What was it like to be intersex and white in the 1600s?

When we think about gender history prior to the mid-1800s, we must confront the fact that generalizing about the treatment of gender non-normative people is not possible. Individuals experienced profoundly different treatment based on their race or Indigeneity, as we have already discussed. Likewise, class had profound impacts on how gender differences were treated and whether gender non-conforming individuals were forced to break laws to survive, which our story today will highlight. But another reality loomed large and created differential experiences for gender non-normative people: understandings of gender itself were unsettled. Likewise, there were few laws targeting anyone perceived as cross-dressing and what laws that existed were local and varied. Thus, it’s not possible to fully answer the question “What was it like to be intersex and white in the 1600s?” Nonetheless, the stories that we do have are instructive and important.

According to Kathleen Brown, in the 1600s, medical theorists and scientists understood physical sex to be mutable. They believed that women were not a separate sex but an “an imperfect variant of men.” They thought that women had testes and penises tucked inside the vagina because they did not have enough heat in their bodies to cause them to develop. They thought that so-called “mannish behavior” could create physical changes in women, causing external genitalia to pop out of their bodies. This logic justified laws aimed at controlling the behavior of women, limiting their dress, occupation, names, and sexual relationships.

Controlling sexual relationships was at the crux of the control of gender during the 1600s. Because heterosexuality was assumed to be universal, people saw same-sex sexual attraction as a form of gender non-conformity. Enforcing sexual norms was a way of maintaining gender boundaries and sexual transgression was taken to be compelling evidence of gender deviance. If that’s confusing, don’t worry. The story of Thomas/Thomasine Hall, which I am discussing in this article, will illustrate this dynamic.

Thomas/Thomasine Hall was an intersex person – a person whose reproductive organs did not confirm to assumed norms. Intersex conditions were known during the 1600s. In England, common law, which followed canon law, generally held that intersex people must live as “which sex prevails.” That meant that authorities had the power to determine the gendered behavior of intersex people and enforced their decisions, as we will see in the case of Hall.

Hall went by both Thomas and Thomasine and lived as both a man and a woman at various times and identified was both genders. For that reason, I use the name “Hall” and refer to Hall by the pronouns that Hall used at the time.Hall was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England and raised as a girl. She became skilled at needlework, a craft associated with women. As a young person in the 1620s, Hall joined the military as a man for a while and then returned home as Thomasine where she supported herself by making bone lace and embroidery. In 1627, Hall donned men’s clothing again, and he became an indentured servant in Jamestown.

Living as a white man had many advantages, especially for indentured servants. Settlers preferred hiring men for the tobacco plantations they established in the area. Hall, however, did not live consistently as a man. Sometimes Hall elected to wear women’s clothing, particularly in sexual contexts. Hall told authorities, “I goe in womans apparel to get a bitt for my Catt,” an adorable way to saying that Hall liked to dress as a woman when seeking sex. Dressing as a woman would allow Hall to have relationships with men, but Hall was rumored to dress as Thomasine when having sex with women as well. One such rumor would prove to be Hall’s undoing.

Hall was accused of sleeping with a maid in the household of the former governor of Virginia. That was not only disruptive to the conservative community, but it could be a criminal offense. It all depended on Hall’s gender.

If Hall was legally a man, then he could be prosecuted for sexual misconduct with a servant. Since the community was keen to do something about Hall’s gender and sexual non-conformity, they decided that Hall’s sex had to be determined. That’s where this story takes a turn – and Hall was grievously violated.

Since there was no local court or church in town, three married women were selected to examine Hall. They decided that Hall was a man and called the owner of the plantation where Hall was indentured, John Atkins, to verify their opinion. Atkins had previously claimed that Hall was a woman, but now decided that Hall was a man and ordered Hall to where men’s clothing. However, he also called on the most prominent tobacco planter in the area to issue an opinion, a man named Captain Nathanial Bass. Bass had the novel idea to ask Hall if Hall was a man or a woman. Hall replied both, but because Hall had a small penis that did not ejaculate, Bass determined that he was not a man and thus could not be prosecuted for sleeping with a woman servant. The story, however, doesn’t end there.

Because the locals could not come to an agreement about Hall’s gender, they hauled Hall to the Quarter Court at Jamestown. The court there, in a departure from similar cases in Europe, held that Hall was intersex – stating “hee is a man and a woeman.” In a further departure from precedence, they came up with a novel and cruel punishment for Hall. Instead of forcing Hall to choose a gender (already a terrible punishment for someone who clearly stated identification with manhood and womanhood), they determined that Hall would be forced to dress in a way that made Hall’s intersex identity obvious to everyone.Hall was forced to “goe clothed in man’s apparel, only his head to be coyfe and croscloth with an apron before him.” Further, Hall would have to report to the court to ensure that Hall was complying with the edict.

This was an obvious punishment – instead of allowing Hall to blend into society as a man or a woman, Hall was forced to stand out, constantly on display as gender non-normative.

There the court record ends. We don’t know how long Hall was forced to live in this way or the consequences this dress had on Hall’s life. We do, however, know that Hall was made an example to the community. A gender fluid life was not tolerated in the English settler communities in the early colonization of Indigenous North America.

This story is important because it tells us how English settlers understood sex, gender, and sexuality among white people and how they regulated the gendered embodiment of white indentured servants.

Next, we’ll be talking about gender regulation in the early 1800s, before the advent of sexological understandings of gender. Buckle up – lumberjacks in dresses and so-called “female husbands” are next.