Ornamental Separator

Standing on The Shoulders of Giants

Trials of Reclaiming LGBTQIA History

The theme of NYC Pride this year was ‘The Fight Continues’; honoring the work of those who came before, those currently fighting, and future generations who will continue to rise. While the LGBTQIA abbreviation is modern, the individuals represented by the letters are not. People of gender and sexual minorities have always existed. Yet LGBTQIA history is rather deliberately shrouded in mystery, leaving the Queer community seemingly untethered in time.

The rainbow is now used to represent the LGBTQIA community, but it was not used in the same way in the 18th-century. This image is simply a color wheel to show how artists and natural philosophers were studying nature and light to replicate the colors present in the world around them. (Ignaz Schiffermüller, Versuch eines Farbensystems (Vienna, 1772))

At Colonial Williamsburg, we know the power of history. The power of remembering and telling the stories of our ancestors. The solace and strength that can be found in witnessing another. Of reaching into the silencing gulf of the past and finding a name, a story, rubbed thinner and fainter with time and apathy. Breathing that name, that story into yourself and warming it with life. Pulling together disjointed facts and records to see beyond, to the ordinary glory of another human’s existence, imbued with the same sacred function and complexity as our own, then speaking that story into being once more. If a person is not dead until their name is spoken for the last time, then this is a revival. Acting as a resurrection for one forgotten. One that was deliberately silenced and buried. One that was desecrated and censored in an act of purposeful soul murder. There is a weight in being the only living person to hold a forgotten name. Never a burden but a charge. The obligation simple: speak it, share it, bring others to witness, and in the act of witnessing make it real once more.

LGBTQIA stories have long been ignored and untold, making the work of Colonial Williamsburg’s Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Committee so important. In the face of a history of suppression, this restoration of knowledge becomes an act of rebellion. Our motto at Colonial Williamsburg is ‘that the Future may learn from the Past’. Although we tend to focus on 18th-century Virginia, that statement does not have qualifiers. We consider it an ethical duty to learn the whole story, know the whole story, and tell the whole story, every time, no exceptions. Too often oppressed people are consigned to the chasm of forgotten history. It is an act of justice to say their names, if we can, and tell their stories. Our elders, who fought and dreamed our world into existence. As we set our eyes on the future let us ground our feet in the past, using our hands to uncover and uplift these ancestors who spoke us into being. While celebrating our progress, let us never forget that if we can see farther, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. May we honor them, may we raise them, may we become them.

The Massachusetts Gazette, April 15, 1771 ran this ad of Miss Betty Cooper who self liberated and appeared to self-identify publicly using a woman's name despite being enslaved as a man.
Mall, also called Moll, Cutpurse was a minor ‘celebrity’ in London. She was a criminal fence who was well known for dressing in men’s clothing. There was even a play written about her and performed in London during her lifetime called The Roaring Girl. Moll was written about throughout the 18th-century as her gender non-conforming behavior and clothing choices were widely discussed alongside her apparent celibacy. (Mary Frith alias Mall Cutpurse, Print, c. 1662-1800, From the New York Public Library, Digital Collections.)
Eighteenth Century Collections Online, The Sapphick Epistle was a short book written in 1771 about Anne Conway Damer, a sculptor who was well known for her romances with other women after the death of her husband. (Cavendish, Jack. A sapphick epistle, from Jack Cavendish to the Honourable and most beautiful Mrs D****. Sold by T. Southern, in St. James's-Street; and in Paternoster -Row, [1771].)

As we fight to honor this legacy with action there are many factors that inhibit us in our work, factors that have shaped the narrative for decades. From the lack of previous research, the lack of curation and access, to the lack of proper transcription and translation, the inherent biases present in the record, both modern and historic, predisposing the narrative towards the rich and powerful. Archival silences, both enforced and those proliferated through accidents of survival. Passive and active censorship that stretches centuries. In time, we will discuss all of these issues but for now let us focus on the first mentioned, the lack of research.

As apparent by the above images, 18th-century people were not unaware of those we would now call LGBTQIA. There are references in newspapers, in court cases, in prints, and more. Some of the most popular books of the time included instances of same sex relationships and LGBTQIA characters: The Female Husband, Fanny Hill, and Roderick Random to name a few. These books were sold here in Williamsburg with residents specifically looking for the illustrated and uncensored versions.

