History professor: Gender identity issues, prejudice go way back in U.S. history

Recently, UNC Pembroke Professor of History, LGBTQ equality advocate and occasional NC Policy Watch contributor, Dr. Charles Beem, sent us a fascinating essay about an early American who wrestled with profound issues of gender identity and the fear and prejudice that came with living in a colonial community under such circumstances. Among other things, Beem’s essay reminds us that there is very little new under the sun — including the fear and discrimination that our modern society visits on transgender people and others who fail to fit into neat and easy gender categories.

A history lesson in gender politics: The story of “T” and HB2
By Dr. Charles Beem

One of the most maddening things about the passage of HB2 was the fact that the conservative legislators who passed it and the governor who signed it into law neither consulted nor reached out to the LGBTQ community. But, of course, why should they? Nestled in the ivory tower of their supermajority during the most contentious election year since 1968, the transgender community is the lowest of low hanging fruit for conservatives out to halt the expansion of LGBTQ rights, as their fathers a generation ago worked hard to halt the progress of racial equality. As America makes great strides towards embracing the LGBTQ community, religious freedom and bathroom bills expose the bunker mentality of the conservative movement as it sinks to new lows.

Among the allies who live under the rainbow flag, the pace of acceptance is uneven. Today, as an out gay man, when I tell people that I was born gay, they usually believe me. But the transgender community and others who reject traditional definitions of gender do not yet enjoy such a level of acceptance.

In light of this reality, perhaps our conservative legislators (and a lot of other North Carolinians) could benefit from learning the story of “T,” the first recorded white person in colonial America to wrestle with profound issues of gender identity. I use the qualifier “white” because many Native American societies had long understood sexual identities as something much more fluid, and much more reflective of the actual feelings and desires of the peoples of their communities.

But in the early seventeenth century in the north of England, a child was born who exhibited the genitalia of a female, and was christened Thomasina. But after Thomasina went through puberty, her anatomy and reproductive organs developed in an ambiguous way, suggesting that “she” was what we would today describe as intersex or, perhaps, gender nonconforming.

When Thomasina was twelve, she moved to London, where she lived with an aunt, becoming proficient in sewing and needlework as well as lacemaking. She had a brother who served in the English army. When he died, Thomasina cut off her hair, assumed the name Thomas, and became a soldier in his place. Why she did this is far from clear, but it is possible, that Thomasina, or Thomas, identified as a man. When he returned from war in France to Plymouth, a southwestern seaport, Thomas once again became Thomasina, presumably because she could get work as a seamstress.

But Thomasina soon reverted back to Thomas, booking passage on a ship to Virginia where he could presumably reinvent himself as a man. To pay for this excursion, Thomas signed a contract to work for seven years as an indentured servant.  When he got there, Thomas – let’s use the neutral name “T” – embarked upon a remarkable odyssey in which he both struggled and, at times, thrived as a person of fluid gender.

Of course, in a tiny, close knit, frontier community like this, where everybody knew each other’s business, there were few secrets. Like the conservative politicians of today who passed HB2, this colonial community also demanded gender identity certainty.

Eventually, after being forced to endure both a forcible physical examination by a group of women and a court hearing in which T embraced a an ambiguous identity, the judge  took “T” at their word, and declared he/she was man and woman, and “sentenced” him/her to wear clothing that combined male and female apparel.

And so it was that, four centuries ago, T achieved a level of acceptance and recognition that the conservative lawmakers in Raleigh refuse to extend to the transgender gender-nonconforming North Carolinians in 2016. It would be helpful if the conservative legislators in Raleigh had as much concern for the plight of these individuals as they do for the supposed victims of the non-existent predators that formed the flimsiest justifications for the bathroom provisions of this law.

But, of course, little thought has been given to how transgender or intersex people comprehend going to the bathroom. Like the rest of us, they simply want to go to the bathroom and do their business quickly without drawing attention to themselves. But in the heightened state of awareness that the passage of HB2 has brought about, this has been made even more difficult. Because there are no provisions to enforce the bathroom policy, the enforcement of the law has been co-opted at the grassroots level, which makes it a form of vigilantism. The danger of violence and the reality of discrimination is very real to the transgender community, quite unlike the nonexistent victims of non-existent predators.

The bottom line: If the residents of colonial Virginia could ultimately accept T’s gender identity, it’s hard to imagine that 21st Century North Carolinians can’t to the same for tens of thousands of their fellow citizens and acknowledge that they are deserving of the full and equal protection of the laws.

Readers interested in a useful glossary of terms for their gender identity discussions should click here.

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