UNION – The play as a vehicle for social discussion, gender and marriage equality!
Special thanks to the Oberon Theater company who produced this show in 2001.
Directed by Emily Tetzlaff with: Whitney Hamilton, Caroline Duncan, Rebecca Damon, Laurelle Rethke, Mark McGriff, Jane Shepherd, et al
If your church or theater group would like to do a staged reading or full performance of UNION please contact me. I only ask that donations be made to:
Native Americans and the Civil War
My Great-great-great grandfather fought with the ‘Bloody 6th’ North Carolina Cavalry from 1862-1865. He was 21 when the regiment was composed of men from Ashe south to Cherokee County, North Carolina where he was born. He was also half Cherokee. They fought at Ringgold, Resaca, GA and the bloody battle of Chickamauga as well as battles in North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. I’ve often heard family stories of Eastern Cherokee hiding in the mountains to avoid removal by the Federal Army. Some fought for the Confederacy in exchange for the promise to remain on ancestral land. Others fought to maintain peace in the mountains among neighbors which is what Thomas’ Legion of Cherokee soldiers did. Eventually my ancestors were forced to Oklahoma in 1880. Native Americans are completely left out of the history of the Civil War. Stand Watie was the last Confederate General of the Cherokee Brigade to surrender in June 1865. I have yet to see a story that illuminates the role the Cherokee and other tribes played during this conflict and how they helped their neighbors and friends in this historic crisis.
What is a “Two-Spirit”?
TWO-SPIRIT is a new term not universally accepted by all First Nations peoples. Traditionally there was no name or identification for the roles of gender-fluid people. They were accepted as the gender they identified with.
“Two-spirit individuals are viewed in some tribes as having two identities occupying one body. Their dress is usually a mixture of traditionally male and traditionally female articles, or they may dress as a man one day, and a woman on another.”
Third and fourth gender roles historically embodied by two-spirit people include performing work and wearing clothing associated with both men and women. Some tribes consider there to be at least four genders:
- masculine men
- feminine men
- masculine women
- feminine women.
The presence of male-bodied two-spirits “was a fundamental institution among most tribal peoples.” According to Will Roscoe, male-bodied and female-bodied two-spirits have been “documented in over 130 North America tribes, in every region of the continent.”
According to Sabine Lang many tribes have distinct gender and social roles. Some specific roles sometimes held by male assigned at birth two-spirits include:
- conveyors of oral traditions and songs (Yuki)
- foretellers of the future (Winnebago, Oglala Lakota)
- conferrers of lucky names on children or adults (Oglala Lakota, Tohono O’odham)
- potters (Zuni, Navajo, Tohono O’odham)
- matchmakers (Cheyenne, Omaha, Oglala Lakota)
- makers of feather regalia for dances (Maidu)
- special role players in the Sun Dance (Crow, Hidatsa, Oglala Lakota)
Born in 1806 to the Gros Ventres, at the tender age of 10, Pine Leaf was kidnapped by a raiding party of Crows at the age of 10 and was adopted by a Crow warrior who raised her among his people. She showed a disposition to assume traditionally male activities, and her foster father evidently encouraged her pursuits, as he had lost his sons to death or capture. She earned acclaim for her horse riding, marksmanship, and ability to field-dress a buffalo. However, unlike other Two-Spirits, she wore traditional female clothing rather than adopting men’s garments.
When her father died, she assumed leadership of his lodge. She gained renown as a warrior during a raid by the Blackfoot on a fort sheltering several families. She reportedly fought off multiple attackers and was instrumental in turning back the assault. She subsequently raised her own band of warriors and raided Blackfoot settlements, taking off many horses and scalps.
For her deeds, she was accepted to represent her lodge as bacheeítche (Chief) in the Council of Chiefs and was given the name Bíawacheeitchish, or “Woman Chief.” She eventually rose to the rank of third among the Council’s 160 lodges. She married four wives, which increased the wealth and prestige of her lodge. She became involved in peace negotiations with other Upper Missouri tribes following the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie and successfully negotiated peace with the Gros Ventres, the tribe of her birth. After several years of peace, she was ambushed and killed by a Gros Ventres party.
Western visitors who met the Woman Chief, including Edwin Denig and Rudolph Kurz, were fascinated with her. Typically, they considered her an exotic figure among the patriarchal Crow and likened her to the Amazons of European myth. Their accounts are now considered biased, though they provide valuable details about her life.
James Beckwourth wrote about a Crow warrior named Bar-chee-am-pe, or Pine Leaf, who may be the same person as the Woman Chief. Some details of Pine Leaf’s life match what is known of Woman Chief, though Beckwourth’s account appears to be greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fictional. Beckwourth claimed to have met Pine Leaf while living with the Crow in the 1820s.
He wrote that she was a formidable warrior who vowed to kill one hundred enemies before she would marry. He further claimed to have had a romantic relationship with her and to have proposed marriage. Among those challenging Beckwourth’s account was Bernard DeVoto, who wrote that Beckwourth is reliable save for three areas: numbers, romance, and his own importance.
Beside Woman Chief there were other known Warrior Women of the Crow Nation, including Akkeekaahuush (Comes Toward The Near Bank, c. 1810 – 1880) and Biliíche Héeleelash (Among The Willows, c. 1837 – 1912), the latter a prominent war leader.
Two Spirit: The Trials and Tribulations of Gender Identity in the 21st Century
Devin Etcitty, a 21-year-old from the Navajo nation, stood before a circle of 12 Native American students at Columbia University. He asked them to introduce themselves by name, tribal nation and preferred gender pronoun.
“She, her, hers,” said one. “But any are welcome.”
“I like the gender non-conformity,” said Etcitty.
Gender identity is a common topic on college campuses these days. But this group’s focus was unusual: how to cope as a Native American gay living off the reservation.
“Do gays here even have an indigenous experience?” Etcitty asked of these New York City newcomers.
Kyle Sebastian, 20, had an answer: “I went to a queer-based workshop, and said I identify as Two Spirit. Everyone looked at me confused.”