Here is an example of an illustrated and colored version of Fanny Hill, an incredibly popular erotic novel of the time. Fanny Hill’s first sexual partner is another woman in this book. (CLELAND, John (1709-1789). Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure. From the Original Corrected Edition. With a Set of Elegant Engravings. London: n.p., 1780, Christie’s 2014 Live Auction 10773, Highlights from the Erotica Library of Tony Fekete, Lot 57.)
This etching is from an illustrated edition of The Adventures of Roderick Random and features Captain Whiffle fainting. Captain Whiffle is a character that displayed many of the 18th-century stereotypes of a man who loved and slept with other men, he would likely now be identified as gay. He is a background but still noted character in the book. (Roderick Random's fellow surgeon's mate approaching their new captain for the post of surgeon while docked in Jamaica; the foppish Captain Whiffle has fainted due to Morgan's appearance and odour, his entourage try to revive him with smelling salts and lavender water. Etching by T. Rowlandson, 1793, after himself, after T. Smollett, c. 1750. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark.)

Even more telling are the clear references to ‘common knowledge.’ The assumption that the reader or viewer already knows about the topic being referenced give us insights into the beliefs of the time. While 18th-century sex and gender constructs are recognizable to modern eyes, they are by no means universal, and we must be cautious to not make assumptions while looking at the past. Being profoundly contextual, sex and gender constructs vary wildly throughout history. The ‘Hidden I’ in LGBTQIA is one that is particularly easy to document, as prior to modern medical erasure it wasn’t that hidden. The ‘I’ stands for Intersex, defined by the Intersex Society of North America as “a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.” Intersex births account for roughly 1.7 percent of births today making intersex people slightly more common than red heads. Because it is an umbrella classification the intersex term is used to encompass a wide range of body types. Intersex people can fall into every category of sex and gender, then and now, so any period discussion of intersex people gives great insight into the sex and gender constructs of the time. You can learn more about Intersex Virginian Thomas/ine Hall in a recent blog post here.

Part of a set of mythology playing cards this eight of diamonds refers to the Ancient Roman story of Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, whose bodies were combined to make one perfect man-woman figure, the origin of the word Hermaphrodite. Although it is offensive today Hermaphrodite is the historic English equivalent for the term intersex. You can see from this newspaper clipping in an article titled ‘Extract from the Talmud’ that Jewish thought at the time dictated that Adam was ‘a hermaphrodite’ prior to being split into Adam and Eve, as explained by several Rabbis. (Della Bella, Stefano (1610-1664), Print Playing Card, c. 1601-1700 From the New York Public Library “Extract from the Talmud.” Otsego Herald, I, no. 9, 1795, p. [4]. America's Historical Newspapers.)

Sex is a biological classification, modern day we would say male and female, determined by physical factors. Just like today, 18th-century medical and philosophical understanding of sex was widely debated. Existing prior to genetics and biology being fields of study, their theories were extremely observational and based on what could be seen with the naked eye. These understandings ranged from a single sex theory based on heat and moisture, similar to crocodiles, with women being viewed as underdeveloped men to a spectrum theory based on fetal placement in the womb resulting in a range of sexes going from male to female with five middle options. Gender, moreover, is a social construct typically described in terms of masculinity and femininity. That is to say, what it means to be a man and manly is entirely conditional on who, where, and when you are. In 18th-century Williamsburg, the Igbo, the Pamunkey, and the Scottish, all had their own version of manhood, which did not match the English dominant culture. That does not mean we cannot celebrate and connect with these historic people. We must simply understand them in their unique place, not just in the abstract.

Men wearing non-bifurcated lower garments is an example of something that our 18th-century English counterparts did not view as masculine but the Scottish, Pumunkey, and Igbo did. Pictured above are leaders of these or similar groups: Lord Dunmore our Virginia Governor in Highland (Scottish) Dress, Chief Opechancanough of the Pumunkey, and King Fourri of Akkra or what is modern day Ghana. John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1765, Oil on canvas, 238.1 x 146.2cm, National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh, Scotland, PG 2895. John Smith Taking King of Pumunkey Prisoner, Captain John Smith's General History of Virginia, 1624, etching, Robert Vaughan, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Fourri, Roi d’Akra, Pierre Duflos (1742-1816), engraving, New York Public Library - Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture / Photographs and Prints Division - Print collection. / Africa. / Africa - Nobility. / Tire de l' Histoire des Voyages.

