Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3
Chapter 7: The Criminalized Poor
* * *
This chapter begins with a discussion of the social and legal systems that operated to police gender expression and identity. The post Civil War era involved an expansion of official police intervention with regard to moral and social crimes, not only crimes of violence and property. These systems operated overtly against the transing of gender in small everyday ways, not only those cases where complete gender crossing was involved. This postwar era also saw examples of individuals who crossed gender boundaries multiple times in multiple ways, not only those who made a one-way transition from one side of the binary to the other.
The chapter primarily focuses on one particular biography: that of Joseph Lobdell, born Lucy Ann Lobdell, and covers multiple different performances and perceptions of their life.
Lobdell was assigned female at birth and came to adopt male clothing in specific circumstances such as for horseback riding or hunting. Lobdell wrote a memoir at an early point in their life, discussing this gender crossing as a functional matter. But the memoir ends before they took up a life fully read as male. Their later experiences can be pieced together from the trail of news stories generated by various critical points in their life.
Lobdell grew up on a farm and early adopted habits and skills more typical for boys, such as hunting. After showing little interest in heterosexual courtship, Lobdell eventually became involved with a young man where Lobdell played a more stereotypically masculine role in the relationship, being more protective and dominant. Despite Lobdell’s continued reservations about the relationship, eventually they married. The marriage was short-lived, not so much due to Lobdell’s reservations but due to their husbands abusive behavior.
Lobdell return to living with their parents but soon took up the role of “man of the family” when their father became disabled. This included both hunting and farm chores.
Encouraged by an encounter with a traveler who took them for a man, and wishing to avoid a visit by their estranged husband, Lobdell decided to leave home and seek work presenting as a man and receiving a man’s wages. Previously Lobdell had been understood as “a woman in man’s clothing”, but in this new life they took on the name Joseph and spent 15 years moving through the world as a man, including pursuing romantic relationships with women.
The jobs they took at first were not necessarily the physical labor they had previously engaged in while transing gender. One early position was as a singing teacher, primarily teaching young women, one of whom they came close to marrying except at the last moment someone discovered “by accident” that Lobdell was assigned female. This resulted in a hasty departure from the town.
After that, Lobdell moved further west, away from familiar territory and took up more physical jobs. After some years, someone again raised the issue of Lobdell’s gender and made a charge before a court that Lobdell was impersonating a man. Unlike in previous eras, now there did exist laws against transing gender, particularly in the midwestern territories that were newly establishing law codes in a context of repressive religious movements. There is a brief digression of the topic of “blue laws,” which were moral-based law codes generally meant to enforce the principles of a particular dominant religion.
Lobdell’s lawyer appears to have successfully argued against the charges and an evidently sympathetic judge agreed and no verdict of guilty was found. But the experience was emotionally devastating to Lobdell, who decided to return to the family home after that.
From having been a productive member of society, Lobdell now became destitute, and after briefly returning to their birth family ended up in a poor house. It was in that institution that they met a woman who turned their life around one more time. Lobdell and Marie Louise Perry began cohabiting together in the house of Lobdell’s parents and remained together for almost 20 years.
The two were recorded as being considered an odd couple but clearly devoted to each other and bringing out the best in each other. Their financial situation, however, continued to be rocky. Returning to public attention due to being involved in public disturbances, Lobdell was written up in a newspaper article that focsed on their prior trans experiences, referring to “Joe Lobdell and wife” and describing Lobdell with male pronouns. At this time, Lobdell was perceived as a masculine-performing woman, not as a man.
Manion reviews the different ways in which Lobdell’s various presentations were received, depending on whether they were understood as being a masculine woman or as a gender crossing man. Lobdell’s wife, in contrast, was described as lady-like with upper class manners. She embodied the stereotypes of approved womanhood. Newspaper articles about the couple found their attraction inexplicable, and yet they were clearly inseparable. Lobdell was sometimes celebrated in news articles as an activist for women’s rights, though perhaps only the rights that they needed in order to act as a legal entity in society: signing contracts and owning property.
The property came as an unexpected legacy of their long departed husband Lobdell’s husband had enlisted during the Civil War and been killed, and it turned out that Lobdell was entitled to a widow’s pension with significant backpay. Lobdell’s brother John helped them retrieve the funds and purchase property. And then--for unclear reasons--John claimed that Lobdell was insane and had been so for 10 years and had them committed to an asylum, cutting all communication with Marie Louise Perry, Lobdell’s wife. Among the evidence presented by John and other neighbors for Lobdell’s insanity was dressing as a man, claiming to be a man, and claiming to be married to a woman. Whether John believed that his sibling was genuinely insane on the basis of gender transgression, or whether John simply wanted access to Lobdell’s property, is open for a question.
The last stage of Lobdell’s life overlapped with the rise of the medicalization of gender transgression and Lobdell became the subject of a doctor’s study, transforming what has been originally viewed as a legal or moral issue into one of psychological disturbance. As was not uncommon in such studies, the doctor interpreted much of Lobdell’s behavior and character through a lens of sexual desire.
The chapter concludes with a discussion of the sexologists’ theory of gender inversion that characterized lesbian desire as existing only within a pseudo-heterosexual framework. For some people who were transgender this framework may be apt, but plenty of examples demonstrate that it was not the only framework in which desire between two assigned female people existed.
Add new comment