Nonbinary Identity in the 1700s? – The Public Universal Friend, Part Two

Last month, I began describing the life of one of U.S. history’s most distinctive figures: the Public Universal Friend. The P.U.F., like me, was raised Quaker and embraced a genderless identity. The context in which the P.U.F. lived is fascinating and I’m excited to continue talking about this incredible life.

This month, I’ll be talking about what the P.U.F.’s life can teach us about how gender operated in the 1700s and the nature of transphobia. I think you’ll find it remarkable just how familiar the prejudice that dogged the P.U.F. feels today.

As soon as the P.U.F. began traveling and preaching, they began attracting the ire of more than just local Quaker meetings. Outside of the P.U.F.’s followers, few referred to the P.U.F. by their chosen name or respected their genderless identity. Instead, they treated the P.U.F.’s manner of dress as a reason not to trust them (which was mighty rich as the P.U.F. began to behave more and more like a cult leader and gave observers plenty of more valid reasons to be skeptical).

The P.U.F. was plagued by accusations of being a manipulative fraudster. All manner of rumors about the P.U.F. circulated, including claims that the Society of Universal Friends was engaged in sexual licentiousness, an especially ironic accusation when the P.U.F. preached celibacy. Often, detractors used the P.U.F.’s gender as evidence to support their claims. In this way, the treatment of the P.U.F. was strikingly similar to prejudice endured by many trans people today. Transphobia, especially transmisogyny and transmisogynoir, often manifests as depictions of trans people as deceptive, dishonest, or insane (an ableist accusation). That’s exactly how the P.U.F. was described.

In contrast, the P.U.F.’s followers respected their leader’s desire to be referred to as the Friend or the P.U.F. (yes, the P.U.F. is a real, historically accurate name for this figure!). The P.U.F.’s followers typically used no pronouns for the P.U.F. even in their private diaries.

(As an aside: I can’t help but wonder if starting your own religion in which your gender is a sacred miracle and a sign from God is the best way to get people to learn your pronouns. Maybe it’s worth a try.)

The P.U.F.’s gender caused another problem that feels surprisingly familiar to the struggles of trans people today. The P.U.F. held little in the way of property because the P.U.F. refused to sign their legal name to any document.

This legal obstacle magnified brewing conflicts within the Society of Universal Friends. The voices of the P.U.F.’s detractors grew louder after the Society of Universal Friends started to plan a town for themselves in Western New York, deep into unceded Seneca land. Because of the complicated legal status of the land (it was very uncomplicatedly Indigenous land and the Society of Universal Friends clearly benefited from the dispossession of Seneca people, but its legal status was unique), the community’s land was owned by a variety of different members while being shared in common. That set-up proved disastrous when some of the members of the Society decided to leave.

In the Fall of 1799, some of the wealthy men who followed the P.U.F. became disillusioned. Likely motivated by disputes over land ownership and the prominent role that women played in the society, they accused the P.U.F. of dishonesty. Then, they attempted to have the P.U.F. arrested for blasphemy.

(Interestingly, the charge of blasphemy was related to the fact that some members of the Society of Universal Friends thought that the P.U.F. was a messianic figure or even the reincarnation of Jesus. The P.U.F. never claimed that outright, but didn’t dispute it either. That’s one of the reasons that I personally think of the P.U.F. as a cult leader and, cool as the P.U.F. may be, I wouldn’t have joined the Society of Universal Friends.)

The P.U.F., of course, wasn’t willing to go quietly. In fact, the P.U.F. proved to be quite a badass. When an officer tried to seize the Friend, the P.U.F. escaped on horseback. Then officials tried to arrest the P.U.F. at home, but the women of the household drove them away. It took a posse of 30 men who surrounded the P.U.F.’s house at midnight to catch the leader. The mob took an axe to the P.U.F.’s door and were ready to throw them into an oxcart. A doctor with the posse intervened saying that the P.U.F. was too sick to be moved. The P.U.F. agreed to appear in court in 1800. Luckily for the P.U.F., a judge ruled that the P.U.F. had broken no laws since the constitution invalidated blasphemy laws.

The Society of Universal Friends continued to be beset by a variety of divisions and accusations until the P.U.F. became gravely ill for a second time. As the P.U.F. lay dying, they penned a will that supported the poorest members of the Society of Universal Friends. Upon a lawyer’s advice, the P.U.F. signed the will as the Public Universal Friend but included an amendment noting their legal name.

The dynamics of transphobia in the P.U.F.’s life reminds me of the treatment of another complicated trans figure: Liz Carmichael, the subject of the HBO docuseries The Lady and the Dale. Like the P.U.F., Liz Carmichael was beset by legal problems that were caused by her own shady behavior but were made much worse because of her gender. Carmichael produced a three wheeled car that she claimed got 70 miles to the gallon. She was charged with securities fraud, but much of her trial treated her gender as evidence against her. Both of these historical figures made very questionable choices, but our ability to evaluate their actions is forever tainted by the transphobia that surrounded them.

The P.U.F.’s legacy is still shaped by transphobia; most of the scholarly work on the P.U.F. uses she or he pronouns, instead of respecting the P.U.F.’s wishes.

The Public Universal Friend’s life isn’t easy to interpret. It poses uncertain implications for feminist history, religious history, settler colonial history, and LGBT history. But it does give us a lot to consider, especially about the role that tropes of deception play in transphobia. I’ll continue to write more about that topic as we journey through trans history. Thanks for sticking with me.

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