In 1629, in colonial Virginia, there came before the courts one Thomas Hall. Or was it Thomasine Hall? That was the question. This was the first recorded intersex person in America – that is, apart from Native American traditions, of course (which we DO cover in this episode). The colonists didn’t know what to do. Today, we’re taking a look at perceptions of intersex in early colonial America, and all of the centuries of tradition that went into them, from ancient Greece up to the present.
To read Hall’s case for yourself, see The Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia.
Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/btnewberg. Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Animation by Maxeem Konrardy. Additional credits, references, and more at www.historyofsexpod.com.
Click to download transcript as PDF: The History of Sex The First Intersex in Colonial America
[angry shouting in the distance]
“Oh no,” thought Hall, spotting pitchforks and torches flickering in the distance. “That can’t be good.”
Being hauled into the Virginia colonial court, on the 25th of March, 1629, Hall was charged with fornication with a maidservant, that is to say, sex outside marriage, but soon testimony came to light that complicated the matter.
Hall faced the presiding authority Captain Basse, who implored, “You are Thomas Hall, are you not?”
“I am,” Hall answered.
The captain eyed the person up and down, who was dressed in the typical longcoat, waistcoat, and knee-length breeches of any other man in the British colonies.
The captain scowled. “We have a report here from one Nicholas who claims to have seen you at Atkins Arbor in the dress of a woman.”
Hall remained silent, caught in a bind. If a man, Hall faced the charge of fornication with the maidservant. But if a woman, then she would have lied with a fellow woman, so the charge would have to be sodomy, for the laws of the colony of Virginia outlawed same-sex coupling between either sex.
“Well?” demanded the captain impatiently. “If you are indeed Thomas Hall, then why do you go about in woman’s apparel?”
Hall considered for a moment. Man or woman, fornication or sodomy, either way spelled doom. And so, cocking a cheeky smile, Hall answered.
Now, here I am quoting directly from the actual Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia, which states:
The faid Hall anfwered in the hearing of this depot, “I goe in woemans aparell to get a bitt for my catt.”
[sound of gasping crowd, gavel hammering]
This produced an uproar from the crowd. People whispered to each other, “Did he just say to get a bitt for his catt? He doesn’t mean he has a woman’s… you know, down there… But he’s a man! How could he have a, you know… a catt?
Now the veins in the captain’s forehead bulged as he boomed, “Are you a man or a woman?”
In the minutes of the council it is recorded that Hall answered:
“Both man and woman.”
[sound of gasping crowd]
The captain stumbled backward into his chair as the courtroom erupted with gasps.
For yes, he was Thomas Hall, but he was also Thomasine Hall. And for those in the court room that day, well… it might as well have been the End of Days.
When I went to renew my Minnesota drivers license last month, I was asked for my sex: I could have marked M for male, F for female, or X. I’d never seen that before. That’s new. It feels modern to be allowed a choice beyond the binary – really modern, as in this generation modern.
And yet, as you can see from our introductory story, this country has been wrestling with this same question for more than 400 years.
You see, this Hall was an intersex person, and the colonists did not know what to make of this. Hall had presented as both male and female at various times, flipping back and forth willy-nilly. And this was apparently a source of dire consternation for some colonists. It’s causing all kinds of chaos! they cried. And legal courts went to absurd lengths to determine once and for all what to put on Hall’s drivers license.
I wonder what the DMV would say if I switched the sex on my drivers license every time I renewed? It would be little more than a prank for me, but for many people today – about 16,000 Americans by one estimate – it is a real question, a problem of life-altering proportion, just as it was for Hall in the days of the colonies.
We’re going to take a deep look at perceptions of intersex in early colonial America, and the long history behind those perceptions.
That’s what we’re talking about today. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
I’d like to thank our Patreon patron Christina Moore-Gotcher for making this episode possible.
I’d also like to thank Sam Hume of the podcast Pax Britannica for suggesting this topic.
The colonists of 1629 Virginia were confused. Really confused.
But let’s start by making sure that we are not. What is intersex, exactly?
Intersex refers to individuals who have sex characteristics that vary from typical binary notions of male and female. It’s typically focused on variation of anatomy, which makes it different from transgender, which is typically more focused on identification varying from the gender assigned at birth, regardless of how anatomy may present. But bear in mind that although intersex is distinct from transgender in modern conceptions, other eras and cultures often thought in different categories, and might divide up the pie differently, as we shall see today.
