Tonight I had the pleasure of attending a lecture at the William Way Center, delivered by Jen Manion of UMass Amherst. They spoke about gender crossing and blending in the late 18th and 19th centuries, and particularly how it intersected with criminalization. It was a fantastic return to the subject for me, and seeing Manion engage in the subject in a personal way was quite eye-opening for me.
Manion had a lot of evidence to show that gender crossing happened relatively frequently in America as early as the mid-1700s, though they bring up the lack of sources, especially from a first-person perspective. While Manion mentioned a few diaries, the majority of their research came from newspapers, court records, and fiction. We’ve talked a lot about giving voice to the voiceless in our Methods class, and this is a poignant example of how that voicelessness problematizes the narratives we construct. One audience member asked about gay/lesbian vs trans history, and Manion stressed that as long as we don’t know how gender and sexuality interact for these individuals, what pronouns they use, etc, we can’t necessarily superimpose our modern interpretations onto them.
Manion sidesteps this problem with two strategies: one, Manion uses “they” pronouns for everyone; two, they look instead at the larger structures inside of which these people must operate. Normally I wouldn’t necessarily be a fan — this approach is useful in looking at how these larger structures, and thus our attitudes towards gender, have shifted and changed over time, but I don’t like losing sight of the individual within a larger category of people, which also risks being less engaging/interesting. However, Manion illustrates these structures through specific examples (though many of them are not first-person, due to the availability of sources), so individuals’ stories are still being told (to the best of Manion’s ability).
Aside from Manion’s fantastic scholarship, it was so refreshing and frankly inspiring to see an openly queer historian, especially one using “they” pronouns (assuming that PGN is accurate here, at least). I’m genderqueer and also use “they” pronouns in social settings, and I’ve struggled for a while with how to present in professional settings. I’ve long presented as binary male mostly out of convenience and to avoid confusion, awkwardness, and potentially making others uncomfortable. But as I get older, this gets harder and harder. I also worry about getting too far in my career that, if I do decide to switch pronouns at work, others will be resistant to it. Change is hard, and I hate both drawing attention to myself and asking others to do things for me. But if I had the opportunity to make an impression on someone else like Manion had on me tonight, that would be so great.
Of course, this is such a thorny topic, and I’m far from the first person to grapple with it. And it may be a very long time before I come to any kind of solution, if I ever do. But it’s so helpful to be reminded that others are engaging with this history, and with their relationships with it, and that the boundaries of professionalism aren’t necessarily boundaries of self-expression.