What Mary Jones Teaches us about the Racist Roots of Transphobia – and the Survival of Black Trans Women

This month, I’m starting a discussion of the connections between anti-Black racism and trans identity. In this two-part sub-series, I’m going to explain how anti-Blackness shapes the very way we understand gender itself, much in the same way settler colonialism does. To begin, I want to introduce you to a remarkable woman named Mary Jones.

Mary Jones was one of the first known transgender women in in U.S. history and her story tells us a lot about how transgender identity and Blackness were understood in the early United States.

Jones was born in New York City in 1803. She was not allowed much education; she couldn’t read and signed her name with an “x.” As an adult, she served in the military and spent time in New Orleans before returning to her birthplace.

Through much of Jones’ life, she wore women’s clothing when she was among other Black people, like at dances and balls popular with Black communities and at all times in New Orleans. When she returned to New York City, in the daytime she wore a very dapper suit and worked as a waiter and cook. After the sun went down, she changed into women’s clothes and worked as a sex worker – and like many a desperate and enterprising young woman, she sometimes lifted the wallets of her clients. In fact, Jones was fully starring in her own version of Hustlers when she found herself arrested – and made her way into the history books.

On June 11, 1863, a white mason worker named Robert Haslem solicited sex from Jones. When he returned home, he realized his wallet was missing, along with 99 dollars. In its place, he found the wallet of another man (see, Jones was pretty slick). Haslem tracked down the man, but the wallet owner didn’t want to go to the police for fear of “exposing himself.” He was likely afraid that people would learn that he, a white man, had had sex with a Black person and with sex worker. Haslem, though, reported the crime to the police. An officer entrapped Jones by soliciting her services and arrested her. Upon searching her, the officer discovered that Jones was transgender and a nightmare began unfolding for her.

Jones was tried on June 16, 1836. She did something tremendously courageous during her trial: she appeared in court in a dress, a wig, and white earrings. The audience began mocking her; one onlooker grabbed the wig off her head. She was subjected to questions about her decision to wear feminine attire from the judge and laughter from the courtroom audience. Then, after Jones plead not guilty to grand larceny, the judge sentenced her to five years in Sing Sing for grand larceny.

Jones’ trial attracted tremendous media attention, generating many a sensational report. The media tended to report more on her attire than her crime, as though a trans woman in a dress was the real news story.

The most famous media report about Jones was a lithograph drawn by H.R. Robinson, in which he dubbed Jones “The Man-Monster.”

It’s a haunting image, that construes a beautiful woman into an ugly monstrosity. The pain of this image is intensified by the way it became a commercial commodity. This image was on sale to anyone who wanted to buy it. It was modestly priced and circulated for many years.

Jones spent the rest of her life under the surveillance of police, unscrupulous reporters, and the general public. She was arrested several times and reporters continued to report on her decision to wear women’s clothing.

Jones’ experiences reveal some important facts about life for Black transgender women in the early 1800s, highlighting how sexism, transphobia, and anti-Blackness intersected. Jones’ life shows us that Black transgender women were heavily criminalized for their race, gender, and poverty. They were transformed, literally in the case of Jones’ lithograph, into objects of fascination and disgust. They were also desired and many, like Jones, were profoundly resourceful.

These facts, however, raise important questions. Why were white people so fixated on Black transgender women like Jones? Why was Jones’ gender expression (her dress) treated as more of a crime than her thievery? Next month, I’ll try to answer those questions by looking at the history of scientific racism and sexology.