“The T in LGBT,” a public lecture and discussion by Jen Manion, will take place at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 17 at William Way LGBT Community Center, 1315 Spruce St.
Manion, an associate professor of history at Amherst College, will be discussing people from the 19th century who today would likely identify as gender-nonconforming or transgender, although that vocabulary did not exist during their lifetime.
Manion’s talk will be preceded by a reception at 5:30 p.m. at the Library Company of Philadelphia, 1314 Locust St. Both the reception and the lecture are free and open to the public. (Anyone interested in attending is encouraged to preregister at www.librarycompany.org/events.)
Manion, a queer historian whose work blends scholarship and activism, is currently researching a book titled “Born in the Wrong Time: Transgender Archives and the History of Possibility, 1740-1890.” When writing about those individuals, Manion prefers to use the gender-neutral pronouns “they/them,” a practice this article follows.
Manion’s lecture promises to be an eye-opening experience for those who regard transgender identity as a recent phenomenon. Although the individuals they will discuss are largely unknown and lived a long time ago, they believe that we can still learn from them.
“Some people think of the transgender identity as a ‘new’ thing,” Manion said. “But history provides another perspective — people have always challenged, crossed and subverted the boundaries of gender.”
Historians are learning more and more about transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals as they search through archives and examine primary documents. In a recent article called “The Queer History of Passing as a Man in Early Pennsylvania,” Manion wrote about people like Charles Hamilton, whose existence is known to us from a single notice in the Pennsylvania Gazzette dated July 16, 1752.
Hamilton immigrated from England to Chester, Pa. They hoped to work as a doctor but were detained by authorities after a resident became suspicious of their appearance. Upon examination, officials determined that Hamilton was “a Woman in Mens Cloaths.”
Consequently, Hamilton was arrested and briefly jailed. What happened to them after being released is not known.
If this anecdote, with its scant information, seems remote from issues of present concerns to the transgender community, Manion suggests taking a broader and more thoughtful view of the situation than is generally the case.
“Gender is regulated through a complicated web of institutions, policies and social norms. These aren’t static but are constantly challenged, defined, redefined, fortified and sometimes changed. We can learn from moments of resistance and change in the past,” they said.
Philadelphia, it turns out, is an excellent place for scholars to uncover some of those moments of resistance. According to Manion, “Philadelphia was the most important, dynamic city in the country in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Its educational, cultural and even carceral institutions were unparalleled.”
As a result, Philadelphia has a treasure trove of archival material for scholars to study. Manion, who did their undergraduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, knows where to look.
For their 2015 book, “Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America,” Manion conducted extensive research on the history of crime and punishment in Philadelphia. Records held by the City of Philadelphia, as well as the collections at the Library Company and the Historical Society, were particularly helpful.
The connection between the law, prison and transgender or gender-nonconforming people is an important one.
“The criminalization of people for crossing gender was formalized in the late 19th century,” Manion said. “There was a greater degree of freedom and flexibility for gender nonconformity before that.”
The difference is evident in the contrast between the experience of Joseph Lobdell and Charles Hamilton. Lobdell, who lived roughly 100 years later than Hamilton, was plagued by authorities for much of their adult life. In fact, for their last three decades they were confined to an insane asylum, where they died.
Manion is trying to account for the difference in the way transgender and gender-nonconforming people were treated in the earliest days of American history and the way they began to be treated by the 1800s.
“The criminalization of people for crossing gender was formalized in the late 19th century; there was a greater degree of freedom and flexibility for gender nonconformity before that,” Manion said. “While we tend to think of things being terrible for LGBT people in the past and getting better more recently, history is far more complicated.”
Attending Manion’s talk can be a good way to begin learning just how complicated — and rich — transgender history is.
To learn more about Jen Manion’s work, follow them on Twitter @activisthistory.