To be clear, there is evidence and records of LGBTQIA history in abundance but much of it has never been studied or contextualized before. It has not been nicely organized, collated, and digitized. The background work needed to uncover and understand every story is tedious and even overwhelming. Hours in libraries scrolling through archives and records trying to trace people and accounts that have been ignored for literal centuries. Each answer inspiring more questions, more research yet to be done to fully understand. Once found, these records and stories are not always nice, clean, or easy; they can be full of violence, misery, and pain. But the power of witnessing, of honoring this legacy, demands that we look beyond this persecution and toil to the humans beneath. The task we have charged ourselves with is a monumental one, one that we work knowing we will never truly finish but rather hand down through the ages just as it was handed to us. With every story our Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Committee uncovers the more obvious the gaps in the historical narrative become, the overlooked stories yet to be voiced. Like a puzzle, the more pieces we slot into place the clearer the edges of pieces we have yet to find become.

This is a desertion ad in the 1775 New England Chronicle (also called the Essex Gazette) for a one Simeon Smith, who ran away from the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. You may notice that 18th-century English used a different alphabet and spelling than modern English. Most notably the long s. (“Advertisement.” New England Chronicle, or Essex Gazette, VIII, no. 380, 1775, p. [3]. America's Historical Newspapers.)
Here is a painting Ren made of what Simeon Smith may have looked like based off of that description, with the tools of his trade around him. This ad would have been used to give readers a visual picture of who Simeon was, a real person. While studying people of the past we always want to keep their humanity in mind and never reduce them to one aspect, action, or characteristic of themselves. Portrait of Simeon Smith, pencil and watercolor, Ren Tolson Copyright 2021: Ren Tolson All Rights Reserved.

Let us start at our beginning. Like most research, we began with a single document. A paragraph that sparked a question. The above ad is a desertion listing in the 1775 New England Chronicle for a one Simeon Smith. Desertion ads are advertisements posted in the newspaper to find soldiers who have deserted from the Army. They follow the same general rules as Runaway ads, which were advertisements placed in newspapers usually to track down enslaved men, women, and children that had self-liberated. They frequently make note of remarkable features, mannerisms, skills, and clothing of the person they are describing using common vernacular. To put it another way, terms used in a Runaway or Desertion ad need to be familiar, ones that most 18th-century readers would understand and recognize. Which brings us back to our Desertion ad, Simeon Smith had a “voice in the hermaphrodite fashion, the masculine rather predominant.” Hermaphrodite is the period word used for an intersex person. It is an offensive term today, but in the 18th-century it was the common expression used for people with reproductive or sexual anatomy that did not fit cleanly into male or female. In 1741, James Parsons writes how in the 17th and early 18th centuries, there was a common belief that there were three sexes: man, woman, and hermaphrodite, and Everard Home repeats the sentiment in 1799. The Virginia Gazette easily contains several uses of the word. Beyond being the period term for intersex people, a hermaphrodite was a type of ship and a type of horse in the 18th-century. The term was relatively well known, which given that intersex people are a normal if rare part of any population that have only been medically erased from common understanding and speech in the 20th century, makes sense.

A hermaphrodite brig would be called a brigantine in modern day American sailing vernacular. Joseph Cartwright, c.1789–1829, British, Single Hermaphrodite Brig, undated, Watercolor, with pen, in gray ink, gray wash and graphite on moderately thick, moderately textured, cream, wove paper, mounted on, moderately thick, smooth, beige, wove paper, Yale Center for British Art, Yale Art Gallery Collection, B1984.21.19
An ad in the Pennsylvania Gazette for a strayed or stolen horse, a hermaphrodite mare. A hermaphrodite mare is a type of intersex stallion frequently mistaken for a filly when young. (The Pennsylvania Gazette, May 28, 1777, Accessible Archives)

Most 18th-century people would have known what a ‘hermaphrodite voice’ sounded like as many would have met, known, or loved an intersex person in their lifetime. On January 10, 1784, an article ran about the death of an unnamed intersex man in London, a bellow mender by trade. It noted that the “uncommon shrillness of his voice so much attracted the attention of the late Dr. Hunter, that he was induced to doubt his sex…” It should be noticed that he did not doubt his gender. The bellows mender was a man. We will mention that not every intersex person has or had a ‘voice in the hermaphrodite fashion’. General Casimir Pulaski, the Polish General who fought in the American Revolutionary War, was also intersex. He was baptized and raised as a man, with his intersex identity not being revealed in life. His remains were recently identified as belonging both to him and as someone who was intersex using DNA evidence and forensic analysis.

General Casimir Pulaski is known as the Father of the American Cavalry. His remains have been identified as belonging both to him and as someone who was intersex. Most likely having Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, CAH, he was baptized as a boy and produced enough testosterone to have both a very nice mustache and male pattern baldness. Hand Colored Print of Casimir Pulaski, c. 1797-1888 From the New York Public Library.

