Intersexuality: Colonial Virginia

We live in a world where sex is bifurcated into male and female. Anyone who deviates from that dichotomy either through surgery (FTMs, MTFs, transsexuals) or by birth (intersexed individuals) can face bigotry and marginalization. The latter group, intersexuals, are by and large invisible and often misunderstood. One of the clearest examples of this is an early label given to intersexed people that was used to describe people who were born with genitalia that have both male and female components: hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodite means that an organism has fully functioning male and female genitalia and can reproduce without a partner – this does not exist in humans, but the term was commonly used to describe people who had variations of male and female genitalia and, in turn, was used as a way to dehumanize and ridicule.

Intersexuality was viewed as something to be “fixed” by most of the medical establishment in the 20th century. If a baby was born with a “micropenis,” it was determined that the penis (and testes, if present) should be removed and a “functional” vagina was constructed. If the penis was determined “normal” enough (in other words, if it could potentially develop to be large enough to penetrate a vagina – we’re talking some seriously heteronormative, patriarchal rhetoric here), then the vaginal opening would be sewn shut. From there, the individual could face more surgeries throughout their lifetime as well as hormone treatments. There’s a movement to end these surgeries, but this continues to be a common practice.

There is a long history of intersexuality that we get an occasional glimpse of via historical documents. In Colonial Massachusetts we know of one such individual based on court records involving a trial that attempted to ascertain if the person in question was a man or a woman. Thomas/Thomasine Hall endured poking, prodding, interrogations, humiliation, and ostracization from the community ze was a part of. (Side note: gender and sex-neutral terms like ze and hir were 20th century constructions, but I’m going to use them for Hall since he/she and his/her is not accurate.)

In Colonial America, attitudes about (perceived) deformities were adopted from Judeo-Christian dogma that asserted that any baby that was “malformed” was a monster sent by God as a warning. It was often the parents who were seen as the ones to blame for the child’s physicality, a sign that at least one of the parents was a sinner. In addition, women were encouraged to abstain from sex while menstruating as this was thought to increase the likelihood of giving birth to a “monstrosity.”

In 1629, Hall settled in the small Virginia colony of Warrosquyoake, working as a male indentured servant. Shortly after hir arrival, Hall was accused of sleeping with a maid that set of a chain of events that included prying from the entire community. Before coming to North America, Hall had lived in Europe as a woman, wearing women’s clothes and performing women’s tasks, a fact that set the town into frenzy and led to townspeople physically examining Hall, including once while ze slept. The sex of Hall was indeterminate and the community argued over whether or not Hall should be referred to as Thomas or Thomasine.

Early American colonists were guided by European legal rubrics, which included that the punishment for cross-dressing was punishable by execution. But what to do with a person who was not male or female? The protocol (demonstrating that Hall was not the first intersex person to undergo such a trial) was for the court to determine the gender (feminine or masculine) that the person was to perform.

In Hall’s case, when asked whether he was a man or a woman, he replied that he was both saying that he had a small penis, “a peece of flesh growing at the …belly as big as the top of his little finger [an] inch long” and that “hee had not the use of the man’s p[ar]te.” The ruling based on this evidence was that Hall was to wear women’s clothes and perform as a woman, but this was not satisfactory to the elder women, so they snuck into Hall’s room while she slept. They “confirmed” that Hall was a man. It is at this point that Hall’s master checked and was unimpressed by the “flesh” that the women had classified as a penis and demanded to see if there was any evidence of a vagina. Hall was made to lie on a table and underwent a thorough examination, which determined that there was little more than a small hole, but not fully functioning female anatomy.

This physical examination led to a reverse decision and proclamation that Hall was a man and was to dress as one, but once Hall started to perform as a man, the other men in the town accused him of having sexual encounters with a neighbor’s maid. Hall’s case was eventually brought to the Virginia Court where they ruled that Hall was to dress as a man, but wear the accessories of women. This permanent hybrid gender was meant to emasculate and shame Hall and make it known to all that ze was a “monstrosity.” This is the last we have of Hall in the historical record; the remainder of hir life is a mystery.

For more about Thomas/Thomasine Hall, including excerpts from the court transcripts, see Kathleen Brown’s essay in Major Problems in the History of American Sexuality: Documents and Essays.


One thought on “Intersexuality: Colonial Virginia

  1. Tori February 3, 2012 at 5:48 pm Reply

    That’s truly fascinating and kind of sad. I wish we had some historical record of what became of Hall.

    I’m impressed (though not surprised by) the inclination to classify things but man. Why couldn’t they just let somethings go? And how humiliating for Hall.

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