No one in Etcitty’s group looked confused, though. Each is grappling with the identity Sebastian named: Two Spirit, a term used in a number of Native American cultures to describe a third gender that is embraced by some non-heterosexuals.
In early Native American society, those who identified as Two Spirited were respected as spiritual leaders within the tribe. They dressed in both men’s and women’s clothing, and they often served special roles such as storytellers, counselors, and healers.
Two Spirit traditions were threatened, though, when Europeans colonized the Americas. The notion of a third, fluid, male-and-female gender conflicted with the colonizers’ heterosexual views, and in 1879, the U.S. government removed thousands of Two Spirited people from their tribes. They were sent to live in an Indian boarding school. Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was the flagship Indian boarding school in the United States from 1879 through 1918. Founded in 1879 by Captain Richard Henry Pratt under authority of the US federal government, Carlisle was the first federally funded off-reservation Indian boarding school, according to Dickinson College historical records in Pennsylvania.
Today, views of Two Spirits vary among the more than 800 tribes in the United States and Alaska. Depending on a community’s adherence to religious traditions, Two Spirits may be respected in one tribe but not recognized in another community. To find a sense of belonging, some Native Americans seek support in urban LGBT communities.
But those communities are not always comfortable, in part because Two Spirit history predates the LGBT movement, according to Harlan Pruden, founder of New York’s NorthEast Two Spirit Society. “We’re not reinventing, unlike the LGBT community. They’re creating rights based off the examples of the civil rights movement,” he said. “For us,” Pruden continued, “it’s this reclamation in which we were honored and celebrated before colonization.” Pruden further defined Two Spirit identity as a gender analysis as opposed to an LGBT sexual orientation analysis.
In Native American societies, an individual could come out as gay first, and then begin the Two Spirit “coming in” ceremonies. Urban LGBT communities have difficulty understanding this merging of tribal and gay identities, said Pruden, which is why he founded the Two Spirit society a decade ago. The organization seeks to educate the public about the Two Spirit tradition and to revive the ceremonial “coming in” process for people like Devin Etcitty.
Etcitty says his Navajo family accepted his gay identity when he came out to them at age 18. But the family followed Mormon religion, not Navajo tradition, and did not recognize him as Two Spirited. Etcitty was relieved they accepted him as gay, even though it went against their Mormon beliefs, so he hesitated to ask his family to recognize him as Two Spirit as well. “They are OK with me being gay, but knowing I’m not part of Mormon religion creates a barrier to full-acceptance,” he said. “They say, ‘sure, you’re gay, and it’s an experience,’ but they don’t think of me as gay in the traditional Two Spirit way.”
After coming out to his family at age 19, Etcitty moved from New Mexico to New York for college in 2011. He sought support in the city’s LGBT communities. But he still felt like an outsider.
“I was this exotic or mysterious ‘other’ because I’m Native,” Etcitty said. “I didn’t feel like we were really equal.”
Etcitty turned to a book, “Changing Ones: Third and Fourth Genders in Native North America,” for more understanding of what it meant to be both gay and Native American. The book told a traditional story, about a conflict between Navajo men and women. Two Spirit people – the third gender – resolved the dispute because of their ability to speak with both sides.
“I just felt this big load off my shoulders when I read about these people being respected,” said Etcitty, who described his feeling as “proud to be indigenous and gay.”
At Columbia, Etcitty organized discussion groups for Native American students to talk about identity challenges for Native American students on an Ivy League campus – including the challenge of explaining Two Spirits to non-Native Americans who have trouble with his dual identities.
“I’m either indigenous, or I’m queer,” said Etcitty. “Non-indigenous people tell me they didn’t think Natives still existed, much less could be gay. But it really shouldn’t be that complicated.”
When asked if he’s gay or Two Spirited, his shoulders tense up, and his face shows the inner confliction he feels. “Gender identity, for me, is why I want to reclaim being Two Spirited,” he said. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be in a relationship because I don’t know what it’s like to fully embrace, and be recognized, as Two Spirit. I don’t feel like I’m wanted. I don’t know if I’ll ever be happy. Maybe I will when I reach the Spirit World,” he said. The Spirit World refers to the Native American spiritual journey after death. And the need for understanding Native American gender identity is an urgent issue, Etcitty said. He continues to organize campus gatherings to help others reclaim their Two Spirit identity in an urban environment, a Native American identity few people are aware of.
Samantha Mesa-Miles, Yaqui/Chicana, is a multimedia storyteller reporting on critical issues through the lens of a culture and identity. Mesa-Miles currently studies at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Over 400 women fought disguised as men during the Civil War. This is one woman’s story and how she continued to live her life as a man even after the war. Given the opportunity of freedom and independence, Grace Kieler could no longer go back to the life she once had as a disenfranchised woman and victim of war. As Henry she could move through the society of the time without molestation and earn a living doing the work of a man. She could even go so far as to marry another woman and take a wife. Sara Emma Edmonds did and Pauline Cushman certainly had the chance as did Jennie Hodgers, historic women who defied convention and the social constriction of female life in Victorian society. With Virginia’s love, Grace (Henry) creates the life that she could only dream of and makes it real. Virginia, an unlikely heroine, also defies the social mores of the time entering into a “Boston Marriage” with another woman privately.
Home is where the heart is. It may be a person and even a place that holds emotional and spiritual value. The images of spirals in all their natural forms and the story of the fireflies illustrates that we come back life after life to those places that feel like home and the arms of the beloved to experience that deeply satisfying feeling of belonging and unconditional love.
Women Who Lived As Men
“I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.”
This quote by Virginia Woolfe, often misquoted as “For most of history, Anonymous was a woman,” is one that sticks in my mind.
History is full of interesting women, but their stories are seldom told. Take, for example, the collection of particularly interesting, utterly non-fictional and really quite common (but rarely reported) stories of women who lived as men. As an example, it’s said that Jeanne d’Arc wore men’s clothing and there is even a story of a woman who became Pope Joan (though many people now believe the story to be fictitious).
