A SHORT HISTORY OF
OF THE NEW JERSEY SUPPORT GROUP
by Jennifer Mae Barnes
New Jersey in Transgendered History
How far back does transgender history go in the territory comprised by New Jersey? I fear that this question may never be definitively answered. The Indians are noted for their Two Spirits. This is the proper name of the Native American transgendereds. The Portuguese explorers who first saw the male to female Two Spirits dubbed them berdago, meaning a gay queen. From berdago came the term berdache, often used to designate Indian transgendereds. But the Indians did not seem to have the difficulty distinguishing sex and gender that the Europeans had and still have. Some Two Spirits may have been gay or lesbian, but not all of them were. Just because a man wishes to live as a woman, wear women’s clothes, does not mean that he wants to sleep with a man. The same applies for Indian women who wished to hunt and dress like men. That of itself did not entail that they wished to sleep with women. Furthermore, the very term Two Spirits may imply that native Americans lived as both men and women. Passing may thus not have been crucial for successful transgenderism among New Jersey’s original inhabitants. Full Personality Expression thus may have antedated heterosexual cross dresser organizations such as Tri-Ess (the Society of the Second Self) by millennia. People who had second selves were much honored in Native American societies. They played an important role in Indian religion, initiating children, and social mediators, even acting almost marriage counselors. But it will be very difficult to write a history of the Two Spirits in New Jersey for reasons which concern the Indians in the state and which concern the history of Two Spirits in general. First, there were very few Leni Lenape residing year round in New Jersey. New Jersey was primarily regarded as a summer hunting ground. I grew up on a property on the Toms River which apparently contained numerous Lenape kitchen middens. But apparently the Indians simply came to these premises to feed on oysters during the summer and spent winters elsewhere. Another point is that the New Jersey Indians were either exterminated or driven out very early. The first Indian reservation in the nation was founded at Brotherton, now Indian Mills out in the Pine Barrens in 1756. While the Barrens may be noted for their Ham Rinds, or Caucasian-Indian Mestizos, probably few of them would know anything more about the Two Spirits in New Jersey than the numerous mixed Lenape who frequently join New Jersey transgender organizations. In addition, there are two sorts of problems associated with Two Spirits history generally. I once called a Southwestern Indian museum which had much impressed me when I visited the area to ask if they had any books on Two Spirits in their extensive book store and gift shop. I also asked about museum exhibits about Two Spirits. “Look, we regularly show white school children through this museum,” was the response I received. Well, among the Cheyenne, Two Spirits played an important role in initiating adolescents into adulthood. On the other hand, those who do offer materials on Two Spirits have no hesitation about charging a hefty price for them-$150 to rent a 20 minute video. In many instances, it is LGBTIQA-affiliated organizations which offer the videos or DVD’s. Furthermore, while videos on anthropological work on transgenders (for example, in Polynesian society) are shown at institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, they are not often shown at other institutions. I discussed the problem of Two Spirits history at an Indian Pow-Wow I attended this summer. With the eastern tribes, it seems that many people with some Indian but a lot of Black or White blood are rediscovering-reinventing regional Indian culture. There is an interest in the Two Spirits, and transgenders are accepted at Pow-Wows. Maybe some of these groups will reinvent or rediscover the eastern Two Spirits. If genealogical research proves that I am 1/16 Miami Indian (hence not Eastern Delaware), I know I am going to pursue this history more intensively, as then I can become a full member of the organizations hosting Pow-Wows. But the problem here is twofold. Will this lead to a rediscovery or a reinvention of the role of the Two Spirits, and again access to the information is restricted.
As regards the Europeans, it used to be established that the first royal governor of the colony from 1702-1708, Edward Hyde Lord Cornbury, Third Earl of Clarendon, cross dressed very publically. This assumption has been challenged by Patricia U. Bonomi, The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America. Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998. Her doubts as to whether Lord Cornbury ever cross dressed derive first from an examination of an alleged painting of him en femme. Bonomi argues that the painting was not done in the colonies, and does not accord with another known image of him. They derive second from the fact cross dressing was a popular topic of conversation in England at the time due to that famous Chevalier dEon de Beaumont had recently settled there. It was thus very simple for someone wishing to discredit someone to accuse that person of cross dressing. Bonomi’s book has not been received without controversy. Witness the critical review by Ned Landsman of the State University of New York at Stony Brook in volume 116 (fall/winter 1998) of New Jersey History. He is particularly critical of her attempts to rehabilitate Cornburys reputation. But Bonomis work is a very readable book containing much information which could be relevant for writing a history of transgenderism among the Europeans in New Jersey. At least it does suggest that transphobia was alive and well in colonial New Jersey.
