This month I’m doing something a little different. Instead of a long post about one person, I’m sharing a set of links about two different people. We don’t know how they would have identified themselves if they lived today. They might, if alive today, have thought of themselves as Kickass Women, or Kickass Men, or Kickass Nonbinary People, or, in Thomas(ine’s) case), a Kickass Intersex Person, or something different. What we do know is that they lived their lives beyond the gender expectations of their times. Together, these stories show just a few of the many ways that gender expression was thought of and experienced prior to the 20th Century.
TW: homophobia, transphobia, interphobia, prejudice against sex workers.
Thomas(ine) Hall was identified as female at birth around 1600 and was raised as a girl. They lived as a woman until they were about 24. At that time, they adopted male dress and the name ‘Thomas’ so that they could follow their brother into the army. When their tour was over, they resumed life as a woman for a time, making bone lace for a living. Eventually Thomas went to the colony of Virginia as an indentured servant. Initially Thomas dressed and worked as a man, then as a woman. When the community became confused, Thomasine was subjected to multiple invasive examinations that revealed them to be an intersex person. In a landmark court hearing in 1629, Thomas(ine) stated that they were “both man and woman.” The governor ruled that Thomas(ine) must wear men’s clothing with the addition of a woman’s cap and apron:
“…hee is a man and a woeman.” The court went on to order “that hee shall goe Clothed in mans apparell, only his head to bee attired in a Coyfe and Croscloth wth an Apron before him.”
Thomas(ine) vanishes from the historical record soon afterwards. You can find more about Thomas(ine) at Women and the American Story and Uncommon Wealth. Note: I used “they” as a pronoun because it seems to fit their circumstance, but that is not a pronoun that Thomas(ine) used. They alternated between ‘he’ and ‘her’ and ‘Thomas’ and ‘Thomasine’ depending on what presentation they were using at the time.
Mary Jones, born Peter Sewally, was an African-American person who was notable for being identified as male at birth but for appearing and testifying in court as a woman. They were born in 1836 and lived in New Orleans before coming to New York City, where they became a sex worker and a pickpocket. Not much is known about Mary’s life until Mary and a client, a White man named Robert Haslem, spent an evening together and the next day he realized that his wallet was gone. He charged Mary with theft.
Mary appeared at the court date in female attire and testified,testified “I am a man,” explaining that:
I have been in the practice of waiting upon Girls of ill fame and made up their Beds and received the Company at the door and received the money for Rooms &c and they induced me to dress in Women’s Clothes, saying I looked so much better in them and I have always attended parties among the people of my own Colour dressed in this way — and in New Orleans I always dressed in this way — .
Mary was subjected to ridicule in the court and in the press during the trial, in which Mary was sentenced to five years in prison. Following that sentence, Mary was arrested twice more, both times for soliciting sex from men while dressed as a woman.
In every record we have of Mary’s life, they are recorded as wearing female clothing. The concepts and words we use today didn’t exist during Mary’s life, and I don’t want to impose present-day concepts on someone whose recorded life amounts to scant details. What is certain is that Mary did not conform to gender norms, even when resisting those norms came at enormous personal cost. Today, Mary is increasingly honored as the first Black transwoman to appear in New York City’s records.
You can read more about Mary Jones at Outhistory.org and archives.nyc.
CW: abhorrent title for a lithograph of Mary Jones
This lithograph was popular at the time of the trial, sold cheaply. Despite the sensational title, Mary is portrayed as proper and demure, lending the picture any number of interpretations.
Thomas(ine) Hall and Mary Jones were very different people who lived hundreds of years apart. However, they are both examples of people whose existence has been often erased. They were poor. They spent much of their lives in female roles. They were physically different from the ruling classes – Thomas(ine) was an intersex person and Mary Jones was Black. However both left important records of their existence as people who did not conform to the gender norms of their time. While we cannot say for certain how they would have identified today, we do know that they lived their lives unapologetically despite intense pressure to conform and that they, along with many others, are proof that gender has never been binary.