IN THE CASTRO DISTRICT, the well-known hub of San Francisco’s gay community, bronze plaques embedded in the sidewalks honor famous LGBTQ individuals from around the world. Recognizing ancestors has a long pedigree in LGBTQ activism, dating back to 19th-century efforts to repeal sodomy laws in Germany. For generations, doing so allowed queer people to feel a sense of kinship with the past. It also enabled them to dispute those who argued that homosexuality, along with other queer gender and sexual identities, is an aberration of the modern world. Campaigners could point to ancients such as the poet Sappho or Alexander the Great as proof that homosexuality was neither unnatural nor harmful. Curiously, though, almost every single person in the Rainbow Honor Walk, as the Castro installation is known, is a figure of the 20th or 21st century. The oldest, the two-spirit Zuni tribal leader We’wha, was born in 1849 and died in 1896. There is seemingly no place for those older figures who were once held up as evidence of queerness in history.

This exclusion points to a fundamental tension in the history of sexuality. Whereas early activists and chroniclers of the gay past looked to resurrect a pantheon of ancestors, historians of the last several decades routinely express skepticism that those figures can be labeled gay, lesbian, trans, or queer in any productive sense, or that those figures would even recognize themselves or their experience in such labels. In so doing, they take their cue from the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who memorably and convincingly argued in his 1976 The History of Sexuality that “the homosexual” had only come into being in the late 19th century. Up until that point, there had been “sodomites” — men who had sex with men — but no one whose identity was defined by their sexual preference or the sexual acts in which they engaged. In its temporal limits, the Castro memorial implicitly supports such views.

This dispute over whether it makes sense to troll through the past for queer ancestors was a foundational question for the early history of sexuality, creating a division between “essentialists” who argued sexual identities were transhistorical and “constructivists” who contended they were socially constructed over time. The dispute also struck at the relationship between queer history and activism, namely the question of to what extent is queer history one of recuperation, of discovering lost ancestors who might serve as a model for queer people in the 21st century?

These questions clearly loomed large for Jen Manion as she wrote Female Husbands: A Trans History, published earlier this year by Cambridge University Press. A self-described “lifelong LGBTQ rights advocate” and professor of history at Amherst College, Manion created not only a strikingly original portrait of individuals who, as she puts it, “transed” gender in the 18th and 19th centuries, but also an impassioned cri de coeur for trans rights. In writing the history of “female husbands,” Manion walks a fine line between identifying those individuals as ancestors of trans people today and insisting that they were not, in fact, themselves trans. But in walking this knife’s edge, the book does not come down firmly on either side, leaving readers without an answer to the question of whether queer history is, or even if it can be, an exercise in the recovery of lost ancestors. In another sense, are the projects of recovery and historicization in harmony or conflict?

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The very language Manion employs in Female Husbands reveals how careful she was in walking the tightrope between recovery and historicization. Instead of calling her figures, female-assigned individuals who lived as men, “trans,” she refers to them as individuals who “transed” gender, indicating that they crossed commonly understood lines of binary gender identity and presentation. Similarly, she refuses to assert their gender identity, eschewing masculine and feminine pronouns for they/them/theirs. Doing so, Manion contends, “allows me to minimize disruption and avoid a false sense of stability when writing about a person over a long period of time, marked by varied gender expressions.” The book’s subject, she insists, is not trans people, but rather “female husbands,” a term in circulation in the 18th and 19th centuries that described female-assigned individuals who lived as men and married women.

The career of the female husband began on July 16, 1746, when one Charles Hamilton wedded one Mary Price in southwest England. Hamilton worked as a traveling apothecary, selling remedies to common ailments. They had been renting a room in the house of one Mary Creed, where they met Creed’s niece, Mary Price. But after just two months of marriage, Price denounced her new husband to the police, telling them that Hamilton was, in fact, a woman. Hamilton was tried under the 1744 Vagrancy Act, a flexible statute that ostensibly punished lack of employment and fraud, though, as Manion explains, “people were arrested under charge[s] of vagrancy for a wide range of activities.” The court seemed particularly perturbed by Mary Price’s account that her husband had “entered her Body several times” in so convincing a manner that she had not initially suspected anything out of the ordinary. The community of Glastonbury, where the trial was held, petitioned the court for a severe punishment. The court responded with a sentence of six months hard labor and public whippings in four towns. It was a severe punishment, Manion explains, and a reaction specifically to Hamilton’s “ability to engage in sex with a woman as a man,” which “exposed the instability of sexual difference and the imitability of heterosexual sex.” In the years after their punishment, Hamilton’s story spread in the United Kingdom and the American colonies. Eventually, they came to be known as “the female husband” — the first female-assigned person who had lived as a man and married a woman.

