Transgender History in Colonial America

Many people in the United States are painfully unaware of the history of intersex, transgender, and non-binary people on this continent. However, people that have identified beyond the gender binary have always lived here and have always fought for their right to exist. The earliest civil document we have of someone that was non-binary comes to us from the 1620's, in the Jamestown Colony. Thomas(ine) Hall was an indentured servant in the colony and their case reached all the way to the Jamestown Quarter Court to investigate their gender and clothing choices.

Thomas(ine) was born in Newcastle, and christened Thomasine, Hall was raised as female and was taught many of the common skills of a good homemaker and became skilled in needle and lace work. Hall was sent to London at the age of 12 where they lived with an aunt, and would have come in contact with seeing the aristocrats cross gender fashion roles. Many historians believe this may have been the first point they began to experiment with breaking gender roles in their community.

By the 1620's Thomas(ine) began to adopt many typical masculine identified traits. They took on a “male” hairstyle, and also began dressing as a man and joined the military service for a time. After this Thomas(ine) returned to England, and adopted female fashion, and needlework. When they returned to England, they became aware of the new opportunities available in the colonies. Again, Thomas(ine) adopted the name Thomas, and male gender roles to come to the New World. Hall supported themselves by done bone lace and other needlework upon arrival, but later became a tobacco planter. Even during their time in Jamestown and Warrosquyoacke, they never were strict about their gender presentation. Some days Thomas(ine) would appear in typical female fashion, other times at work as a male.

This type of freedom caused intense communal stress. The founding of a colony can only exist in order. An order that needs to be mandated and enforced. Thomas(ine) historical records note did not care about how they presented, and was even known to have relationships with both men and women in the colony. What complicated matters even more was the rumor started in the colony that Thomas(ine) was having sexual relations as a woman, with women and engaging in homosexual acts.

By this time it is also important to note Hall was an indentured servant. Therefore their owner could determine how they must dress, and how they must act. The owner was responsible for helping to ease this disorder that Hall was reported responsible for creating. At this time, the owner allowed married women to exam them, to which, they could not determine if Hall was female or male. Thomas(ine)’s owner, John Atkins, had believed that Hall was female, but then also inspected them as well and then stated Hall was male. It was then that Atkins ordered Hall to wear only male clothing and to live as a male full time.

Atkins conferred with colonial leader Captain Nathanial Bass and had Bass confront Hall as well. During this interrogation Hall continued to state that they were both sexes. With this answer and other investigation and colonial beliefs about what made a man, “the power to procreate”, Hall was again deemed a female and acquitted of the rumors at the time. However, none of this would appease the early settlers and the rumors and investigation would move up the chain of courts.

In 1629 the investigation into Hall was presided over by the Quarter Court and Governor John Pott. As was the custom in Europe and England at the time, there should be a Christian investigation into the person’s gender and they would be forced to choose one gender to live as. However, due to the continual conflict over Hall, and the outrage of the colonizers at the time Hall’s case reached a new decision for the time. It was described by the court that Hall was correct. They were neither fully male, nor fully female. But the court did not allow Hall to choose a gender to live with in the colony. The court punished Hall for presenting as both and alternating their gender by being forced to at all times wear male attire with a female cap and apron. This was also to be a public form of ridicule for their acts.

Nothing more is noted about Hall. We do not know if they continued to live in the colonies or return to England. We also do not know how long the court order was enforced, and if indeed they stayed in Virginia if this was lived until death.

What we do know is this. Gender non-conformity has been debated on North American soil since the beginning of colonization. The colonist, largely Puritan and Catholic leaving Anglican England had a very strict gender and societal code. Hall, broke that conception, and as such was consistently attacked and ridiculed, and even the court and state enforced these attacks. These beliefs were further emboldened as the colonist fought against the third-gender beliefs, and practices of the indigenous people. As such to protect the colony the state must one, evangelize the natives, and protect their own. The history of the colonies is rife with attacks and murder on indigenous people as well for not accepting Christian tenets and breaking gender roles. Hall is one of the most notorious cases of gender and the state too. The history of what was done to Hall is even still felt today.

We know that many people in the conservative right have come from the history of the Puritans. These same religious beliefs enforce strict clothing, and roles for the gender, and they believe this helps protect the family, the state, and the faith from the same disorder claimed against Hall. These beliefs are given power because they have misled people for centuries, and continue to pop up when transgender people speak up for equality today. Hall was definitely intersex, and we know that even intersex bodies face society’s stigma today and many parents without their consent, or the child’s consent see these bodies mutilated because of misplaced beliefs. As we continue to move forward is important to call attention to the fact that transgender and non-binary people are not a new phenomena. We have always been here, we have also always fought for our right to express ourselves here on this North American land. When we read the unfortunate story of Thomas(ine) we must remember that we have a responsibility to reform this state, and it’s misled beliefs. Today when these new court orders pop up that seek to address how a trans student dresses at an elementary school, or a state seeks to bar the adoption rights of LGBT couples we must look back at Hall’s case and say we hold this state and this country to a higher standard. We are here, and we are valid. Hall was valid, and they should have had the fullness and protection to live their life as they best saw fit. As someone that was intersex, only Hall could tell you how they felt on a given day, and they were bold enough to live that, in an era full of religious and state conformity. To my non-binary, intersex, and trans people I would continue to implore you, keep fighting, and never give up.

We have a long history of tenacity. May we keep the fire burning until all are protected and valued.