these were legally binding marriages. This posed a much more dramatic threat to society, raising two different troubling possibilities: first, that female husbands were able to realise homosexual desire and participate in a same-sex relationship under the guise of a heterosexual one. This was a violation of both religious edicts and civil laws against sodomy. Second, female husbands threatened the notion that only those assigned male at birth could become men and enter into fulfilling sexual and romantic relationships with women. Whether husbands had strong identifications of themselves as people of masculine gender and/or same-sex desire was never clear. But it also didn’t matter because neither was welcome in society.
The judge advised Guelph to present as a woman in both clothing and manner. The newspaper reported that the judge:
expressed the hope that she would resume the habiliments of her sex, and when her term of sentence had expired conduct herself in such a manner as to win back the confidence and respect of community, which she had forfeited by her deception and imposition.
Guelph ignored the judge’s request, continued presenting in male attire, and reunited with their wife.
Early and mid-19th-century American legal authorities knew that gender could easily be changed. Gender was defined largely by one’s outward expression – chiefly indicated by hairstyle, clothing, physical deportment and particular habits. Men and women were easily distinguishable by these cues – which made it rather easy for someone to visibly trans gender. So when authorities found someone assigned female who was living as a man, they didn’t see it as something distinct or pathological. They didn’t think it signalled cross-gender identification to realise same-sex attraction. They believed that it could be ‘undone’ just as easily as it was ‘done’ in the first place.
Wilson gave in to the pressure temporarily by lying to the police. Guelph ignored and defied the authorities
This was something that Wilson, Guelph and others used to their advantage. When ordered to cease living as men and present as women instead, they didn’t argue that they couldn’t comply; nor did they explain why they wouldn’t. They didn’t claim that their gender was an expression of something deeper and innate. They had no language for the idea of gender identity – and there is no reason to believe it would have helped their case anyway. Gender was something one did – it wasn’t someone one was or a thing one had. The fleeting temporality of gender was liberating – and gave those who transed genders a variety of ways to wiggle out of trouble when authorities came calling. When views shifted at the turn of the 20th century to see gender transgression as something more innate and fixed, it had very negative consequences for female husbands.
Different language for talking and thinking about gender didn’t mean that there was no pressure to conform to dominant norms. Wilson gave in to the pressure temporarily by lying to the police. Guelph ignored and defied the authorities. Both resumed the lives they were living – as men with their wives – though perhaps more wary of and cautious around authorities.
Students have a myriad of reactions to this material. At first, they are wholly unimpressed. They have come of age in an era of transgender liberation. They identify as trans or nonbinary in astonishing numbers. Transgender issues, leaders and celebrities make headlines. They have embraced ‘they’ as an inclusive and powerful gender-neutral pronoun. They have no problem remembering and respecting each other’s pronouns while the over-50 crowd continues to stumble and offer excuses. When I share stories of trans figures from the past, they are happy to learn of such accounts but are generally nonplussed. They expect the past to be full of people who lived as they and their friends do now.
However, I am most surprised by the certainty with which they declare who was ‘really’ trans in the past and who merely transed gender for some ‘other’ reason. Female husbands such as Wilson, Guelph and Joseph Lobdell (of whom more later) were ‘really’ trans because we know they lived fully as men for a long portion of their lives. However, when I share news clippings of so-called ‘female soldiers’ or ‘female sailors’, students are quick to say that these people were not ‘really’ trans. When I ask why they think this, students offer two reasons: the soldiers and sailors were motivated by some other need (patriotism and/or poverty) or they didn’t live as men for very long. It is my job, of course, to help students unpack and contextualise these newspaper accounts so that they can read them with greater skepticism and eventually try to see them from a 19th-century perspective rather than through a 21st-century lens. I think one of the most powerful insights is the absence, for the most part, of a concept of ‘gender identity’ in the 19th century. Distinguishing ‘trans’ from ‘not-trans’ is futile and, in many ways, the least interesting route to approach this rich and varied material. What can we – in our ‘cisgender’ and ‘transgender’ 21st century – learn from an era when this distinction was murkier?