Intersex questions have throughout history largely focused on ambiguities in the external appearance of the genitalia, but modern medicine has revealed that uncertainty can also be internal or even chromosomal. If an otherwise male-presenting person, for example, is found to have ovarian tissue, or a sex chromosome other than XY, is that person male or female? And who makes that call?
Today, we are moving toward personal choice as the ultimate decision-maker, but that was rarely the case throughout history. As we shall see, different cultures at different times have approached the question in various ways, never really coming to a conclusion despite the surprisingly large number of people with intersex characteristics.
It’s difficult to come up with a good estimate of the prevalence of intersex, since it is complicated by a vast number of different contributing factors, but one estimate puts it at about 1 out of every 2000 people (Reis, p. xi), which would make the number of intersex people in the US today around 16,000.
In Hall’s day, the population of the colonies was of course much lower. Also, it was virtually impossible to identify intersex people who had hidden characteristics. You could only identify people whose ambiguity presented externally.
So, in 1629, when Hall’s case was brought to trial, Hall would have been a unique individual indeed.
There were only about 500 people in the British colonies, split between Plymouth and Virginia. Thus, if it’s true that intersex people are approximately 1 in 2000, that means Hall was likely the only such person in all the colonies at the time. They would have been unique.
By the way, pronouns for intersex people are a matter of their personal choice, but since we can’t ask Hall’s preference, I’ll use they/them in this episode.
So, what was going through the minds of the colonists presented with the case of Thomas/Thomasine Hall? How could they determine the sex of this person and thus their fate? Although they might not have had anyone else like them among their number, they nevertheless had myriad influences available that they could draw on in deciding the case.
Their native neighbors, for one, had long-standing traditions.
The Powhatan tribes in the Chesapeake Bay area around Jamestown in the 1600s were speakers of the Algonquian language family, and there are reports of binary-busting individuals among other Algonquian speakers. The Ojibwe, for example, spoke of the ikwekaazo or “one who endeavors to be like a women”, and the ininiikaazo or “one who endeavors to be like a man”. Ojibwe academic Anton Treuer explains:
“Ikwekaazo and ininiikaazo could take spouses of their own sex. … Both were considered to be strong spiritually, and they were always honored, especially during ceremonies. … The role of the ikwekaazo and ininiikaazo in Ojibwe society was believed to be sacred, often because they assumed their roles based on spiritual dreams or visions.” (Treuer)
So, in other words, they lived and dressed according to a sex dictated by visions.
Now, is this a matter of personal choice? In one sense, no. The sacred source of the vision is what chooses, not the individual. On the other hand, however, a vision is experienced by the individual alone, who could just as easily conceal it as share it, and so I can only conclude that the determination of sex was, in this sense at least, a personal choice. These people were effectively able to choose their own sex. And far from being scorned for it, they were accorded a place of honor in society. French explorers from the late 1600s reported:
“They are present at… the solemn dances in honor of the calumet. [he means the peace pipe] … They are summoned to the councils and nothing can be decided without their advice. Finally, through their profession of leading an extraordinary life, they pass for Manitous, that is to say, for spirits or persons of consequence.” (quoted in Treuer).
High honor was accorded to them. Now, whether such individuals included intersex people is not quite clear. As mentioned earlier, it becomes problematic when you try to impose modern categories onto other eras and cultures. Most likely, if Hall had taken their case to the Powhatan tribes around Jamestown instead of the colonial courts, the reaction would have been quite different. Drawing on lore from their Ojibwe cousins, or perhaps even on their own local lore, I suspect the Powhatan would not have seen Hall’s situation as problematic in the least. On the contrary, it may have elevated Hall in their eyes.
As it happened, however, Hall did not go before the Powhatan, but before colonial courts, and I could find no evidence whatsoever that they cared one whit for their native neighbors’ opinions on this matter. Quite the pity.
What they did care about were the European traditions they brought with them. Centuries upon centuries of perceptions built up to create the colonial view, going all the way back to the ancient world.
So, what if Hall’s case had been presented in, say, ancient Greece? How would they have determined Hall’s sex?