Hamilton’s story is one of brutal persecution for the “crime” of having transed gender. It fits well with what we might think of as the lachrymose theory of queer history, the idea that the history of gender and sexual heterodoxy is primarily one of persecution. Hamilton, who had enjoyed a relatively successful life as a traveling doctor, was suddenly deprived of their career, freedom, and very identity after being publicly exposed by their spouse. Other female husbands met similar fates, denounced by wives, relatives, and neighbors. And, as the science of sexology arose and grew in the 19th century, Manion asserts, “[d]octors, psychiatrists, and psychologists developed elaborate and official means by which to stigmatize, criminalize, isolate, and torture those assigned female at birth who stepped beyond the confines of appropriate gender and sexual behavior.”

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But there were other modes of existence that afforded female-assigned individuals a more comfortable — and accepted — life as men. Manion notes the long tradition, for instance, of female-assigned people enlisting as soldiers or sailors. These individuals, while not all female husbands, certainly transed gender and were often rewarded or praised for it.

On May 20, 1782, Robert Shurtliff enlisted in George Washington’s Continental Army, intent on helping the revolutionary cause. Shurtliff would serve until the end of the war, whereupon they settled in Massachusetts to work as a farmer. Several months later, they donned women’s clothing and began to live under the name Deborah Sampson. They later married Benjamin Gannett and had several children. Years later, Herman Mann “approached them with an offer to write their biography.” It appeared in 1797 under the title The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of the Revolution, and Shurtliff grew in fame as newspapers around the country picked up their story. In 1805, the federal government decided to award them a pension for their service in the Revolutionary War. Thanks to Mann’s biography, Shurtliff became something of a national celebrity. Unlike female husbands such as Charles Hamilton, Shurtliff exemplified a different tradition, that of the female soldier and the female sailor. Whereas contemporaries found Hamilton’s transgression of sexual norms appalling, they praised Shurtliff, in the words of an 1851 article, as “an humble girl of seventeen inspired with an ardent patriotism and resolution to stand forth in the defense of her injured country.”

Enlisting as a soldier or sailor provided an avenue through which female-assigned individuals could live as men, at least for a period, in a socially accepted manner. As Manion points out, however, female soldiers and sailors were a category distinct from female husbands. None of those praised in the national press for their patriotism or courage went on to marry women. In the case of James Gray, born Hannah Snell, who served several years in the British marines, Manion explains that they were treated as a hero and awarded an annual pension of thirty pounds for their service. “Gray was understood as abandoning their sex and transing gender in service of the greater good,” Manion writes. “This rendered Snell’s disclosure shocking but also safe and predictable.”

Manion notes, however, that the dichotomy between the accepted sailor or soldier and the disparaged husband does not always fit the historical record. James Howe, for instance, began presenting as a man in 1732 at the age of 16. They married a woman known as Mary Howe, and the couple became well known and respected as the owners of the White Horse Tavern in Poplar, a neighborhood of London’s East End. In 1750, Manion recounts, a woman named Mrs. Bentley began blackmailing Howe, threatening to reveal their assigned gender unless provided two 10-pound payments. Although it was a considerable sum — Howe paid a little over one pound in annual taxes — they were willing to pay to keep Bentley quiet. But when Bentley and two accomplices demanded 100 pounds, Howe “outed” themself as female. Doing so allowed Howe to press charges against Bentley and her accomplices. In 1766, a court sided with Howe and sentenced Bentley and one of her co-conspirators to four years in prison. Unlike the case of Charles Hamilton, Howe’s case shows the community rallying to the side of a female husband against the threat of blackmail. Of course, Howe did so only after they re-asserted their assigned female gender, thereby negating some of the controversy that might have arisen had they chosen to fight the charges as the male-presenting James Howe.

The fact that Howe succeeded in living as a married man for over 30 years indicates a degree of tolerance for female-assigned individuals who transed gender. Manion insists that in such cases the female wives must have known the sex of their husbands, suggesting that they were comfortable in the private knowledge that they had married a male-presenting, female-assigned person. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Mrs. Bentley would have been the only individual over the course of three decades to recognize Howe as a person assigned-female-at-birth. Howe’s ability to live for so long as a man suggests at the very least a certain nonchalance around what we today perceive as gender transing in the working-class world of the East End. Manion comes to similar conclusions throughout Female Husbands, claiming that some cases contain evidence of “a degree of tolerance and recognition.”