Women have successfully lived as men in various professions including soldiers, politicians, pirates, journalists and musicians. Some of these women’s stories are a relatively simple case of using a pseudonym in order to be taken seriously as a scholar, writer or some form of professional; some of the stories show women living as men in action and deed, not solely through the means of a name in print.
Women Writers Publishing As Men
Probably the most well-known example of women who pretended to be men is that of the woman writer – and there are many such instances. For example, George Eliot – the famous author – was really Mary Ann Evans and she choose to use a man’s pen name so her work would be taken seriously. The Bronte Sisters originally published their poems and novels under the male pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell.
The Bronte Sisters
While doing some research on women who lived as men, be it for short periods or for most of their life, I found a lot of interesting stories I wanted to share. Here are just some of them:
Brita Hagberg – Soldier
Brita Hagberg is one of two confirmed women to have been decorated for bravery in battle in Sweden before women were allowed into the military in the 20th century. When a surgeon discovered her to be a woman, she was discharged with a full military pension, and was also honoured with a full military funeral when she died in 1825.
Pope Joan – Maybe-Pope?
Pope Joan is believed by some to have been a female pontiff who reigned over the Roman Catholic Church for a short time in the mid-800s. Her existence has been dismissed by the church and modern scholars as a myth. This myth might be behind the alleged tradition throughout the medieval period where Popes were required to sit on a special chair with a hole in the seat. A cardinal would have the task of putting his hand up the hole to check whether the pope had testicles, or by doing a visual examination. This procedure has been dismissed by most historians but it makes for an interesting story.
Nadezhda Durova – Soldier
There are stories of women who pretended to men so they could go off to war and fight alongside the men during the way. Nadezhda Durova (1783–1866) was a woman who, while disguised as a man, became a decorated soldier in the Russian cavalry during the Napoleonic wars. She was the first known female officer in the Russian military.
Anne Bonny and Mary Read – Pirates
Along with Mary Read, Anne Bonny was an 18th century pirate who lived on the high seas as a man. Anne and Mary were loyal friends who kept each other’s identity secret but once they became pregnant there was no more hiding the fact they were cis women.
This last story is of interest for me not only because this woman pretended to be a man, putting herself in the most dangerous place at the time, but also because of her treatment once she was found to be a woman and how she was silenced.
Dorothy Lawrence – Reporter
Dorothy Lawrence (1896– 1964) was a reporter who posed as a man to join the army and report on the first world war:
“I’ll see what an ordinary English girl, without credentials or money can accomplish”
She travelled to France to volunteer as a nurse but was rejected and in a ballsy move she entered the war zone as a freelance war journalist but was arrested by the French Police. After sleeping rough that night, she realised the only way for her to get what she wanted was to masquerade as a man.
Dorothy talked a couple of soldiers into getting her a uniform and began the transformation to become Private Denis Smith of the 1st Bn, Leicestershire Regiment. Some padding was required and she darkened her skin with a disinfectant made from potassium permanganate, razored the pale skin of her cheeks in the hope of giving herself a shaving rash, and gave herself a shoe polish tan. Finally she asked her soldier friends to teach her how to drill and march.
She headed straight for the front lines. The toll of being in the trenches and hiding her true identity made Dorothy ill. After ten days she presented herself as Dorothy to the Sergeant, who immediately arrested her and she became a prisoner of war.
She was interrogated, with her questioners operating on the assumptiont that she was a sex worker rather than a reporter. The army were embarrassed that a woman had breached the ranks and were concerned more women would do the same. Dorothy was ordered to remain in France as it was feared she would spread intelligence. She was sworn to not reveal her experiences with the army or she would be jailed.
Once back in London she tried to write an article for The Wide World Magazine a London-based monthly magazin,e but she was denied on the instructions of the War Office, which invoked the 1914 Defence of the Realm Act to silence her.
“In making that promise I sacrificed the chance of earning by newspaper articles written on this escapade, as a girl compelled to earn her livelihood.”
Things got worse for Dorothy; she was later institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum. It’s a sad end to a brave tale.
Dorothy’s story later became part of an exhibition at the Imperial War Museum on women at war.
From assuming pen names or donning men’s clothes for safety while travelling right through to living a life as another gender, women have consistently refused to let gender and society dictate how a life may be live. These fascinating and brave women have stories to tell, and we will work together to share those tales on their behalf.THE SECRET HISTORY OF SAME SEX MARRIAGEBy Faramerz DabhoiwalaIllustration: Sarah Tanat-Jones at Handsome FrankFriday 23 January 2015 09.00 EST
What do you think of Stephen Fry getting married to Elliott Spencer? Did you see the pictures of Elton John and David Furnish’s wedding? Can you remember the name of Mary Cheney’s bride, or Jodie Foster’s? Just a few years ago, such questions would have been nonsensical. For same sex marriage seems a quintessentially 21st‑century phenomenon. As the US supreme court justice Samuel Alito exclaimed in 2013, before voting against it, it was surely “newer than cellphones or the internet”. He has a point. Even in the western world, most people have still never met a married homosexual couple.Its opponents decry the recent spread of gay marriage as political correctness gone mad. Its supporters, on the other hand, celebrate it as a sign of progress. Same-sex marriage was a very recent but welcome innovation, the American Historical Association has advised the supreme court. Equal marriage is unprecedented, the UK government agrees, but its introduction will make “our society fairer and more inclusive”. (Or, as Spencer’s elderly former neighbour put it when doorstepped by the Daily Mail: “Life is different now, you have to get with the times.”)So, everyone presumes that gay marriage is a novelty. Its explicit legalisation is, of course, new. During the 1970s and 80s, some gay activists in the US sued for the right to marry, and a few same-sex couples even managed to obtain valid licences and to wed. But it was not until the 1990s that the modern movement towards marital equality began to make headway anywhere, and only in 2000 did the Netherlands become the first jurisdiction in the world to sanction same-sex weddings.
Stephen Fry and Elliott Spencer.