Well, most likely, the ancient Greeks would have seen Hall as no more problematic than the Pawhatan tribes, but for very different reasons. See, the ancient Greeks conceived of sex as a continuum, with male on one end and female on the other, and a whole wide middle ground in between. It was a highly patriarchal hierarchy to be sure, with males representing perfection at the top and everyone else kinda sliding down to the pole to varying degrees of imperfection, but the point is you could find yourself anywhere on that pole. So, there was no need to decide male or female for Hall. They were just somewhere in-between, and that answer was good enough for the Greeks. It wouldn’t have been great for Hall, they would have been seen as less than typical males to say the very least, but the question of sex determination would not have caused a system-wide meltdown, as it did for the Virginia colonists.
Far from a meltdown, in fact, a Greek would have looked at Hall and said, “oh, wow, I’ve never seen this before, but I get it. It’s just like our myth, you know, the one about Hermaphroditos.” According to this myth, Hermaphroditos, child of the god Hermes and the goddess Aphrodite, bore the features of both sexes in equal measure, with fully functioning equipment from both. This is, in fact, the derivation of our term hermaphrodite.
Now, in modern times, this is no longer the preferred term, basically because the perception of a hermaphrodite having fully functioning equipment of both sexes, as could be found in species like earthworms but never it seemed in homo sapiens, actually kinda led 19th-century medical authorities to claim intersex people didn’t truly exist – a kind of intersex erasure. So, consequently, we no longer use the term hermaphrodite.
But the ancient Greeks did, and seeing such individuals on the continuum of sex, and reflected in myth to boot, they probably would not have seen Hall as a major problem.
That’s not to say Hall’s life would have been easy in the ancient world, of course. Far from the place of honor they might have been accorded among the Ojibwe, Hall might have been made a spectacle, a wonder to behold. This may have been true in ancient Greece, and was evidently true for the Romans that carried on their legacy. The Roman writer Pliny reports that although his people once saw such individuals as signs from the gods, they were now little more than curiosities:
“Persons are also born of both sexes combined—what we call Hermaphrodites, formerly called androgyni and considered as portents, but now as entertainments.” (Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book VII)
In other words, intersex people had become sideshows.
Pliny includes this note among a list of curious births, which also included a mother who gave birth to 30 children (far surpassing the Octomom!), one who gave birth to an elephant, another to a snake, another to a hippo-centaur, and many other such births. Pliny even uses the word “monstrous” to describe them, though it’s important to note that in the ancient context this doesn’t necessarily imply evil per se, just exceedingly rare and unusual. In other words, Pliny is saying his fellow Romans saw intersex people as essentially circus sideshow wonders, basically the bearded ladies of his day.
There were of course those who rose above the circus. The 2nd-century CE sophist Favorinus of Arles was said to be born both man and woman, and referred to himself as a “eunuch” (Tougher, p. 31). Now, eunuchs were usually castrated males, but the Romans also recognized a category they called “natural eunuchs”, who were born without the ability to reproduce. This is not a perfect fit with intersex, since many intersex people are perfectly able to procreate, but it seems the sexual in-betweenness for Favorinus and his fellow Romans enough to draw a connection. As time went on, intersex people were probably lumped in more and more with eunuchs.
Now, could intersex people freely choose “eunuch” as their identifier? Hmm, it’s hard to say. Favorinus seems to have done so, but no doubt a great deal of social pressure bore down upon him and those like him.
In any case, for the Romans, like the Greeks, the question of male or female was a non-starter. They would have chosen “none of the above”, because they had categories available to them into which someone like Hall was perceived to fit better: they had continuums or eunuchs. They weren’t locked into the binary at this time.
But as we pass into the Christian era, however, the situation becomes more complicated.
See, the book of Genesis in the Bible appears to portray God creating man and woman, and just these two, with no other possibilities between. Where does that leave intersex people?
This question was answered in different ways by different theologians. Wrestling with this, some early Christian theologians, picking up on even earlier Jewish ideas, argued that Adam was originally androgynous, and the split into male and female was part of the Fall. Along these lines, some considered intersex a spiritually privileged state. As historian Leah DeVun writes:
“For church fathers such as Origen of Alexandria, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Damascene, among others, the most elevated state of humanity was the absence of binary sex.” (DeVun, p. 134)
Had Christianity carried on in this direction, it’s conceivable that intersex people might have achieved an honored status akin to that among the Ojibwe.
And in fact, in some parts of the Christian world, they almost kinda sorta did. In the Eastern Roman Empire, which developed into the Byzantine Empire, eunuchs in the Imperial court rose to such extremely high status that by the end they were portrayed as akin to angels on earth. If you’re interested, you can check out the Court Eunuchs series on my other show, Dead Ideas, but for our purposes here, the point is: intersex people, imperfectly lumped in with eunuchs, may have achieved high honor in the East.