Apart from whether Lord Cornbury cross-dressed or not, there are numerous other uncertainties facing anyone wishing to write a history of transgenderism in New Jersey among the European immigrant populations. First, the southern portions of the state were first colonized by Swedes, and New Jersey was once New Sweden. What is now New York state was once New Holland, and New York City was once New Amsterdam. The Dutch drove the Swedes out, who then joined forces with the English who drove the Dutch out of the state. So right away, diverse ethnic groups came to New Jersey bearing different attitudes toward transgenderism. I know very little about the attitudes of the Swedes toward it. It seems that cross dressing was widely accepted and practiced in England up until about 1690. Cross dressing was widely practiced at masquerade balls and the Elizabethan stage was noted for male actresses-unfortunately due to the fact that women were not allowed to serve as actresses. Then inspired by the example of Queen Elizabeth I, many women began crossing to enjoy male careers. The English who settled New Jersey were a diverse group with different attitudes toward politics and religion which may have had an impact upon their attitudes toward transgenderism. Edward Hyde was appointed the first Royal Governor of all of New Jersey. Before that time, the colony had been subdivided into East and West Jersey. The latter was the first Quaker colony in America, with its capital in Salem, New Jersey. Right within West Jersey, there were conflicts between Quakers and Anglicans. In East Jersey, the English and the Scots were at each other’s throats. Hyde inherited a wasp’s nest of conflicts when Queen Anne attempted to create a governorship unifying both halves. Bonomi has documented many of the political and ethnic conflicts raging in the colony in the early eighteenth century which surely created many ready-made political enemies for Lord Cornbury before he arrived. One is that masquerade balls were a hallmark of the nobility, so Whigs or advocates of a greater role for parliament turned against cross dressing for reasons that had little to do with transgenderism. But whatever English opponents to cross dressing may have existed in the colony, the Dutch were particularly hostile to feministic cross dressing, that is, women dressing like men to enjoy the opportunities afforded to males. In the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William of Orange of the Netherlands became King William III of England. The reign of William and Mary ushered in a great deal of hostility to cross dressing.
As a corollary to this, attitudes on transgenderism differed between colonies. It might be impossible to speak of a single colonial American attitude toward cross dressing. But Bonomi does not dwell upon a different reason why the American colonies may have inherited a disproportionate share of opponents to cross dressing. This is due to the types of religious groups America attracted. Americans are used to thinking of the Puritans as victims of intolerance. Maybe so, but whose intolerance-that of others or their own? In Europe today, many very beautiful religious buildings dot the landscape of rather secular societies. America seems to lack the splendid ecclesiastical architecture of many foreign lands, but makes up for it in the religiosity of many of its inhabitants. Consider the following: In colonial times, and at various periods thereafter, the European immigrants wished that the Indians would adopt agriculture. Hunting used up too much land in the views of the colonists and the early Americans. Nonetheless if the colonists practiced agriculture, why did they need so much of Indian land? Religious intolerance is one answer. Often a religious group would set up a small settlement. Initially its tenets would be strictly observed. But if the community prospered, it would attract people of other faiths and the town would have to relax municipal practices to accommodate residents of divergent beliefs. The purists would snort at this as corruption and laxity and head out into the wilderness to found a new community based upon a strict observance of religious tenets. This would occupy more Indian land. If the settlement prospered, it would attract trade, but tradesmen of divergent faiths, which would lead to a relaxation of religious purism-and the purists would move off again into the wilds, etc. Yes, Europe has had its intolerance. But emigration to America may have rid some European societies of their religious bigots. Writing a history of transgenderism in the New World may require recasting groups America has considered to be victims of intolerance as perpetrators of it. It is furthermore impossible to transfer the attitudes of the European countries from which the immigrants came to the American situation because America probably received skewed samples from these populations. I do not wish to deny European intolerance. Many Europeans today are tolerant of the LGBTIQA community because of the memory of the persecutions of the Third Reich. But the prevalence of support for creationism, and the rejection of sexual minority rights for religious reasons suggests that America has been repeatedly beset by intolerant groups, especially religious ones, complaining of the intolerance of others. Once at a party in Germany, a German assistant professor, during a discussion of the race troubles raging here in the Sixties and Seventies, inquired, “What sort of people went there? [to America, that is].” The hosts immediately apologized to the Americans present. Fine, one can retort, with the Third Reich, what sort stayed behind? But I wonder if many Americans can accept the fact that, despite his rudeness, bias, and frank inebriation, he asked a good question.