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Stephen Fry and Elliott Spencer. Photograph: RexIt’s remarkable how quickly the tide is turning. The Irish government has decided that a national referendum to amend the constitution and permit same-sex marriage will take place in May. And last week, in a surprisingly rapid turnaround, the US supreme court announced that it, too, will revisit the issue. It is possible that, by June, same‑sex marriage will have become enshrined as a constitutional right. Even so, for now, it remains illegal in Northern Ireland, in several states in the US and across most of the world. The centuries-long stigmatisation and criminalisation of same-sex relations is far from over.
Yet this does not mean we cannot speak of homosexual marriages before the 21st century. Marriage is not just a legal creation. Despite the perennial efforts of rulers and priests to control and define matrimony, countless couples in the past simply married themselves, without formalities. As early as the 12th century, the Christian church codified the principle that the only thing required for an unbreakable wedlock was that a man and woman exchanged vows. There was no need for any priest, witnesses or ceremony. It was the couple themselves who made the marriage.
In 17th-century England, paupers were sometimes forcibly prevented from marrying: however, they often lived together as husband and wife. The same was true of enslaved men and women in the US before the civil war, who could not legally wed, and of interracial couples in many states until the later 20th century. Not until 1967 did the supreme court finally end such bigotry.
It is easy to think of other governments and institutions in which discriminatory laws have prevented heterosexual couples from formalising their unions – Nazi Germany, apartheid South Africa … the Church of England, and, of course, the British royal family. In the 1780s, George, Prince of Wales fell passionately in love with Maria Fitzherbert. In December 1785 they were married by one of his own chaplains, in front of several witnesses and with a certificate in the prince’s own hand to prove it. Yet though their union lasted many years, until after he became king in 1811 (and long after his arranged marriage to Caroline of Brunswick in 1795), it was technically illegal – because he was the heir to the throne and she was a Catholic.
Marguerite Radclyffe Hall (left), whose book The Well of Loneliness was originally banned in Britain for its sympathetic approach to homosexuality, with her partner Una Troubridge.
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Marguerite Radclyffe Hall (left), whose book The Well of Loneliness was originally banned in Britain for its sympathetic approach to homosexuality, with her partner Una Troubridge. Photograph: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Even after the Marriage Act of 1753 invalidated it in England, self-marriage remained a powerful idea. (Until nonconformist and civil weddings were legalised in 1836, some religious dissenters, too, continued the practice.) As the composer Samuel Wesley wrote angrily to his nagging mother in 1792, about his unsolemnised relationship with Charlotte Martin, “she is truly and properly my wife by all the laws of God and Nature … she can never be made more so … by a million of ceremonies, repeated myriads of times”. The future George IV took the same view when, ignoring his legal wife, he bequeathed everything he possessed to “Maria Fitzherbert, my wife, the wife of my heart and soul … such she is in the eyes of Heaven; was, is, and ever will be such in mine”.
In the US, informal marriage was even more widespread and generally accepted. Throughout the 19th and into the 20th century, most states upheld their citizens’ rights to nuptial freedom and privacy. If a man and woman lived together as husband and wife, that was enough – it was presumed that they were married.
So what about same-sex couples? When did they start thinking of themselves as married? And how were such unions viewed by the people around them? It turns out that same-sex marriage has a rather longer history than is usually thought.
Of course, it depends on what you mean by marriage. The history of many Native American, African and Asian cultures includes same-sex and transgender conjugal unions. But examples of formal religious ceremonies in which two men who love each other are solemnly wedded together for life can be found across Europe, throughout classical antiquity and until the end of the middle ages.
Such unions of sworn kinship or ritual brotherhood were entered into by kings and aristocrats, by comrades in arms, and by men in all sorts of other social contexts – in the 14th century, Chaucer described sworn brotherhood between merchants, monks, clerks, and even peasant farmers.
To “wed” another man in this way was to plight one’s troth, to covenant for life, to express the highest form of love that one person could for another. In that sense, as the classicist James Davidson has pointed out, such “same‑sex weddings are much closer to modern companionate marriages than the heir-centred, family-allying and often family-arranged marriages of former times”. In any deeply patriarchal culture, it was easy to presume that love between men was the noblest and most exquisite kind. It was the passion of David and Jonathan, of Achilles and Patroclus, and of countless popular ballads.
Yet beyond their testimony to centuries of publicly celebrated same-sex love, the precise meaning (and incidence) of such unions remains unclear. It seems most plausible to see them as a type of “voluntary kinship” – an intense form of ritualised male friendship, rather than an exclusive or sexual partnership. Wed-brotherhood did not imply cohabitation or sex (though in some cases, such as Edward II and Piers Gaveston, it might have); nor did it preclude heterosexual marriage.
The language used by King James I and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, was very similar. They addressed each other as loving father and son, and as men bound to each other as “gossips” (ie god-siblings, or godparents). Only once did James mix these metaphors of kinship with a conjugal ideal. “My only sweet and dear child,” he wrote in 1623 to Villiers, “I had rather live banished in any part of the Earth with you than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you.” He hoped “that we may make at Christmas a new marriage ever to be kept hereafter … God bless you, my sweet child and wife, and grant that ye may ever be a comfort to your dear dad and husband.”
Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby by an unknown artist c1810-23.
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Eleanor Charlotte Butler and Sarah Ponsonby by an unknown artist c1810-23. Illustration: courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery London
For all its emotional intensity, this was not the language of gay marriage but of a patriarchal ruler. Like other monarchs, James spoke easily of himself as the benevolent husband and father of his people, his kingdom and his parliament. Buckingham’s letters, on the other hand, invariably began “My dear dad and gossip”, and ended “Your majesty’s most humble slave and dog”. He loved James. He felt from him “more affection than between lovers in the best kind, man and wife”. But he could not conceive of really being married to anyone but his own wife.