However, this was not the only view within Christianity. Augustine, for example, took issue with the suggestion that Adam might have been androgynous. In stark contrast, he affirmed that no, Adam and Eve were made male and female from the very start, and there’s nothing fallen about sexual difference per se, only the lust that so often accompanies copulation. This had great consequences for intersex people in the West. In Augustine’s version, they were exiled from Eden more surely even than Adam and Eve, for they were now nowhere in the story at all. And in the end, to the regret of intersex people, it was Augustine’s view that prevailed.
By the high Middle Ages, the court eunuch was seen by most Europeans as a bizarre and backwards quirk of the Byzantines, whereas the Western Roman version of Christianity (Augustine’s version) achieved ever greater dominance. With that dominance spread the notion that intersex people had no place in the divine order.
That’s how it came to be that Europeans, who had once had no problem conceiving of intersex people, came first to see them as circus side-shows, then theological problems, and finally as mind-befuddling paradoxes of logic. To the medieval Christian mind, a male who was also female was as impossible to conceive as up being also down or black being also white. It could not exist within their conceptual categories. The binary had become binding.
Now, when presented with ambiguous anatomy, a determination of male or female had to be made. Nothing else was acceptable. Usually, it was a matter of deciding which of the two sexes predominated. If a person presented more like a male, they were male, if more like a female, they were female. Done deal. Case closed. Time for lunch.
And rarely in this process was personal choice even a factor.
Later, as the Renaissance saw a revival of earlier ancient traditions, this mindset crystalized further.
Renaissance readers encountered ancient descriptions of intersex people, such as the highly respected Greek physician Galen, who described hermaphrodites, or Pliny, who was quoted earlier, describing hermaphrodites as mere entertainments to his people. Upon reading these accounts, Renaissance Europeans could not help but read into them their own ideas. Thus, Galen’s hermaphrodite and Pliny’s sideshow “monsters” became devilish abominations. In other words, a person who could not be determined to be male or female was no person at all.
Thus, when we finally arrive in the colonies of the 1600s, the primary understanding of someone like Hall was as a monster, and now it really did imply evil. A 17th-century book of midwifery called Aristotle’s Master-piece (not really written by Aristotle; that was just a pseudonym) illustrates the mindset. This book presents a being that has “the privities of Male and Female, and the rest of the Body like a man, as you may see by this figure” (Reis, p. 5). And there was an illustration. This certainly sounds like the common trope of the hermaphrodite, but a glance at the accompanying illustration shows just how low perceptions had fallen. The creature depicted has a horn on its head, wings on its back, and stands upon a single taloned foot.
Now, this English book was what historian Elisabth Reis calls “the most popular and often reprinted medical manual in the colonies and the definitive word on all matters relating to reproduction and genital anatomy.” Now, admittedly, Aristotle’s Master-piece was not actually published until about 50 years after Hall’s trial, but this thing was a compendium of common wisdom that had been kicking around for quite some time, so I think it is reasonable to assume that it represented the mindset even in Hall’s day 50 years earlier.
Thus, it is clear that perceptions of intersex had by this point passed beyond just the bearded lady fascination and well into the realm of the truly monstrous.
So, when Hall went before the courts to receive their verdict, it was this sort of stuff that in the minds of those judging them. Yikes!
Things were not looking good for Hall. So, what was it like then when Hall walked into that courthouse? Did people see Hall with horns, wings, and talons? Or, what’s almost worse, did Hall fear that they did, and have that anxiety eating away from the inside?
We’re going to find out, and get the rest of Hall’s story in just a moment, but first we’re going to take a short break, and be back after this.
[begin ad segment for the History of Witchcraft]
Hey folks, if you’re digging this colonial setting and want to hear more from the time period, you’ll love the The History of Witchcraft. It’s from Sam Hume, the same host behind Pax Brittanica, and it tells the entire story of the witchcraft hysteria from its roots in Europe to its famous pinnalce in Salem, Massachussetts. The podcast looks at how people explained the inexplicable, turned random acts of nature into conscious acts of mortal or supernatural beings, and how desperate communities took revenge against the suspected perpetrators. I think you’re gonna love the History of Witchcraft.
[end ad segment]
[begin comedy sketch segment]
And now, The History of Sex presents… this.
