“The Tom-Boy who was changed into a real boy” McGloughlin Bros. 1859 Image Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society

Transgender Children in Antebellum America

Childhood has long been a crucial moment for the instruction and regulation of appropriate gendered or sexual behavior.[1] This can be traced to the antebellum period of American history, a time marked by a growing obsession with educating and protecting young people. Previously, young people were characterized as “little adults” and not so precious. There were an abundance of publications aimed at instructing children on all manner of subjects from politics to cleanliness to morality. No realm of life was spared such scrutiny. Children were told how to behave with family, at school, and on the playground. Many writings took up the general question of how to be a good boy or good girl, as well as what made a boy or girl bad.[2] These messages could be wildly distinct for boys and girls – or exactly the same. Not surprisingly then, children’s literature provides a rich window into the malleability of gender, including the ways and reasons that children claimed gender identities, expressions, and activities for themselves.

This exhibit explores a series of stories published in children’s books and magazines. Some portray children being punished for transgressing gender roles, as parents, ministers, and writers tried to teach young girls and boys to internalize and embrace a traditional gender role rooted in their sex. Some expose the range of traits, actions, habits, and expressions that were associated with masculinity or femininity, including stories celebrating children embracing activities socially associated with the other sex in order to help their parents.  For contemporary readers interested in the history of gender, these stories provide rich accounts of the possible ways that people could live across or between genders. For most of the twentieth-century, when children embraced activities or mannerisms conventionally enjoyed by the other sex, some saw this as a telltale sign that the child would grow up to be gay. Turn of the century sexology conflated gender deviance with homosexuality. You will see that these stories – taking place a good 30-50 years earlier, from 1830-1860 – bear no such sign or stigma related to sexuality or sexual orientation.[3]

Finally, I want to explain my use of the term transgender. Some scholars think using a term coined in the late twentieth century is anachronistic or ahistorical when talking about the long ago past.[4] As a trained historian, I understand this perspective but diverge for several reasons. Transgender writer and activist Leslie Feinberg utilizes an intentionally broad definition of the term transgender in their path-breaking historical study Transgender Warriors: Making History from Joan of Arc to Denise Rodman.[5] Feinberg defines transgender as any one who challenges the boundaries of sex or gender – an admittedly broad category that serves both a political function (more people are trans* than you realize) and addresses a source problem (lack of records of historical figures characterizing their gender). Even today, however, the category transgender can be precise (if anchored in psychiatric definitions of Gender Identity Dysphoria) or vague (ask any number of trans* people what it means to them and you might get different answers from everyone).[6] Recall that Facebook’s newly expanded gender category contains fifty-six choices.[7] In his study Imagining Transgender, David Valentine argues the term has been widely adopted because it clarifies the idea that sexuality and gender are distinct arenas of human experience.[8] I have not set out to identify or classify individual people as transgender; nor do I assert a transgender collectivity onto a cluster of historical actors or literary representations. Rather, this project aims to understand the function of ‘transgender’ as an analytical category; to explore the meanings given to representations of transgender experiences – or gender crossings - in history. I believe much is to be gained in creating a usable past for transgender communities – and that we must make these connections, especially in light of a hostile political environment that marginalizes the community to such a great extent in the present.

[1] Kathryn Bond Stockton, The Queer Child: or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009).

[2] Lesley Ginsberg, “Minority/Majority: Childhood Studies and Antebellum American Literature,” in Anna Mae Duane, ed., The Children’s Table: Childhood Studies and the Humanities, (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013), 105-123; 106-107.

[3] For a general overview of the history of sexuality in the U.S. see John D’Emilio and Estelle B. Freedman, Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, Third Edition (University of Chicago, 2012).

[4] Peter Boag, “The Trouble with Cross-Dressers: Researching and Writing the History of Sexual and Gender Transgressiveness in the Nineteenth-Century American West." Oregon Historical Quarterly 112, no. 3 (Fall2011 2011): 322-33.

[5] Leslie Feinberg, Transgender Warriors, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).

[6] Susan Stryker and Stephen Whittle, eds.,The Transgender Studies Reader (New York: Routledge, 2006).

[8] David Valentine, Imagining Transgender (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).