This was easier to do in Renaissance Italy, where it was much more socially acceptable (though still illegal) for same-sex love to extend to sodomy. In 1497, the 22-year-old apothecary Carlo di Berardo d’Antonio was fined and banished from Florence for living with the dyer Michele di Bruno da Prulli (also fined), who had “for many, many years kept him as his wife and in place of a wife”, and had made him swear in church, on the Bible, “to remain faithful to Michele in this sodomitical vice”, using essentially the same ritual as a heterosexual wedding. Almost 100 years later, in Rome in 1578, a group of Portuguese men were burned at the stake for likewise “marrying each other and being joined together as husband and wife” openly in church.
More generally, though, and certainly in the English-speaking world, men did not tend to live together as conjugal couples. Passionate friendship and love between men took lots of different forms. But from James I to Oscar Wilde, and beyond, a man who loved other men was also quite likely to wed a woman and have children with her. If we conceive of marriage as the long-term, exclusive cohabitation and sexual union of two people, then, in the Christian west at least, few male couples would qualify before the dawn of the 20th century. In fact, for the last 400 years, the practice of same-sex marriage has been largely the preserve of women.
To begin with, this was a secretive and punishable matter. In medieval and Renaissance Europe, it was often not even possible for two women to live together independently: households were supposed to be headed by men. Yet we know of a few 16th-century cases of women who disguised themselves as men and lived in marriage with other women. After 1600, as the Dutch scholars Rudolf Dekker and Lotte van de Pol discovered, examples of such “female husbands” become much easier to find, especially in England, Germany and Holland.
In Amsterdam in 1641, the middle-aged widow Trijntje Barents fell in love with 27-year-old Hendrickje Lamberts. Some time into their affair, Hendrickje began to dress as a man. This improved their sex life, Barents later confessed – from then on, the younger woman “sometimes had carnal knowledge of her two or three times a night, just as her late husband had – yes, and sometimes more arduous than he”. They were a settled couple, who wished they could legally marry. Other Dutch couples did just that. In the 1680s, Cornelia Gerritse van Breugel disguised herself as a man in order to wed her long-time lover, Elisabeth Boleyn, in an Amsterdam church. They were only found out years later, when Cornelia tired of wearing men’s clothes.
Such cases were even more common in 18th-century England. In the early 1730s, when both were in their late teens, Mary East and her girlfriend decided to move to London and make a life together as husband and wife. Mary put on male clothes and turned herself into “James How”. The two of them became successful publicans and pillars of their East End community. Everyone presumed they were married. Over the years, James was elected to almost every parish office: s/he served as the foreman of juries, on the night watch, as overseer of the poor. For more than three decades, they kept their secret, and lived as a married couple.
Willa Cather. Willa Cather. Photograph: Bettmann/Corbis
It is impossible to tell how many other female husbands lived undetected with their wives. Quick, secret marriages were easy to contract in London until the 1753 act: there was a busy trade in no-questions-asked ceremonies in taverns, brothels, prisons and chapels. On 15 December 1734, a Soho couple calling themselves John Mountford and Mary Cooper decided to get hitched. The first clergyman they approached refused to do it. “Suspected 2 women”, he wrote in his notebook. But they would easily have been able to find another priest. A few years later, a London minister performed the wedding of Elizabeth Huthall and John Smith, “a little, short, fair, thin man, not above 5 foot”. Afterwards, he wrote “my clerk judged they were both women”, but they left as a legally married couple. “After marriage I almost could prove them both women,” runs yet another laconic cleric’s note, “the one was dressed as a man.” That pair, too, departed happily married. (Bishops and legislators take note: same-sex marriages have already taken place within the Church of England.)
Sometimes it seems that female husbands were what we would now call intersex or trans. Long before the modern transgender movement, individuals and communities grappled with the potential fluidity of sex and gender. After the Virginia settler Thomas Hall (who had grown up as Thomasine) was accused of fornication with a maid, a Jamestown court ordered in 1629 that he dress in a mixture of male and female clothing, because “he is a man and a woman”. Maria van Antwerpen (1719-1781) dressed and lived as a man for much of her life, repeatedly married other women and argued that “she was in appearance a woman, but in nature a man”, though anatomically she seems to have been entirely female.
Even where we can speak more straightforwardly of a “same-sex” relationship, the phenomenon of female husbands (which continued into the 19th and 20th centuries) raises obvious questions about the knowledge and complicity of the wives, families, friends and communities with whom they lived. It is fitting that the most sensitive interpreter of this fragmentary and opaque evidence, Emma Donoghue, is a brilliant novelist as well as a scholar. For, as she explored in her first book, Passions Between Women (Scarlet), almost nothing about these cases is clear-cut – except the inescapable fact that, even three or four centuries ago, it was not unheard of for two women to cohabit in marriage.
By the end of the 18th century, the world had changed. From this point on it became increasingly possible for women to live together openly in western society. The growth of cities, the expansion of domestic service, the development of textile trades and the spread of schooling for girls all created new opportunities for unmarried women to travel away from home, make a living and meet one another.
The 18th century also saw a revolution in ideas about male and female sexuality, which created a new cult of female friendship. In poetry, fiction and real life, innocent love between women came to be celebrated on an unprecedented scale – as an elevated and enduring passion, and a crucial support to courtship and marriage. The cultivation of intense same-sex relations became as important to middle- and upper-class womanhood as being a daughter, wife or mother.
This was the world into which Charity Bryant was born in 1777. She was the youngest child of a Massachusetts doctor – educated, spirited and constantly at odds with her crabby father and domineering stepmother. When she turned 20, they threw her out, and she became an itinerant schoolteacher. By the age of 23 she had decided she would never marry. “Such a thing will never take place,” she wrote to her sister-in-law, “thousands in the world may call me a fool but I do not feel that their different opinions would add to my internal felicity … I cannot form that connexion on the only principle which I think will be productive of happiness.”
Instead, she channelled her emotional energy into a succession of passionate attachments to other young women. For several years she kept up a secret correspondence, and spent as much time as possible, with Mercy Ford, who lived in a nearby village. “Comfort is alone with you,” Mercy wrote, “my dear how much I want to see you I cannot tell you”; “I shall come if ever I can run away in the night”; they should “take what we can git and be thankfull for it”. In 1805 their parents became alarmed and put a stop to it.