Like General Pulaski, some intersex people lived their lives entirely unmolested and with their privacy and body autonomy intact. Others were discovered for a variety of reasons. Like Simeon Smith they might have a physical characteristic that was distinct and not hidden by clothing, their parents may have not known how to baptize them, puberty could have revealed their ‘dominate’ sex to be different to how they were raised, or they might have needed medical or legal assistance. Once revealed these individuals were noted, sometimes studied and recorded. Intersex people were a topic for books and treatises in the 18th-century, as physicians and other ‘learned men’ sought to understand their own bodies and other topics of natural philosophy. The same Mr. Hunter mentioned earlier as identifying the bellows mender as an intersex man by the sound of his voice, was cited in another medical treatise on Hermaphrodites published in 1799 for aiding an intersex man to “beget children” with his wife. The experiment was a success and the “impregnation was entirely the effect of the experiment.” (Home 1799)

Mr Francis Lewis’s obituary was cross posted in several Newspapers including the Baltimore Patriot shown above. Francis is remembered and spoken of kindly. (“Mortuary Notice.” Baltimore Patriot & Mercantile Advertiser., XXI, no. 23, 1823, p. [3]. )

Francis Deborah Lewis is documented in newspaper articles following his marriage and death, the events happening 60 years apart. He was born “bearing a similarity to both sexes” but was raised for the first 32 years of his life as Deborah before he “threw off that Garb, and assumed the Habit of a Man,” immediately marrying under the name “Deborah Francis Lewis”. Record of the unusual circumstances of his marriage were posted across the colonies in 1770, including in the Virginia Gazette. He died 61 years later at the age of 93 with “numerous descendants” and his family “always deserved and received the respect of those who knew it.” This is understandable as English common law specifically includes intersex people as inheritors and actors. A 1718 Treatise on Hermaphrodites that focused on Matrimony and the Law stated that “where there is nothing to hinder the amorous Action, but that they are capable of enjoying mutual Pleasure, it would be a piece of injustice to prohibit their Nuptials.” The Treatise, like many others, further speculates about sexuality as it relates to intersex people, giving insight into 18th-century views of sex and sexuality. Understanding these topics is important to understanding all people, as they are basic aspects of the human condition. With this insight that our background research into sex and gender constructs of the 18th-century provides, we are now armed with the tools to explore deeper.

“On a review of the historian’s page, we presently discover a blazon of blemishes, as well as beuties, in the charectors recorded.”

Fanny Davies 1786

We are still gathering our record of characters. Unearthing examples of every letter in the LGBTQIA name. Examples of each may be plenty but our understanding lags behind. This does not deter us. The path of history was laid long ago. As we find our way on it, our steps are filled with purpose. We are reclaiming names and stories every day, but this is just the beginning. With every new name and story uncovered we gain insight to explore deeper. Rooting ourselves more fully in our own history. These stories can be painful, but we do not find them to celebrate our pain. We find them to celebrate our resilience. Most people did not seek to make waves, yet the ripples of their lives can still be felt long after. The way they walked through the world leaves us thriving in the wake of their life. We delight in their names and stories. For by knowing that they existed, we can see ourselves in history. Because they were, we are. Having witnessed them, we can be: change makers, creators, leaders, healers, teachers and students, parents and spouses. We seek to remember, those named and unnamed. We seek to be remembered, known more perfectly to those around us. Inherent worth is not measured by visibility, but representation still matters. The awe filled power of witnessing, reaching across the vast expanse of time and space to connect with someone so like ourselves, can tell us in turn that we are seen. By sharing their stories, we bring others to witness and are ourselves witnessed. We emerge knowing better our own place in the world. If we could share a story with you, it would be the smell of coffee and the crinkle of paper. Tired eyes looking at faded text on glowing screens, searching for names, searching for souls longing to be witnessed.

Ren and Victoria Tolson are twins who both work for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in different capacities. Ren is an interpreter and has been with Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for five years. They have done research on a diverse number of subjects to better understand 18th-century life, including sex and gender construction, enslavement and body autonomy, medicine, midwifery, natural philosophy, watercolors, and much more. Victoria Tolson is an interpreter and storyteller who has been with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation for six years. She has worked in a variety of Historic Trades at Colonial Williamsburg and loves combining research with examining surviving material culture to better understand the context of the time. Whether or not they both are researching, they enjoy spending time with each other and live by the motto ‘womb to tomb’ when it comes to their twinship. They want to thank their supportive friends, family, and coworkers.

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