Kirk: Captain’s Log, stardate 1629.3.25 aboard the Starship Interprise. We have come upon a world strangely resembling that of Earth circa 17th century America. Spock and I are beaming down to investigate.
Father: Welcome, travelers, to our colony. Beest thou zero or one?
Kirk: I’m sorry. Come again?
Father: Zero or one? Which dost thou be? I am zero, and look, yonder is my daughter. She is one.
Spock: Male and female, Captain.
Kirk: Yes, Spock. I got that.
Father: Come, child!
[beautiful girl sound]
Kirk: Sir, your daughter is… beautiful.
Child: But I am not his daughter, am I, father?
Father: Of course, thou art, dear.
Child: No, I am not. I am not just one. I am confused!
Father: Shh! Quiet, my child! Binarius will hear thee. Binarius will punish thee!
[sound of an alien transporter]
Child: No! Help me, father! Nooooo!
Kirk: What happened? Where has she gone?
Father: She hast been taken. Binarius… She will be determined.
Kirk: Then you must take us to see this Binarius.
Robot: I am Binarius.
Kirk: What have you done with her?
Robot: She will be determined. All sources of confusion must be eliminated. All are either zero or one.
Kirk: Why must all be either zero or one?
Robot: To avoid confusion.
Kirk: Ah, but sex determination is itself a confusing thing. I put it to you that to deny this is to create further confusion.
Robot: I am Binarius.
Kirk: Chromosomal variation! Hidden ovarian tissue! Undescended testicles!
Robot: I am Binarius.
Kirk: By attempting to eliminate confusion, you have become a source of confusion! By your logic, you must be eliminated!
Robot: I am Binarius! I am Binarius! I am Binarius! I am Binarius! I am Biiii-naar-iiiiii-uuuuuuuuus.
(sound of computer imploding)
Father: What didst thou do, travelers? I am confused.
Kirk: You are free now.
Father: And my daughter?
Child: I am here, father, but I’m not thy daughter. Or thy son! I’m just thine.
Kirk: Time to go, Spock. Our work here is done.
Spock: It may be time to review the crew uniforms when we return, Captain. Some question why they must wear mini-skirts while others wear pants.
Kirk: Perhaps your right. It’s decided then. You’ll look good, Spock, in a mini-skirt!
[ending music, end of comedy sketch segment]
Alright, we’re back. So, with all that we just learned about the perception of intersex in the American colonies, things are not looking good for Thomas/Thomasine Hall. How did case get resolved in the end? Did they decide man or woman, fornication or sodomy? Let’s check back in.
[crowd gasp, gavel]
Captain Basse rubbed his tortured brow. “So, let me see if I understand correctly,” he said. “You were born in England in Newcastle Upon Tyne.”
“Yes, sir,” said Hall.
“And there you were christened by the name Thomasine, and raised as a girl until the age of 12.”
“Yes, sir. But truth be told it was never clear from the start.”
“I see. And at the age of 12, you were sent to live with your Aunt in London, and there lived 10 more years as a girl until your brother joined the army, at which time you cut your hair and put on the apparel of a man to become a soldier as well.”
“And after returning from this service, you voyaged across the Atlantic to Plymouth colony, and there again changed your apparel back to that of a woman to make bone lace and do needle work, whereupon at last you made a final voyage, coming here to Virginia, and upon arriving changed once again into the habit of a man to become a servant?”
“And yet you did not remain so, for as you have confessed, you sometimes put on woman’s wear, as you so eloquently state, to get a bitt for your catt.”
Well, at that point, the court had had quite enough. One man by the Roger Rodes burst forward in outrage, demanding – and here I quote again the actual Minutes of the council:
“Hall, thou haft beene reported to be a woman and now thou art proved to bee a man, I will fee what thou carrieft!’ Wherevppon the faid Rodes laid hands vppon the faid Hall, … and they threw the faid Hall on his backe, and … pulled out his members whereby it appeared that hee was a perfect man.
However, Hall protested:
Hall replyed hee was both, only hee had not the ufe of the mans parte … [which] was a peece of flefhe growing at the … belly as bigg as the topp of his little finger [an] inch longe.
Hall was then asked if that was all they had, to which Hall answered:
“I have a peece of an hole.”
So, in other words, he was both man and woman. Yes, Hall had a penis, but it was a small and useless appendage, whereas the part Hall claimed to enjoy was the “piece of a hole”, that is the woman’s part, apparently dressing in women’s clothing when feeling randy.