By that time, Charity had already met Lydia Richards, another peripatetic teacher, with whom she managed to cohabit intermittently at other people’s houses. “How sweet is mutual love,” Lydia exclaimed to Charity in 1802. “Oh that we might once more experience its sweets, clasped in each other’s arms.” Your head belongs “on my bosom, and at night you should repose in my arms!”.
A double portrait of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake surrounded by locks of their hair, c1820.
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A double portrait of Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake surrounded by locks of their hair, c1820. Photograph: courtesy of the collection of the Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, Vermont
In 1807, on the eve of turning 30, Charity made a new start. She moved to the tiny frontier town of Weybridge, in western Vermont, and set up as a seamstress. Here, she met Sylvia Drake, seven years her junior, the sister of a friend. Within a few months, she had rented a room of her own, hired the younger woman as her apprentice and urged her to move in as soon as possible. “I not only want you to come to assist me but I long to see you and enjoy your company and conversation,” she stressed. The very next day, she recalled decades later, using some telling underlining and crossings-out, Sylvia “consented to be my help-meet and came to be my companion in labor”.
The following year, the couple built themselves a single-roomed house and tailoring shop. Charity ordered a ring. They took the first of several trips back to Massachusetts, where Charity introduced her friends and relations to her new mate. “I need be under no apprehensions concerning your welfare while so dear and faithful a friend as Miss Drake is your constant companion,” her sister Anna wrote afterwards. Lydia Richards gave Sylvia her blessing as “the friend of your heart and partner of your cares … may you long be happy in each other”. “She is everything I could wish,” Sylvia wrote to her mother. Over the next 44 years, until Charity’s death in 1851, they never spent a night apart. “In their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life,” one of her nephews wrote in the New York Evening Post in 1843: their union was “no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage”. When Sylvia died in 1868, their families buried them together, under a joint headstone.
The past is unalterable. But what we see in it depends on our present preoccupations. Once you begin to look, similar couples can be found all over the place. Go to the tiny village of Northrepps, on the Norfolk coast, and you’ll see many public testaments to the union of Anna Gurney and Sarah Buxton, scholars, campaigners, educationists and philanthropists. From 1823 until Sarah’s death in 1839, the “cottage ladies” lived as a couple. They referred to each other as “my faithful and beloved Partner”, they were buried together in the family plot, and in their parish church they are commemorated forever as “Partners and chosen sisters knit together in the love of God”.
Or consider such power couples as Sarah Robinson and Barbara Montagu, Frances Power Cobbe and Mary Lloyd, and Willa Cather and Edith Lewis. These were women at the heart of 18th-, 19th- and early-20th-century intellectual society, the friends and colleagues of many of its leading writers and thinkers.
In the 1980s, the pioneering lesbian historian Lillian Faderman argued that such passionate female relationships should be called “romantic friendships”. Before the 20th century, she asserted, sex between women was largely unimaginable, even to those who lived and slept together. Like the “Ladies of Llangollen”, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who eloped together in 1778, shared a bed for more than 50 years, and referred to each other as “My sweet love” and “My better half”, female couples “were probably happy to be oblivious to their genitals”.
Yet more recent scholarship takes exactly the opposite view. Why should heterosexuality be presumed when a man and a woman share a bed, yet homosexual acts always have to be explicitly proven? Both in the past and the present, silence about sex can be willed or artificial: it doesn’t always imply an absence of knowledge or action. The pathbreaking publication by Helena Whitbread and Jill Liddington of the private writings of Anne Lister, the Yorkshire gentlewoman and lesbian rake, proved that at least some contemporaries of Bryant and Drake in England, France and Italy did feel themselves to be part of a subculture of women who loved, and had sex, with one another. And, as is increasingly recognised, Georgian and Victorian culture was as full of female as of male homoeroticism.
Now Bryant and Drake’s story has been reinterpreted accordingly. In a new book, Charity and Sylvia (OUP), Rachel Hope Cleves draws on family papers, diaries, memoirs and poems to reconstruct their lives much more fully than ever before, and to weave them into the larger history of the early American frontier. It is a triumph of painstaking research, and a moving love story.
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Anne Lister. Illustration: Calderdale MBC Museums/courtesy of Calderdale MBC Museums
No direct evidence about their physical relations survives, but Cleves has never met an innuendo she can’t exploit. Whenever a female poet describes a vale in a landscape, she must be alluding to pudenda. When Charity mislays something private at Mercy’s house, her biographer’s first thought is of a homemade dildo (“Charity could have used her sewing skills to construct one”). When a devout Christian confesses to being “a person of unclean lips”, the discussion inevitably turns to cunnilingus.
It is undoubtedly refreshing to have one’s presumptions of heterosexuality turned on their head. Yet the problem remains that many cohabiting romantic friendships surely were sexless by our standards, and self-consciously so. Among high-minded women (and men), the sublimation of physical urges was a virtue to be proud of, a pleasure in itself. The American abolitionist and feminist Mary Grew argued that her lifelong companionship with Margaret Burleigh was both “a closer union than that of most marriages”, and entirely chaste: “love is spiritual, only passion is sexual”. “I cannot help thinking that surely it was not platonic,” mused Lister after visiting the Ladies of Llangollen in 1822, but even she, with her exquisitely tuned gaydar, was unsure.
A more fruitful conclusion is that, just as there is more to love than sex, we ought to think of the sexual as encompassing more than genital intercourse. It is impossible not to notice the eroticism of intense same-sex friendships, or the many forms of bodily contact they legitimated, even between women (or men) who were not lovers: kisses, caresses, embraces, pressing heads against bosoms, lying and sleeping in each other’s arms. For Butler and Ponsonby, Bryant and Drake, and other female couples, nursing each other through illness was an especially common way of expressing physical love and devotion. Instead of the old dichotomies between friends and lovers, innocents and lesbians, acts and identities, the history of sexuality is increasingly concerned to explore what role the erotic played in different kinds of physical intimacy, personal relationships and emotional cultures.
