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By His Work Shall You Know Him

Monday, August 2, 2021 - 07:00

In this chapter, Manion touches on--but doesn't fully explore--a couple of key differences between the trans-masculine experience in England and in America. English social structures around marriage, employment, charitable support, and rights to residence were deeply embedded in an assumption of static location. The parish you were born into was obliged to support you if you were indigent, which meant other parishes could be hostile to if they felt you might be (or become) a burden. Marriage laws were in a state of flux, but relied on communal familiarity with the couple's history to validate their status (reading the banns). But in America, everyone was on the move and many were very recent arrivals to the continent, to say nothing of a particular community. Changing one's presented identity in any respect was easier. And if people were not always automatically taken at face value when they showed up in a community, the residents were often willing to let their deeds and work speak for them. You were what you could do, whether it was a specific occupation or a gender. Americans also seemed a bit more willing to shrug and accept the situation when it turned out someone had a different background than originally believed. But in contrast to all that, the increasing professionalization of the police force, and social suspicion of "others", whether along class, nationality, race, or religious boundaries, meant that official scrutiny was often turned on the details of someone's life if they were morally suspect, not simply if they were legally suspect. This legal interest in controling gender presentation would increase across the 19th century and well into the 20th.

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Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

Part Two: US Husbands, 1830-1910 - Chapter 5: The Workers

While the first half of Manion's book focuses primarily on female husbands in England, the second half moves across the ocean to the United States. People who transed gender in 19th century America for economic reasons operated not only within the binary of male and female, but within a racial context that largely categorized work along racial lines. The white male worker had the best economic opportunities, but the frequency with which people assigned female could trans gender to access those opportunities undermined the theory of a clear gender divide, and highlighted the opportunities for those who were willing to trade female gender presentation for economic access.

One of the greatest contrasts with the situation in England was easy geographic mobility. Mobility made transing gender easier, and economic motivations tended to be taken at face value at discovery, especially in contrast to the usual alternative of sex work.

The one context in which transing gender as part of identity change was looked askance was for Black workers who were suspected of using gender change as a disguise when escaping slavery. Black mobility was more constrained even in the North or after Emancipation, so several of the advantages to white gender-crossers were eliminated.

This chapter also focuses on the increasing importance of a professional police force to the identification, pursuit, and management of gender transgression.

The first focus biography in this chapter is George Wilson, a factory worker who was accosted by the New York City police in 1836 for apparent public intoxication, in the course of which Wilson’s assigned gender was identified. Wilson presented a life history that was significantly fabricated and designed to elicit sympathy, but which was undermined somewhat when Wilson’s wife Elizabeth turned up at the station, willing to provide further details.

The couple were both from working class Scottish families and had likely met in Glasgow when Wilson was working in the same factory as Elizabeth’s father.  They married in 1821 and emigrated to North America, settling first in Canada where they were joined by Elizabeth’s father, and then the whole family moved to New Jersey where father and son-in-law again worked in the same factory. When that factory went out of business, they moved to NYC where Wilson worked in a hat factory. Manion speculates that Elizabeth may have been a factory worker as well, though no specific evidence is given.

At the police station, Elizabeth’s goal was to gain Wilson’s freedom, as his continued employment was essential for the family’s financial security. The magistrate’s goal was to satisfy his curiosity about Wilson’s personal history. Elizabeth stated that she hadn’t known her husband’s assigned gender before the wedding, but Wilson told her afterward while they were in the middle of the voyage to America—a context that would have reduced her options for response. She reported that she accepted the situation and was content to continue as husband and wife. And certainly, after they were joined by her father, her options would have been somewhat wider if she had objected.

Several versions of Wilson’s history prior to the marriage were offered, but all revolved around the desire to leave an undesirable family situation around age 12 and taking up life as a boy in the context of leaving home.

The consideration of George and Elizabeth Wilson's fate leaves off without any resolution and the thread picks up with other examples of transing gender, particularly as sailors (which Wilson was originally thought to be by the arresting officer). Accounts of “female sailors” were common in American newspapers of the time, even as they were growing less common in British accounts. Their stories were popular tabloid fare and some related that it was other such accounts, or biographies like Deborah Sampson’s, that inspired them to take up the profession.

Although nautical jobs were more open to Black workers than many other professions, the treatment of Charles Wilson in the press shows that the journalistic category “female sailor” was inherently categorized as white. Charles Wilson was variously described as Black or colored, but was never offered the label of “female sailor”. After serving in the navy, Wilson was convicted of stealing pigs in New York City and their assigned gender was identified when they were forced to change into prison clothing.

Several other examples from nautical contexts are discussed, including George (Ann) Johnson who signed on with a whaling vessel after being abandoned by a lover. (Abandonment by a lover or fiance was a common motivation offered in trans biographies. The motif was guaranteed to elicit sympathy and may not always have been rooted in truth.) When Johnson's assigned gender was discovered while at sea, the captain decided to enforce gender norms by requiring Johnson to return to a female presentation, to cease working as a sailor (against Johnson’s wishes), and to be confined to a private cabin until they could be returned to land. But having gotten a taste for a different life, after returning to New York, Johnson again took up working as a man in a whip-making factory, with occasional ventures into working on a riverboat or setting up a confectionary shop. When an accident once more revealed Johnson’s assigned gender, their friends and coworkers had only positive reports of them and although it is suggested they were no longer able to continue in their profession(s), no one could find any complaint to press legally.

Manion concludes the chapter with a consideration of the sexuality of these 19th century laborers. Most of their stories don’t involve intimate relationships. (Manion calls them “asexual” but a more accurate description might be either celibate are unpartnered.) Manion suggests that within the American context, masculinity could be established purely by laboring at male-coded jobs, and the establishment of a marriage was less relevant as evidence than it had been in the Old World. (Note that George Wilson’s marriage was established before emigrating.)

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