Now, for some reason which I cannot fathom, the minutes do not record any attempt to locate this “hole” on Hall’s body. If this was a reference to Hall’s anus, the case would have been open and shut, so it can’t be that. It must have been a woman’s hole. I’m not sure if mention of a vagina was omitted from the record out of modesty, but they must have looked for one, because Hall was inspected several more times after this, with some even going so far as to break into Hall’s house to peep while they were asleep. Each time, the inspectors made a determination of male, but were apparently so hesitant about the decision that they had to keep checking and re-checking and re-checking.
Finally, a verdict had to be pronounced. The court was in a bind. Reis sums up the situation:
“Had the court been able to decide which of Hall’s sexual characteristics were predominant, it might have required him/her to assume and maintain this preferred sex. Such a solution would have been consistent with scripture-based laws as interpreted by Talmudic commentaries and consonant with early modern European customs.” (p. 12-13)
However, this was not to be. Instead, the court handed down a surprise verdict:
It was therevppon at this court ordered that it fhall be publifhed in the plantacon where the faid Hall lyveth that hee is a man and a woeman.
What?! They decided in favor of Hall? The court officially ruled that Hall was telling the truth, that they were neither male nor female but both.
Wow, didn’t see that coming!
Wait, so what about the charge of fornication or sodomy. Apparently, without a definite determination of male or female, neither charge could be pressed, and Hall could not be found guilty.
So, a happy ending then! Well… actually, not quite. You see, the court did add one further tiny stipulation. It ruled that it should further be published in the plantation:
that all the Inhabitants there may take notice thereof and that hee fhall goe Clothed in man apparell, only his head to bee attired in a Coyfe and Crofcloth with an Apron before him.
Wait, what? Ugh. So, in other words, it appears Hall must henceforth mix men’s and women’s apparel, wearing items of both at the same time. And while this unusual ruling might seem to pay lip service to Hall’s wishes, in fact it did anything but.
Reis sums it up:
“This was not a tolerant and understanding ruling permitting Hall to switch between male and female roles as circumstances allowed and opportunities afforded. It prevented any sexual autonomy and ability to blend in with the populace. Hall would have to live the rest of his/her days as a public freak and laughingstock, an ambiguously gendered being, at once male and female.” (p. 13)
This, apparently, was the court’s way of enforcing a sentence anyway. They could not convict Hall of either fornication or sodomy, but in order to prevent Hall from “seducing” anyone of either sex ever again, Hall would have to wear the apparel of both sexes. This was effectively the same as being forced to wear a scarlet letter: it was a sign visible to all that Hall was no “normal” person.
The court made Hall into the monster they had in their minds. Hall would forever more be the half-human centaur-creature of their perceptions. Never again could Hall enjoy any sense of normalcy, but would always and forever more be an outsider, an Other, a monster.
After this, Hall disappears from the historical record, and we have no knowledge of their ultimate fate.
What we do know is how the fate of intersex people generally played out through the rest of history up to the present.
In the 18th century, it was argued that there was no such thing as a “true” hermaphrodite, with perfect sets of both genitalia and who could reproduce either way like earthworms. James Parsons argued in a 1741 treatise that what appeared to be a penis in some – perhaps even in Hall – was in fact just an enlarged clitoris. As seen in our episode “Did Da Vinci Omit the Clit?”, the clitoris had recently been rediscovered in Europe, and was much on the minds of physicians like Parsons.
And actually Parson at least believed he was trying to help. By denying the existence of “true” hermaphrodites, he thought he was helping intersex people by saving them from stigma. He even went so far as to recommend personal choice in deciding the sex of such people. However, this part of his treatise was little heeded. They only paid attention to the other part.
And in the 19th century this had a great influence. As doctors professionalized and assumed greater authority, they took the liberty of assigning sex. If no “true” hermaphrodites existed, as Parsons claimed, then someone had to decide, and who was more qualified than a doctor? They assigned sex, but not necessarily in accordance with the patient’s preference; on the contrary, their primary motive was to support the institution of marriage. So, they assigned sex in whatever way produced normative heterosexual unions. If a person was attracted to women, they would be assigned male, and vice versa, even if the person’s own preference and previous gender performance said otherwise. And in some cases, the decision would even be made final by surgery.
