Editors' Note: Guest blogger William Klaber is the author of The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell which was recently published by Green Leaf Press.
One day in 1855, Lucy Ann Lobdell cut her hair, changed clothes and went off to live the rest of her life as a man, making gender history at every turn.
In frontier Minnesota she was put on trial for the crime of wearing men's clothes, "falsely impersonating a man, to the great scandal of the community, and against the peace and dignity of the state of Minnesota!" In Pennsylvania she was married to Marie Perry by an unsuspecting judge, as reported by the NY Sun, likely the first recorded same-sex marriage in America. In 1879 she was given a huge obituary in the New York Times: "Death of a Modern Diana, Wearing Man's Clothing She Wins a Girl's Love."
In 1891, in the journal Alienist and Neurologist, Dr. P.M. Wise referred to Lucy's relationship with Marie Perry as "lesbian love," that reference credited as the first time the term "lesbian" was applied to an American woman.
But was Lucy truly a lesbian? Or was she, perhaps, transgender?
"Transgender!" says Bambi Lobdell (a distant relative) in a book titled A Strange Sort of Being published by McFarland last year. The author argues that Lucy should not be thought of as a lesbian and should be referred to as Joseph. "My goal is to place the authority to define and label Lobdell with him, validating his identity as a transgendered [sic] man, and moving him from lesbian to transgender history."
Soon after publication, Diane Anderson-Minshall of the Advocate published a long interview with Bambi Lobdell, an interview that did not challenge or question the thesis of the book but instead accepted and promoted the idea that Lucy/Joseph Lobdell was transgender.
"It's a fascinating story of forced marriage, arrest, and incarceration in an insane asylum. Although 20th-century scholars have labeled Lobdell a lesbian, the author... [asserts] that there never was a "female hunter" [as Lucy was known] but really a transgender man who would eventually be locked away from society and his beloved for insisting on being a man."
But was Lucy Lobdell truly transgender? Or was she just a woman who changed clothes to get work and, once passing, discovered the hidden world of woman loving woman?
A month ago The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell was published by Green Leaf Press. It is the purported memoir of Lucy Lobdell - the one she promised to write. That book, if it ever existed, was never found, so 150 years later I decided to write it in her stead.
I am a man. I am hetero. I live in the 21st century. Could I be any more unqualified?
In my defense, I have worked for 12 years (researching, walking in the woods she hunted, sleeping on the ground she slept on - both in New York and out west) so that Lucy's story could be told in a penetrating and authentic way. To be qualified to write Lucy's memoir, any of us would have to completely surrender everything of who we are now and use our imagination to put ourselves into Lucy's place - a woman born on a farm in 1829.
Lucy was smart, she was brave, and she was also terribly naïve about many things. In Rebellion, Lucy over and again tries to figure out just what she is. Along the way she adopts (what today would be) a few incorrect ideas, but as time goes on, she comes to accept that she is a woman who loves women. What she doesn't solve for the reader is the lesbian/transgender riddle.
How could she? The words didn't even exist then. While Lucy could not address this issue, I, as author and Lucy-scholar, can. I don't think Lucy was transgender.
Bambi Lobdell is a bona fide Lucy Ann/Joseph Israel Lobdell scholar. Her research has expanded what is known of this intriguing cultural heroine. But most of the evidence that Bambi Lobdell cites to support her transgender argument comes from statements reportedly made by Lucy later in life, once she was locked up in an insane asylum.
When Lucy was a young woman she wrote a 50 page Narrative, which is part account of her girlhood and part feminist manifesto. If Lucy were truly transgender you might expect to see some hint of it in her detailed and unabashed self-examination, but you don't. Lucy goes on about her early boyfriends William Smith and Henry St. John and her bumpy relationship with "handsome" George Slater - a relationship that resulted in marriage.
Enthusiastic accounts of boyfriends and marriage don't automatically exclude the transgender wildcard, but the idea does become a bit strained. Bambi Lobdell and the Advocate explain Lucy's marriage to George Slater by alleging that the marriage was "forced" on her. Let's go to the videotape.
In Lucy's self-written Narrative, she informs her father while they are out in the barn that she wishes to marry George Slater. "This news seemed to sink deep in Father's heart, and he said he was afraid Mr. Slater would not use me well if I should have him. He said he wanted me to wait till next fall... He said he would hire George to work for him and then I would learn more of his true character."
Lucy and George demanded to be married, however, and forced her father's consent. Later Lucy laments, "Too late I learned Mr. Slater's disposition."
It was the other way around. Lucy forced the marriage on her family, whose misgivings about Mr. Slater were born out as he apparently cared more for the drink than he did for Lucy. He abused and then abandoned her - leaving her pregnant with daughter Helen.
By her own account, Lucy changed clothes so she could earn men's wages - to escape the tyranny of a world configured to serve only men. She didn't do it to meet girls. While she was an active and adventurous young woman, there is no indication that she felt as though she was a man trapped in a woman's body.
It was after she was passing as a man and women were turning on to her that Lucy began to see the world in a new way. It had to be confusing. The vocabulary to describe or sort out her situation didn't exist then - much less blogs or support groups.
To apply modern gender labels to historical characters is to invite error, but it seems clear to me that Lucy Lobdell by way of her writing was an early feminist. She was also, by her own words, an opportunity transvestite. She may have been, for a time, bisexual.
Most of all, she became a woman who loved women. Yes, once she changed clothes and felt the freedoms and privileges of being a man, she did not wish to go back. She preferred to remain in men's clothes and be addressed as Joseph and were she before me now I would address her as Joseph.
All of that can be true, and Lucy can still be a woman and a lesbian. To say she was transgender, end of story, is to deny what to me is most compelling about Lucy Ann Lobdell - her transformations.