Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

‘Like Chasing Shadows’: Uncovering Colonial Williamsburg’s LGBTQ history

Colonial Williamsburg has agreed to research gender and sexually nonconforming people in 18th-century America, acknowledging to the LGBTQ community that people like them “have always existed.”

The Washington Post

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

soldiers in red coat costumes marching at night, holding torches

The Fife and Drum Corps performs in Colonial Williamsburg in 2017. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

Aubrey Moog-Ayers was outside of an apothecary shop a few years ago, working as an orientation interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg, when two men pulled her aside.

The men, who said they were partners, asked her questions that stayed with her years later: What did she know about queer people in 18th-century America? Did anyone ever cross dress?

Moog-Ayers, who identifies as queer, told them about her own research — about gathering places for gay men in 18th-century England, known as “molly houses,” and about a Virginia colonist who dressed as a man and as a woman.

But stories about what today would be considered the LGBTQ community have never been a formal part of the programming at Colonial Williamsburg. For the past four years, Moog-Ayers has been encouraging the living-history museum to fill this void.

“I’m queer, and I wanted to see if that was something that existed, if I could see myself in the past,” said Moog-Ayers, now an apprentice weaver at Colonial Williamsburg.

In 2019, Moog-Ayers and other front-line staff members signed a petition calling for a push to study queer history at the popular tourist attraction, with the aim of telling a more complete story about those who lived in early America.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation agreed and recently launched a committee to research the history of gender and sexually nonconforming people. The group plans to create a source book for interpreters and guides to use while interacting with the half a million people who visit the historical site every year.

“Human beings who operate outside of sexual and gender expectations have always existed within and contributed to our history,” Beth Kelly, vice president of the Education, Research and Historical Interpretation Division at the foundation, wrote in an internal memo about the plans in April. “Sharing this history is vital if we are committed to telling a holistic narrative of our past.”

The foundation’s efforts are part of a growing effort across the country to include LGBTQ history in educational settings. At least five states, including Maryland in 2019 took steps to require public schools to teach lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history. About five years ago, the National Park Service also launched a project exploring and preserving the legacy of LGBTQ people.

“I think gradually we’re seeing this woven into the fabric of American education,” said Michael Bronski, a Harvard University professor and author of A Queer History of the United States for Young People. An important part of that effort, he said, will be incorporating these stories in museums, exhibits, libraries and historical sites such as Colonial Williamsburg.

Still, Bronski said he was surprised to see such an initiative in a place as prominent as Colonial Williamsburg, particularly on a topic that is still considered controversial among many Americans.

Other historical sites have faced backlash recently for grappling with topics some visitors see as polarizing. At Monticello, Mount Vernon and other plantations, they have complained about staff efforts to speak more honestly about slavery.

The changes come amid declining attendance at Colonial Williamsburg, which is attracting less than half of the visitors it did in the 1980s, according to an annual report from 2017. In 2018, ticketed attendance was 550,171.

Bronski anticipated possible pushback not just from some conservative visitors, but also from certain historians who oppose labeling people from centuries ago through the lens of the modern-day LGBTQ community.

Colonial Williamsburg historian Kelly Arehart acknowledged the challenges that come with researching sexuality and gender identity during the period, using language that didn’t exist at the time.

“There are all these gaps,” she said. “It’s like chasing shadows.”

Researchers plan to comb through available court documents, particularly from trials for those prosecuted under sodomy laws. Other clues can be found in letters or in poetry and art.

One local example mentioned by the Colonial Williamsburg researchers is the story of an indentured servant named Thomas Hall, who was born female and raised in England as a girl named Thomasine Hall. As an adult, Hall joined the army and began presenting as a man, with short hair and men’s clothing. In colonial Virginia, Hall continued to live as both a man and a woman.

After speculation by Hall’s neighbors and a forced physical examination, a Virginia court was unable to determine Hall’s sex. The court found that Hall “is a man and a woman,” and as a punishment, it ordered Hall to wear both men’s and women’s clothing.

“Thomasine was not allowed to choose gender for themselves,” said Kara French, an associate history professor at Salisbury University who is working as an outside consultant for Colonial Williamsburg’s researchers. “This idea that someone might be changing their gender or shifting their gender was not to be tolerated.”

Historians also point to Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben, a Prussian officer who was enlisted to train the Continental Army. At the time, rumors spread that he was fired from the Prussian military for being gay. He nevertheless rose to the rank of major general, commanding an American division at the battle of Yorktown, according to LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History, published in 2016 by the National Park Service and the National Park Foundation.

His sexuality “does seem to have been an open secret,” French said. “His expertise and his status allowed him certain privileges that the ordinary might not have had.”

Other examples cited by historians are not quite as clear-cut. For example, Alexander Hamilton wrote letters to Lt. Col. John Laurens that would seem intimate and almost romantic by today’s standards.

“Cold in my professions, warm in [my] friendships, I wish, my Dear Laurens, it m[n] be in my power, by action rather than words, [to] convince you that I love you,” Hamilton wrote in April 1779. “I shall only tell you that ’till you bade us Adieu, I hardly knew the value you had taught my heart to set upon you.”

It was not uncommon for men in the 18th and 19th centuries to experience “romantic friendships,” French said. Men and women lived very segregated lives at the time, she said, and many “primary attachments were going to be with people of the same sex.”

“They were brothers in arms, they were part of this close-knit group,” French said. “We’re not always sure about how deep these romantic friendships went.”

French also mentioned Deborah Sampson, who disguised herself as a man and joined the Patriot forces during the American Revolution. She was the only woman to earn a full military pension for participation in the Revolutionary War. She later co-wrote a memoir that boasted of “flirtations” from other women mistaking her for a man, French said.

It will never be possible to determine whether people like Sampson and Hamilton would identify with modern-day ideas of what it means to be queer. But that’s not necessarily the point of such research, Bronski said.

“It’s not about finding gay people in history,” Bronski said, “so much as it’s actually expanding our notions of human relationships and the complexity of human behavior.”

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for The Washington Post

This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published November 16, 2019. This article is republished here with permission.

Read The Washington Post’s Daily Briefing

Get The Post Most