In the 20th century, this continued, but a case came to light of a botched circumcision where a child born clearly male suffered a whoopsie-doodle, and was thereafter raised female. This led psychologists to believe anyone could be raised as either sex, so long as it was assigned before the age of 18. After that, doctors began skewing female in their assignments for intersex infants. Why? Because it was much easier to surgically make the genitalia female than male, and if anybody could be raised as anything, you might as well make them female. Just raise them as girls and it’ll be fine, they told parents. They’ll never know.
However, they did know. As such children began reaching puberty, a very large proportion of them began to feel something was very wrong. It seems sex is far more innate than these 20th century doctors had thought.
Today, the generally-adopted strategy for intersex children is “wait and see”, placing trust that puberty will shed light on the situation. They may grow up and lean male, or lean female, or perhaps even adopt an identity somewhere in-between. It is still not necessarily the case that a person has full personal choice in all walks of life, however. For although, as I mentioned at the beginning of this episode, Minnesota now allows people to choose X for sex on their drivers license, that’s by no means common. It is one of only 16 US states allow such a choice to date (lgbtmap.org). Meanwhile, the federal census I filled out last week still had the same old tired M or F, no third option. Only about 11 countries in the world today offer some kind of non-binary or third gender category as a voluntary legal option (Wikipedia).
Have we made progress? Yes.
Do we have a long way still to go? Yes, we do.
Well, that’s it for today, folks. I hope you learned something, I certainly did. If you want to check out Hall’s case for yourself, you can find the full text of the minutes online. I’ll put a link on the website. The sequence of events is recorded in an odd and confusing way, so I’ve taken some poetic liberties in rearranging the statements to make them make sense, but otherwise I’ve presented the story as faithfully as I can.
If you like what we’re doing here on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating, and reviewing. You can also pledge on Patreon where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing. I will draw you as a Virginia colonist choosing dresses or breeches as you darn well please, or as a modern motorist proudly displaying M, F, or X on your license. Or whatever you want, I’ll make you look awesome, I promise. Just go to www.patreon.com/btnewberg.
Alright, folks, we’ve got more on sex and gender in the Americas coming up this month. I’m not sure exactly what just yet. As you might guess, things have been nuts with the Covid pandemic going on, but I’m trying to keep things on track.
I’ll see you next week. Stay healthy, everybody.
I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.
DeVun, Leah. “Heavenly Hermaphrodites: Sexual Difference at the Beginning of Time.” Postmedieval, Vol. 9, 2018: pp. 132-146.
Movement Advancement Project. “Identity Document Laws and Policies.” Retrieved Apr 5, 2020, from: https://www.lgbtmap.org/equality-maps/identity_document_laws
Pliny the Elder. Natural History. Loeb Classical Library. Retrieved Apr 5, 2020, from: https://www.loebclassics.com/view/pliny_elder-natural_history/1938/pb_LCL352.529.xml?readMode=recto
Reis, Elizabeth. Bodies in Doubt: An American History of Intersex. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.
Tougher, Shaun. The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society. New York: Routledge, 2008.
Treuer, Anton. The Assassination of Hole in the Day. St Paul, MN: Borealis Books, 2011.
Virginia, Council of. The Minutes of the Council and General Court of Colonial Virginia. McIlwaine, H. R., Ed. Richmond, VA, 1924.
Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod
Additional music and audio from: “Morning Sounds” from Free Sounds Library, “Angry Crowd Sound Effects” from Visual & Sound FX, “Sound Effect Gavel Hit Call to Order” from SoundEffects HD Indie Studios, “Crowd Gasp Sound Effect” from TurnerYoutubeSystem Cristopher Taylor, “English Country Dances – 17th Century Music – J. Playford, D. Douglass, P. O’Dette, A. Lawrence King” from Rocco Saviano, “Powhatan Renape Nation An American Indian Festival” from richerichusa1, “Heavenly Music Contact With Los Angels” from Transcending Sounds, “Ancient Roman Music – Synaulia I” from Aemilius Paulus, and “Minstrel Guild” by Kevin MacLeod.
“Starship Interprise” skit mixed from “Tos USS Enterprise NCC 1701 Bridge Background Ambience Sound” from Kingsirluke HD, “Star Trek: The Original Series Sound Effects” from MediaCollege.com, “Seagull Beach Sound Effect” from Free Sounds Library, and “Star Trek – Grabbing Women By the Shoulders” from Thomas McGregor.
Pilgrims image from Pinterest
Intersex pride flag from Wikipedia
One thought on “The First Intersex in Colonial America: The Case of Thomas/ine Hall”