In 1854, the person who would later become Joseph Lobdell achieved local celebrity in Westerlo village, just outside Albany in New York state. Lobdell was the featured subject of a traveller’s chance encounter headlined ‘Extraordinary Performances of a Young Lady’, which ran in local papers such as The New York Observer, the Newport Mercury (Rhode Island), the Washington Sentinel (DC) and the Vermont Watchman and State Journal. It ran under other headlines too, such as ‘One of the Gals’ in the Daily True American (Trenton, New Jersey), ‘Good Girl’ in The Pittsfield Sun (Massachusetts) and ‘A Young Lady of Varied Accomplishments’ in Zion’s Advocate (Portland, Maine).
The article chronicled Lobdell’s mastery of all the labour and caretaking tasks expected of both men and women, from cooking, cleaning, entertaining and caring for their ill parents to chopping down wood and hunting. The traveller, a Mr Talmage, asked Lobdell about their shooting skills to which Lobdell reportedly:
smiled, and said she was as good a shot as was in the woods, and to convince me, she took out her hunting knife, and cut a ring four inches in diameter in a tree, with a small spot in the centre. Then stepping back 30 yards, and drawing up one of her pistols, put both balls inside the ring.
In contrast, Mr Talmage described Lobdell back at home later that evening:
After tea, she finished up her usual housework, and then sat down and commenced plying her needle in a very lady-like manner.
This recognition surely emboldened Lobdell’s confidence in their abilities. They were pretty sure they could do ‘men’s work’ and get ‘men’s wages’ and decided ‘to dress in men’s attire to seek labour’, leaving home soon after. Liberated from their family and the constraints of womanhood, for 25 years Lobdell moved in the world as a man, from New York to Pennsylvania to Minnesota and back again. They secured a variety of jobs along the way, and were sometimes driven out of town under suspicion that they were assigned female. This happened once in Pennsylvania when they worked as a singing teacher, and again in Minnesota where they were a jack-of-all-trades.
Relatives and neighbours began citing Lobdell’s gender and marriage to a woman as evidence of insanity
Lobdell wound up in the poor house in Delhi, New York state where they met their love – Marie Louise Perry – in 1860 or 1861, and partnered with her for nearly 20 years. In 1871, Lobdell and Perry’s relationship became national news when an Overseer of the Poor detailed his encounter with them in an article: ‘Joe Lobdell and Wife – Their History, &c’. Other news outlets picked up the story and ran related accounts. In 1871, The New York Times noted Lobdell’s masculinity and attributed it to their hard life, stating ‘the wild life she has led, and the hardships she has endured, have driven every feminine feature from her face’. The press understood Lobdell’s gender as something shaped by external forces – social and economic.
What led a person to this kind of life? Relatives and neighbours began citing Lobdell’s gender and marriage to a woman as evidence of their insanity. One neighbour declared Lobdell was insane because ‘she frequently claims that she is a man and has a wife’. In many cases of female husbands, members of their own community are more understanding and sympathetic towards them. Years, even decades, of being neighbours, friends or coworkers were not instantly undone upon learning about their unconventional gender. The most hostile and mean treatment often appears in the newspaper accounts from hundreds of miles away, written by people who never knew the person or pair. But the Lobdell situation is different. Here we see their neighbours and community members turning on them and describing them in the harshest possible light before a judge who held the power of life (freedom) and death (forced institutionalisation) over them. Whether at the behest of Lobdell’s brother John who really wanted them institutionalised or from their own negative experiences, the neighbours told the judge what he needed to hear to order Lobdell institutionalised against their will.
Accusations of insanity were never made at Wilson or Guelph, who were deemed deceitful, immoral and odd, but also resourceful, bold and even charming. Some of the ambiguity surrounding views of Wilson and Guelph came from the uncertainty of the source of their transgression. Were they motivated by the desire to move easily, from one country to another, as both did? Were they motivated by the desire for more lucrative work denied women? Were they escaping someone and/or chasing another? Were they lonely? Any number of explanations for why people assigned female at birth would trans gender and live as men were possible in the 19th century. Policemen were not overly concerned with questions of sex or sexuality. Though Wilson and Guelph, for example, were both female husbands legally married to women, the marriage itself was viewed as an expected component of manhood.
