Whenever the subject of transgender identities comes up today, there is a tendency for conservative politicians – perhaps most of all in the United States – to trot out a particularly specious argument: that the idea of being trans is a “new” concept, a notion that “no one” in their right mind had heard of, or would entertain, in previous eras.
At its most extreme, this argument suggests that a peculiar concoction of things is to blame for our existence – from social media, indoctrination by well-paid gender studies professors, or even an excess of supposedly hormone-altering substances, like soy or arcane chemicals, in our diets. Non-binary identities particularly confound conservatives.
This, of course, is absurd, given the fact that people who defied gender norms in notable, consistent ways – and who might well have identified as transgender today – have existed throughout human history.
Consider, for example, that in the 18th century, a landlord in England realized, to her consternation, that one of her tenants, whom she had long assumed was a swashbuckling married man, might actually, at least in her eyes, be something else entirely.
“You are taken to be of a different sex from what you appear, and you know how prophane a thing it is for a woman to be a man,” the landlord declared, “for if you are a woman, you must be a woman, there is no help for it.”
Samuel Bundy, the subject of this jeremiad, tried to think up excuses and settled on an extraordinary solution: that they lacked “male” genitalia because a shark had devoured them on one of their voyages. “I owe this,” Bundy offered, “to a shark in the West Indies.” Whether or not the landlord believed this, it was too late. She had already informed others, and Bundy was arrested shortly thereafter.
Bundy – whose story is one of many documented in Female Husbands: A Trans History, a fascinating new book by Jen Manion – had been assigned female at birth, but, from a young age, enjoyed tales of women sailing the seas in the guise of men, and also liked alternating between male and female attire. Later, Bundy took on the identity of a man more fully, perhaps because this represented the easiest way to be granted passage as a sailor, and set off. Bundy romanced women at ports of call – an important way to convince the other male sailors of their virility – and eventually married a woman, while also seemingly offering their hand in marriage to 12 others, as well. When Bundy was incarcerated, the women lined up to visit. Bundy’s “official” wife refused to press charges, allowing them to go free.
What made Bundy particularly distinctive was their willingness to embrace their identity in both male and female terms, never settling entirely on one side of the century’s gender binary. “In contemporary terms,” Manion writes, “we might see their gender as non-binary.” Manion, unlike all too many previous scholars writing about long-dead figures who may have been transgender, accepts that it is not always possible to know a historical person’s gender identity, so when it seems uncertain, Manion uses gender-neutral terminology – a move at once politic and political, doing gender justice to historical figures whose identities are unclear or who may have genuinely wished to be spoken of in non-binary terms.
To the 18th-century press, however, the Bundy story was another lurid case of the “female husband”, a then popular term for someone assigned female at birth who presented as male and took a wife. For much of the century, newspapers and popular novels were filled with sensationalistic tales of similar lives. What made these stories stand out was how they crossed assumed borders of gender and sexuality. Queerness already defied the simplistic paradigm of who was drawn to whom, and narratives of people transing gender – Manion’s term – defied further still, suggesting that our bodies did not necessarily represent the destiny of our gender. Bodies, instead, were suddenly unruly, unpredictable, expansive – as, of course, they always had been, and remain.
Another such case was James Allen, a laborer in London who had married a housemaid, Abigail Naylor. In 1829, after Allen was fatally crushed by falling timber, the coroner’s examination of their body revealed that Allen had been assigned female at birth.
The coroner continued to use male pronouns when referring to Allen, even after the discovery. “I call the deceased a ‘he’, because I considered it impossible for him to be a woman, as he had a wife.” As Manion noted, the deaths of female husbands were so often newsworthy “because people wanted to know how someone assigned female at birth managed to go through life as a man”, as well as how their marriages to cisgender women had worked. In some cases, Manion speculates, the female husband’s wife might genuinely not have known what cisgender men’s bodies were “supposed” to look like, especially if she had been raised in a puritanical home, or their husband may have taken efforts to conceal their bodies, even during intercourse. In other cases, their wives may simply have accepted their bodies and identities as they were, embracing their queerness in secret.
Because of their journalistic popularity, some accounts of female husbands were transformed into biographies or even novels, like The Female Sailor, published in 1750, about “Hannah Snell, the female soldier, who went by the name of James Gray”. Some, like James Howe, were even covered on both sides of the Atlantic. Born into a poor family in 1732, Howe “lived as a man for over 30 years undetected, achieving wealth and the esteem of the local community of Polar, England, as the owner of the popular White Horse Tavern in London’s East End”, Manion tells us. Their identity was only revealed after they were blackmailed by an old classmate, who wanted to extract money out of them.
As Manion’s book emphasizes, these historical figures may not have used the terms transgender or non-binary, per se, but still understood themselves as people who transed gender, in some way, and wanted their partners, if not the world at large, to be able to accept them as such. While Manion’s book is only a narrow geographic snapshot of such figures, it underscores their prevalence in the past, as well as the still-radical notion that transgender people, like me, are worthy of love and respect.
This, then, is the larger point. Although the rights and recognition that transgender people increasingly enjoy may be fairly modern, our identities are not. Being transgender, like being queer more broadly, is no new invention; it is a fundamental sense of self. All humans have a gender identity, a sense of who they are in terms of gender; the only reason this term seems so braided to transgender people is that our sense of gender conflicts, in some way, with how others refer to us, to bodily expectations, or to both.
So often, conservative anti-trans rhetoric justifies its attacks on us by reducing our existence to a “trend” that will eventually vanish. But we won’t disappear because we have always been here, whether or not our lives made it into historical records, and we aren’t going anywhere but into the future.