How, then, should we describe Bryant and Drake’s relationship? Cleves’s argument is uncompromising. Even the family tree on her opening page baldly asserts that Charity and Sylvia’s relationship was identical to that of all the husbands and wives around them. Seldom can the single letter “m” have stood for such a large claim.
Contemporary examples of ritualised female marriage are not hard to find. Two of Lister’s long-term flames fantasised about marrying her in male disguise. A third, Marianna Belcombe, wed a much older widower for money in 1816 – but not before first exchanging wedding rings with Lister, and taking the sacrament with her to solemnise their union. In their minds, this was the real marriage: “she is my wife in honour & in love”, Lister declared. In 1825 they renewed their vows, taking clippings of each other’s pubic hair, kissing it and placing it in lockets “for us always to wear under our clothes in mutual remembrance”. In the early 1830s, having moved on, Lister proposed to a neighbouring landowner, Ann Walker. To mark their union, the couple exchanged rings and took communion together in church on Easter Sunday. Then they revised their wills, merged the management of their estates, and set up house together. This caused some public consternation, but Anne’s new wife was treated by her relations as “one of the family”.
In Bryant and Drake’s case, the evidence is more circumstantial and indirect. “I consider you both one, as man and wife are one,” Charity’s sister-in-law wrote to them in 1843. They lived as a couple, and were treated as one – both by those who approved and by those (like many of Sylvia’s relations) who did not. Is that enough? After all, marriage is as much a social as a sexual or legal creation. It is an arguable case, but also a potentially misleading one.
A memorial to Sarah-Maria Buxton and Anna Gurney in the Church of St Martin, Overstrand, Norfolk.
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A memorial to Sarah-Maria Buxton and Anna Gurney in the Church of St Martin, Overstrand, Norfolk. Photograph: Graham Turner/Guardian
For the biggest drawback in viewing this or any same-sex relationship in the past primarily as a marriage is that it marginalises other, now less familiar, ways that the couple and their friends thought of their union: as sisters in Christ, as intimate friends, as partners, as bosom companions. These were not lesser options, or mere euphemisms for marriage, but powerful, overlapping alternatives to it.
Nineteenth-century female couples often used the language of “husband” and “wife”. But the mother-daughter metaphor was even more popular, and there were many others. Women drew on a great variety of familial, religious, scientific and literary models to describe their unions.
Because it was a personal creation rather than an official status, same-sex marriage was always more tenuous but also more flexible than its heterosexual counterpart. It is striking how often same-sex couples eulogised their relationship as “better” or “more” or “closer” than ordinary marriage. The ability to see same-sex marriage in earlier centuries should not blind us to all the ways in which it was different from the heterosexual variety.
Homosexual marriage in the past was, therefore, not the same as in the present. But that is, of course, equally true of male-female unions. “Thank God!” exclaimed Sir Dudley Ryder, the attorney general, back in 1753, rejecting the idea that marriage was an immutable, divine institution, “we have in this age got the better of this, as well as of a great many other superstitious opinions.” You’d have thought that, by now, it would have been a dead and buried superstition.
In fact, the only historical constant about the definition of marriage is that it has always been contested. Two hundred years ago, marriage reform was an even more central political and social issue than it is today. After years of agitation, fundamental changes were made to the laws of divorce, marital property and women’s conjugal rights. Some radicals went further still, completely rejecting marriage as an oppressive, patriarchal institution: that, too, has always been a proud homosexual tradition.
A final great question was whether to permit multiple marriage. On both sides of the Atlantic, polygamy was seriously discussed, and put into practice, by the Mormons and other groups. That was why, in the 1850s, the English-speaking world’s leading philosopher of human rights, John Stuart Mill, chose to make it the culminating example of his great manifesto, On Liberty.
To Mill it was evident that Mormonism was, like all religion, “the product of palpable imposture”, and marriage in general was obviously unjust to women, so that, in fact, he himself abhorred polygamy. But that was irrelevant; it should be allowed. After all:
as it is useful that while mankind are imperfect there should be different opinions, so it is that there should be different experiments of living; that free scope should be given to varieties of character, short of injury to others; and that the worth of different modes of life should be proved practically, when anyone thinks fit to try them.
Human happiness and social progress depended on such freedom. It’s not a bad parallel for our modern debates on same-sex marriage. And let’s see how long it takes before polygamy is back on the agenda.
• Faramerz Dabhoiwala’s The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution is out in paperback from Penguin.
Questions of gender identity are nothing new. Way before Transparent and Chaz Bono and countless other popular culture stepping stones to where we are now regarding gender identity, there were accounts of “female husbands.”
Stories of women dressing and posing as men dot the journalistic landscape of 19th century America — and Great Britain — according to Sarah Nicolazzo, who teaches literary history at the University of California, San Diego.
Nicolazzo points to the late 18th century tale of Deborah Sampson, who called herself Robert Shurtlieff and fought in the American Revolution. There was a novel written about Sampson’s life, The Female Review by Herman Mann.
“This genre of narrative was already a popular one by the beginning of the 19th century,” Nicolazzo says. “Readers of newspapers, novels, pamphlets and other print forms clearly found this kind of story compelling, and there was a long history of demand for it.”
Consequently, she says, “the historical record we tend to have about these cases — newspaper reports or fictionalized accounts — are texts written for a literary marketplace. They can certainly give us hints about the lives of the people actually described in these accounts, but they’re also clearly written to meet the expectations of readers who are familiar with an established genre.”
And the manners and mores of polite society.
Sure enough there are common threads — such as abandonment and bravery — running through many of the narratives. Here are several of the tales:
* The remarkable case of James Walker, “a female who was found intoxicated in the street … dressed in man’s clothes,” appeared as a Journal of Commerce item in the Aug. 26, 1836, issue of the Maine Farmer and Journal of the Useful Arts.
