"All people are not heterosexual. Heterosexuality is not superior and is not the norm by which all other sexual orientation and gender identities are measured." --Burnaby, B.C. Schools Draft Policy #5.45

Monday, May 16, 2011

Seventeenth Century Transgender People

I've been looking for seventeenth century transgender people--in Colonial America--because that refutes the view commonly held by most American conservatives that America in the past was a place of pristine heterosexuality, until the 1960s came along and ruined it all.

Transgender history is also fascinating.  

It's not so easy to find source material online.  Most of the information is from seventeenth century county court records, but I can't find whole, searchable versions of these on the Internet.  

I understand it's not wise to assume that every cross-dressing person who appears in historical records was necessarily transgender.  This writer carefully describes alternative reasons why people may have cross-dressed in the past.

I think historians may be underestimating the continuity of human character across time periods.  They may also be underestimating the power of prejudice to force people to channel their feelings into acceptable roles, and the elaborate separate realities of deceit that sexual minorities have often had to create to keep ourselves beyond suspicion.  

Was the real purpose of the Massachusetts law against cross dressing to "preserve order and the social hierarchy", as one historian suggests?  Maybe from bird's eye view of anthropology it was, but in the minds of the people who enacted it at the time, isn't it more likely that they were just trying to stop cross dressing?  

Here's what I found so far (all of it is from Massachusetts):

1. In Haverhill, in 1652, Joseph Davis was convicted of putting on women's clothes.  Bodies in Doubt, An American History of Intersex, by Elizabeth Reis.

The following came from another source (at this website):

"From the History of Haverhill, p. 54 [a modern book quoting seventeenth century court records]: 'Whereas it doth appear that Joseph Davis of Haverhill was presented for putting on women's apparel and going from house to house in the night time with a female and whereas the said parties being removed from Haverhill into this jurisdiction, and being apprehended and brought into the Court of Strawberry Bank; the said Joseph Davis is judged to pay a fine of eight shillings and is also to make public acknowledgment of his fault on a lecture day, before the next Court, in default of which he shall forfeit forty shillings more.'"

2. In 1677, Dorothy Hoyt was convicted of wearing men's clothes.  Bodies in Doubt.
Someone posted a fuller version, drawn from the Essex County Court records, here. Dorothy apparently fled the county after she was charged.  Her father went to court for her and said that she had repented.  The court wanted "40s" (shillings?) from her father on the spot, or they would have Dorothy apprehended and whipped.

3. Mary Henly was in the Middlesex County Court, in 1692 charged with wearing men's clothing.  Bodies in Doubt.

4. Massachusetts adopted an anti-cross dressing law in 1696.  Bodies in Doubt.  (What law did they charge them under before that?)

5. This isn't related to transgender people, but it's just too awesome not to include.  A 1642 sentence from the Essex County Court:

"Elizabeth Johnson, servant to Mr. Jos. Yonge, [is] to be severely whipped and fined 5 li. [pounds] for unseemly practices betwixt her and another maid; also, for stubbornness to her mistress answering rudely and unmannerly; and also for stopping her ears with her hands when the Word of God was read..." (from Outhistory.org) (My emphasis.)

Go Elizabeth!


  1. Not homophobic, not heterosexist. People are born gay, that's ok. But being transgender isn't being gay. Being transgender reinforces pointless gender stereotypes by saying "I feel feminine therefore I have to be a woman" or vice versa. It's wrong, and none of these examples show the same thing. Wearing clothes of the other gender doesn't mean you identify as it.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      How are you? Thanks so much for reading my blog and taking the time to comment on it. I hope you and everyone else who reads my blog will always feel welcome here.

      I'd like to give you a thoughtful answer. Unfortunately, I can't do it today, as it's 9 p.m., and I just got back from work, and I have to get up at 4:30 tomorrow morning to go back in.

      I hope to give you a reply by this weekend, however, and I wanted to let you know that I didn't forget you.

      Thanks again for commenting. :)