What distinguished Lobdell’s experience from the others? In 1880, Lobdell was institutionalised at the Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane in New York state by their brother, and subject to the gaze of a doctor studying sexuality. Though Lobdell’s chief social transgression was one of gender, doctors were obsessed with and wrote extensively about their sexuality. In the eyes of Dr P M Wise, Lobdell’s masculinity was compelled by their sexual attraction to women. Wise wrote:
Her excitement was of an erotic nature and her sexual inclination was perverted. In passing to the ward, she embraced the female attendant in a lewd manner.
Near the turn of the 20th century, sexologists focused intently on examining those who expressed same-sex desire. This entire process would have been torture for Lobdell on every imaginable level. Lobdell was comfortable outdoors, in the woods, experiencing peace and community among plants and animals. Now they were detained inside a single room within a gated institution. After a failed and abusive marriage, they found great love in Marie Louise Perry. But they were cut off from her – forced into isolation. Lobdell lived as a man for upwards of 25 years, and now they were subject to all manner of physical interrogation and emotional inspection – and treated like a woman. In 1900, Lobdell was transferred to the insane asylum at Binghamton, New York state, where they remained until their death in 1912.
The terms by which we understand sexual orientation and gender identity are products of history and culture
Doctors examined thousands of subjects over the years as they developed a theory that homosexuality was innate and marked by gender nonconformity. The key theory for understanding same-sex desire was through the lens of sexual inversion. For a woman or someone assigned female to actualise their desire for a woman, they had to invert their sense of self into that of a man. This logic was anchored in heteronormativity. It was widely circulated and very influential – if deeply flawed. Fundamentally, it didn’t account for the wide range of gender expressions among self-avowed homosexuals. While the theory’s explanatory power for same-sex desire was limited, it had a seriously restrictive and damaging impact on broader views of gender-nonconformity and transing gender. No longer was transing something fleeting that could as easily be ‘undone’ as it was ‘done’ in the first place. Rather, it was a sign of something innately different and pathologising about the person.
These days, some LGBTQ+ people take comfort in the idea that gender identity and sexual orientation are innate; that we couldn’t change them even if we wanted to; that we were ‘born this way’. I don’t know if they are innate. I don’t believe I was ‘born this way’. I do know that how I relate to and understand my sexual orientation and gender identity has changed over time. But I don’t believe that I can change one or the other on a dime just because I might want to – or in response to social pressure. How do I know if my gender identity and/or sexual orientation will remain static for the rest of my life? Maybe they will change as the world and the circumstances of my life change. I don’t know for certain – and I’m not sure why this is important to know.
If researching female husbands has taught me anything, it is how the very terms by which we understand sexual orientation and gender identity are products of history and culture. Even liberal and progressive people and institutions are not necessarily more accurate or ‘progressive’ in their understanding of gender than those who came before us. The philosophy that is now seen as the best defence against homophobic and transphobic efforts to deny us rights (that we were ‘born this way’) was itself born of forced, violent and dehumanising examinations by doctors on those incarcerated or otherwise institutionalised. This view was highly raced, classed and gendered, and essentially defined us as lesser people: abnormal, deviant and requiring institutionalisation.
Thus, this view cannot be our only avenue to LGBTQ+ liberation in the 21st century. Rather, female husbands and their wives remind us of another way. They fought for their gender expression and relationships on the basis of choice and desire. When they were in danger, they told authorities only what the authorities wanted to hear. With no organised movement fighting for their rights and no visible community offering support, female husbands and their wives took bold actions, defended themselves and fought for the right to live their lives in peace. They did that without claiming that they were ‘born this way’ as a defence of lives lived. They challenged laws and norms to live together and love each other without apology or understanding. May we all be so brave.