James was arrested on a Friday night. The next morning, a “decently dressed woman called at the police office and asked to see James Walker, who she said was her husband.” The decently dressed woman was “informed of the discovery which had been made.” Though the decently dressed woman was permitted to see James Walker, she did not speak to James.
In front of a magistrate, James Walker said her real name was George Moore Wilson and that she was from England, where George was an acceptable name for a female. According to the report, she told the judge that “both her parents died when she was very young and that when she was 12 years old, in consequence of being ill-treated by her friends, she ran away from them, put on boy’s clothes and made her way to Scotland, the native place of her parents.”
Posing as a boy, Walker/Wilson worked in a factory for a few years, then married Miss Eliza Cummings. Together the newlyweds set sail for Quebec. “A few days after her marriage,” according to the report, Walker/Wilson “imparted the secret of her sex to her wife; but not withstanding this the two females have lived together ever since as man and wife. Fifteen years have passed since their union, during which it appears they experienced a great variety of fortune, but kept the secret of the husband’s sex so well that it never before transpired and remains even unknown to the wife’s father, who had resided some years with them.”
* The Spirit of the Times: A Chronicle of the Turf, Agriculture, Field Sports, Literature and the Stage — a New York weekly newspaper for the upper crust — reported in its edition of May 19, 1838, on a “female husband” whose wife declared that “she only found out the sex of her partner by accident three years ago. The parties had been married 17 years, and thus she had been in a happy state of ignorance just 14 out of that number.”
In witty commentary, the writer noted, “it is the first time, however, we have heard that married people find out the sex of each other by accident.”
* The picaresque tale of Lucy Ann Lobdell — “hermit, hunter, music teacher, female husband” — and her life up and down the Delaware River made the obituary page of the National Police Gazette on Oct. 25, 1879.
Born circa 1829 to a poor New York lumberman, Lucy Ann married a raftsman when she was 17. They had a child. A year later, the man disappeared. Lucy Ann sent her child to live with her parents and she started dressing as a man and for the next eight years “adopted the life of a hunter” — living in crude forest shelters and trading skins and game for supplies.
When the hardships of the hunter’s life became too much, Lucy Ann re-entered society, began dressing as a woman and wrote a book “detailing her adventures in the woods,” noting that she had killed 100 or so deer, 77 bears, one panther and a bunch of wildcats and foxes.
Eventually, though, she started dressing as a man again and calling herself Joseph Lobdell. She took a job teaching voice in Bethany, Pa., where a young female student fell in love with Joseph. “The two were engaged to be married,” the Gazette reported, “but the sex of the teacher was accidentally discovered and she was forced to fly from the place in the night to escape being tarred and feathered.”
While living in a poorhouse in Delhi, N.Y., she met Marie Louise Perry Wilson from Massachusetts, who had also been deserted by her husband. The two became quite affectionate. They left the poorhouse together and began appearing in small villages near Lake Ontario — introducing themselves as the Rev. Joseph Israel Lobdell and wife. They kept a pet bear on a leash. They were jailed for “vagrancy” and “the discovery that the supposed man was a woman was made.”
From then on, the couple wandered — sometimes living in caves. Joseph continued to preach. They were arrested again in Pennsylvania — for vagrancy. Using a split stick for a pen and pokeberry juice for ink, Marie Louise drafted a plea for release — based on the failing health of her husband. The two bought a farm in 1877, and Joseph (Lucy Ann) Lobdell died two years later.
So what do these stories tell us about life in earlier America?
History can be complex. Stephanie Coontz, who teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College and wrote the 2005 book Marriage, A History, explains that it was fairly simple to pull off a “self marriage” before the 1860s. “Marriages were supposed to be registered, but authorities seldom checked,” she says. “The idea was that if you acted like man and wife, you were assumed to be married.”
Lots of evidence exists, she says, “contrary to the idea that small communities are always judgmental, that your behavior as a neighbor was often more important to other community members than your behavior in your own home. So people often turned a blind eye to behaviors or dress that in later years might occasion more suspicion and hostility.”
She adds: “This is not to say that these communities were tolerant of open homosexuality.”
After the Civil War, the government became more stringent about the definition of a legal marriage, Coontz says. “But this was also the heyday of the doctrine of separate spheres and true womanhood, when women were assumed to be pure and asexual — and also completely different from men, who were often referred to as ‘the grosser sex.’ ”
These shifting attitudes toward marriage, Coontz says, “opened up a different way for two women to live together in what later came to be called ‘Boston marriages.’ Plus, it was considered perfectly normal for heterosexual women to have crushes on each other, to be very affectionate, and so forth. So, again, a pair of women who actually had a sexual relationship could easily manage to be together without arousing suspicion that it was anything more than feminine affection.”
The irony: “It was only after the sexual revolution of the early 20th century, when men and women were encouraged to explore their heterosexual attractions and sexuality began to be seen as a central part of one’s identity,” says Coontz, “that same-sex relationships and signs of affection began to be regarded with suspicion.”
When considering the gamut of “female husband” stories from 19th century America, Sarah Nicolazzo offers four possibilities to ponder. It is worth imagining, she says, that:
* Not every participant in these marriages considered anatomy to be the truth of gender.
* Some wives of “female husbands” thought of their spouses as women but used the vocabulary of heterosexual marriage in order to attain social legitimacy and financial independence for what we might today refer to as a lesbian relationship.
* Some wives of “female husbands” considered their spouses men. “We don’t have airtight evidence that all 19th century American women necessarily believed that social maleness required one particular anatomical arrangement, and without that evidence, we shouldn’t make assumptions.”
* Some wives of “female husbands” thought of their spouses as occupying another gender category — “perhaps one that is specific to the 19th century and might be harder to map onto our present-day vocabularies of gender.”
But isn’t it possible that in some cases a “female husband” and the wife never became physically intimate? “Sure, that’s certainly possible,” Nicolazzo says. “We certainly don’t have strong evidence otherwise. And it’s possible that some of them did — again, we don’t have strong evidence otherwise.”