A transgender history is often an overlooked narrative, with trans identities just recently being recognized and new vocabulary being continuously developed. It is only within the last few decades in which the words “Transgender” and “Trans” have begun to be used. It is also within these last few years in which the acceptance, as well as the acknowledgment of trans individuals, has only started to become further accepted. Examining sexuality, gender, and other aspects of LGBTQ+ history has always been difficult; more than difficult, it is a subjective analysis. While ample concrete research has been conducted, it is difficult to gain perspective and information regarding those individuals who could not only not express their identity but define their identity. The transgender population is one of the least addressed as it relates to their history, and while the definition and terms for transgender individuals are relatively new, identifying as the opposing gender is not a new concept, rather has forever existed.
When looking into transgender history, we are most often taken back to the mid-eighteenth century, hearing about names such as Karl Ulrich and Richard von Krafft-Ebing. This early history encompasses the creation of certain vocabulary, Ulrich coining a term for “female soul in the male body” and Krafft-Ebing making the word “defemination” to describe those who changed into a female’s personality.1 Beyond the initial vocabulary, a typical look into trans history focuses on early transitional surgery among some of the first who underwent it. Names such as Christine Jorgensen, the first American to undergo gender confirmation surgery, have circulated and made large headlines throughout the years.2 Focusing solely on trans history as it relates to its development and “creation” within the last few decades, we fail to understand the trans history and transgender individuals in their entirety. In fact, we miss out on trans history as a whole. According to Susan Styker, author of Transgender History, today, there are two ways scholars approach transgender history. The first method is the one that truly encapsulates all of transgender history, where historians analyze people in the past as trans, whether or not they used the label for themselves.3
Even today, regardless of which method historians use, there is a continuous struggle in studying transgender history. One of the more significant problems is that historians struggle with the “medical model which assumes that transgender expression requires bodily intervention through surgery or hormones.”4 Once again, when using a perspective that constrains trans individuals to the medical model, we overlook numerous transgender people and their histories.
While the conversation around the trans population is still in its early stages, there are still early accounts of trans individuals in history. Those historians who look past the “medical model” have been able to look back thousands of years and find transgender individuals throughout history. As far back as C.E. 218 to 222, we see a male leader’s desire to be feminine.5 There are accounts of him asking to be referred to as “she” and desiring the removal of his genitals. In South Asia, we also see hijra, the recognition of a nonbinary third gender, which emerged as early as the 1860s. Some of the earliest accounts provided information that two male priests crossed gender boundaries in their worship.6 One singular piece of trans history that historians have focused on but is often overlooked by the public is the prevalence of Female Husbands. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we see women who transition to men and, in almost all cases, engage in a committed relationship with another woman. Those who would classify as a “Female Husband” identified as a male, dressed as a male, and engaged in heteronormative relationships by marrying others females.7
In 1883, a news story covered Frank Dubois, a female husband whose identity had been suspected by locals and the reporter. The short article “Frank Dubois of Wisconsin Engages in most Entertaining Interview” follows the interview between Mr. Dubois and the newspaper reporter. In this interview, the reporter comes to Mr. Dubois’s home unexpectedly and immediately begins the discussion by asking Mr. Dubois if he has heard the rumors circulating about him. At no point throughout the interview does Frank Dubois fail to cooperate with or respond to the reporter. Throughout the article, the reporter continually alludes to Mr. Dubois’s true identity by adding details such as “in a voice which could not be mistaken for a man’s.” The interviewer continues to push the female narrative, and while Mr. Dubois does not disagree, he refuses to “reveal himself.” Mr. Dubois and his wife say that as long as they are satisfied, it is nobody’s business, this, however, does not stop the reporter, and under the perpetual pressure, Frank Dubois eventually collapses. In this part of the interview, we get the most insight into how Mr. Dubois felt and his choice to become a male. In tears, he explains that he had “tired of husband and family” and wished to lose his female identity and become male. He explains that he had previously admired Fertile Fuller, his now wife. One of the most interesting parts of this article is when Frank Dubois says that “I felt fully able to carry the burden,” following this sentence by saying he was happy.8 It is this early where we already see the discomfort in gender dysmorphia and the freedom and peace that accompanies changing your identity to fit with how you feel.
Prior to the late nineteenth century, we had no language to address gender identities, and due to the prevalence of transgender identities throughout our generation, it is difficult for us to consider a nineteenth-century perspective on female husbands. A teacher who specializes in transgender history has found that her students often declare who was ‘really’ trans and who merely transitioned gender for a particular reason. Female husbands often create skepticism when being evaluated, especially those who were female soldiers or female sailors.9 People often lean towards the idea that these identities were changed to alter an aspect of their lives rather than their identity. For example, being able to fight in the war, obtain certain occupations, and participate in male activities. However, this analysis is dangerous, as the absence of gender identity in the nineteenth century makes it incredibly difficult to assess. In a time period where there are distinct terms, pronouns, and ways for people to express themselves, it is impossible for us to understand how those who were female husbands lived. These artifactual newspapers and writings cover people who did not understand the term gender identity as it was not only not a word but a topic of discussion. To evaluate female husbands as twenty-first-century students would not allow us to grasp the true history of these artifacts, and while it may be tempting to analyze them, it is more important that we focus on the content and information that is provided.