Another case from England reveals the confusion contemporaries had over defining gender. James Allen met Abigail Naylor while they were employed in the same household in the early 19th century. In 1807, they married in London and remained so for over two decades. In 1829, while working for a shipbuilder in Dockhead, Allen was hit on the head and killed by a piece of timber. During the autopsy, doctors discovered that Allen was “anatomically female.” That discovery set up a challenge before the coroner’s jury between the medical professionals who insisted Allen was a woman and the coroner, a lawyer by training, who maintained that it was “impossible for [Allen] to be a woman, as he had a wife.” Manion argues this courtroom drama exemplified a “tension between legal manhood and anatomical femaleness.” For some, Allen’s marriage contract was proof they were a man, while for others the proof was in the pudenda as it were. For historians, the point is that there existed no clear conception of what, exactly, gender was in early 19th-century England.

If anything, then, the history of female husbands is that of British and American society struggling to come to terms with what exactly gender was and what the acceptable bounds of it were in society. As Manion details, different cases brought forth different assumptions about clothing, biological sex, assumed gender, and the relationship among them. In some cases, the presence of a marriage contract was sufficient for authorities to accept the male gender of a female husband. In other cases, biological sex was claimed to take precedence over gender identity. But this messiness is precisely what led to the simultaneous persecution of and tolerance for those who transed gender. At the same time, it makes us unsure of how to think about these people vis-à-vis contemporary sexual and gender identities.

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The era of the female husband began to wane in the late 19th century. As sexology emerged as a scientific field and queer individuals began to deploy categories of sexual identity, the history of sexuality reached a pivot point. Manion contends that as doctors and scientists began to think in terms of sexual object choice, the messiness inherent in the idea of a female husband lost ground. This process, which many historians of sexuality see as a remarkably progressive one, because it gave queer people the tools with which to describe their own subjectivities and to fight for equal rights as part of a larger community, is treated in more complex terms by Manion. In the case of female husbands, she argues, sexologists no longer looked to the richness of female husbands’ lives, but rather boiled the experiences of such individuals down to the question of whether they were women who wanted to have sex with women. In other words, female husbands became lesbians.

In a further irony, Manion explains that historians of sexuality who would emerge decades later took the sexologists’ word and regarded figures such as Charles Hamilton “as a woman who wanted to be with other women,” proto-lesbians whose transing of gender reflected not a complex tale about gendered embodiment, but rather “the lengths to which women would go in order to be together.” It is precisely this kind of labeling that Manion is determined to evade in Female Husbands. Whereas sexologists of the 19th century, and still some historians today, wanted to know what these individuals really were, Manion indicates that there is no other really there — they were, simply, female husbands. This abrupt, and somewhat counterintuitive conclusion to the history of female husbands gets at a fundamental tension in how queer people view the past. Speaking from my own experience as a queer historian, I think many of us have a strong desire to look back to the past in search of models for the present. That is, we want to know how LGBT people lived in the past. But at the same time, we are reminded again and again that modern knowledge of sex, gender, and sexuality has at once shaped and constrained how we think of these identities. Our queer ancestors were not burdened by such identities nor by the truth imperatives that attend modern LGBTQ identity (indicated in the equation of coming out, for example, with “living your truth”).

Here, I think Manion has performed a deft flip of the script, acknowledging the lives her figures lived in all their complexity. Female Husbands is ultimately a history of how female-assigned individuals successfully and happily lived as men, married as men, loved as men, and even died as men. For all of the pain that Manion conjures, I ultimately find the joy more powerful. To me, it seems the key to unlocking a future way out of a present that insists on categorizing, labeling, and understanding, what Elizabeth Freeman has termed “our own sexually impoverished present.”

Female Husbands is a powerful work not only because Manion insists on taking the past on its own terms, but also because she refuses to tell her reader if she is reporting on a history that can be made legible to our 21st-century ideas about sexuality, sex, or gender identity. “I wanted to allow for a trans reading of [these] lives without foreclosing on the idea that some may have identified with the category of woman,” Manion explains. “I also wanted to hold gender and sexuality as a web of desires and experiences that might develop, conflict, and change over time.” I can think of no more liberating way of recounting the queer past.

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Samuel Clowes Huneke is a historian of modern Germany at George Mason University. He is currently at work on a book that examines homosexuality and politics in Germany during the Cold War.