It may be necessary to study the means used by various European immigrant groups to repress transgenderism before it will become possible to document the transgenderism that they sought to eliminate. In other words, a sort of negative approach may be necessary. In New England, petticoating, that is, dressing a non-transgendered male as a woman, was a frequent form of punishment. This is based upon the lower status of women, almost implying that being female is a punishment. If women were subjected to the cucking stool (as they were in New Jersey, and the law prescribing this penalty for scolding was first struck down in 1972), the penalty provided for some male offenders was public ridicule by being placed petticoated into stocks. Probably very few are aware that circumcision was developed in Ancient Egypt almost as an anti-transgender ritual. Only deities had the property of being both male and female, so the Egyptians sought to excise divine bigenderality by removing the vagina-like foreskin from males and the penis-like clitoris from females. Today America is one of the few countries that practices non-religious circumcision on a wide scale. But it may be doubted whether this practice is motivated by a desire to suppress transgenderism, as few are aware of the origin of the rite in Egypt. Still, long before transsexual surgery was developed in 1931, the Egyptians believe all would be transgendered without surgery to make them straight. Furthermore, New Jersey, the State that Doesn’t Hate, is the only state ever to hold cross dressing by males to constitute extreme cruelty as grounds for divorce in a 1979 opinion. I note almost as a postscript that apparently some of Cornbury’s accusers were Scottish. For long periods in history, males wore skirts, and apparel which today would be considered as rather ornate female dress. But for a long time, the kilt would have been an unmistakably male skirt. But after skirts became the hallmark of women’s fashion? What about today, when members of the English royal family appear with both husband and wife dressed in sweaters and pleated skirts, or excuse me, a kilt for the husband and a pleated skirt for the wife. My point, though, is that specific European ethnic groups may have used different means to suppress transgenderism. I am Celtic, and I could wear a skirt-or whatever-as long as I acted a warrior part. In seemed that at one time, men almost bounced about in miniskirts, rompers and pantihose, and I could do the same to act the part of historical male figures. But if I acted female, no skirt. I had a belly full of such attitudes and term them Celtic phoniness. But it should be investigated if nullifying transgenderism by requiring boys who wore skirts to be macho was simply a problem for me and my family, or whether Celtic families more generally practiced this form of trans-suppression. When I bought my first pleated skirt, it took no Harry Potter to turn it from kilt to skirt.
To return to Bonomi’s work, I advise readers to consider Chapter Six section three. Here she attempts a clinical evaluation of transvestism. Yes, she uses that word. I leave it to the reader to determine if the theories of transgenderism she cites were up to date when she wrote the book, let alone today. Lord Cornbury died in 1723, so there is good reason that Professor Bonomi did not call him up and ask if he really cross dressed, or did not seek out the sources of the allegations that he did and ask if they were really not pulling everybody’s leg. But I wonder if she ever contacted a transgender organization or has never met a transgender-cross dresser or transsexual, male to female or female to male, gay or straight. But the flip side of this coin is, is the community, if such exists, ready to cooperate with such a historian?
I raise this particular question because, while transgenderism may have been decried as a sin, the notion that it is a pathology is more recent. To cite a widely read work, Patricia Burke’s Gender Shock, it appears that the Gender Identity Disorder Syndrome was created by the Nixon administration as a reaction to gay rights. The administration feared that tolerance toward gays would render many young men unfit for military service. GIDS was created to permit the incarceration and forced cure of boys who might grow up to be gay. The Nixon administration perceived gay rights to pose a threat to national security sufficient to justify forcible removal of “deviant” boys from their families. Just as it is bias to say that a male who dresses as a woman is gay, it likewise represents prejudice to state that a gentlemen who prefers gentlemen would like to dress up as a woman. For this reason, GIDS has never functioned as means for preventing boys from becoming unfit for military service. But transgenders have used the syndrome to gain medical insurance for therapy and transsexual treatment. Hence, the transgender community has benefitted from what was intended as a homophobic measure. Bonomi asks if it is appropriate to consider Eighteenth Century cross dressers in the light of modern theories of psychopathology. If it is, then the decision of President Nixon to retire in New Jersey occupies a central place in the history of transgenderism in the state.
I may have dwelt too long on Bonomi’s book. But I would advise readers to start with the allegations of cross dressing made against the Third Earl of Clarendon as they are presented on pages 158-163. Think a while. Some are far fetched-but are all of them implausible? Then read the rest of the book. I think the jury is still out on whether Edward Hyde cross dressed. Patricia Bonomi has raised serious doubts about the authenticity of a painting alleged to show Hyde en femme. But he did not cross dress because he did not fit any of the pathological forms of transvestism? Or maybe overly simplified, he was not pathological, so he did not cross dress? Is that good logic?
To turn to New Jersey’s blacks, cross dressing was quite common in the Underground Railroad. A frequent practice was to cross dress a mulatto who could pass for white, and pair him/her with a crossed darker skinned black. The two could then masquerade as a white person traveling with a slave. Cross dressing both disguised their identity. Cross dressed slaves could ride right out of slave states on trains or boats. I live right next door to Lawnside, New Jersey, the oldest independent black community in the United States. I recently visited the Peter Mott House there, which is the Underground Railroad Museum. I was told that apparently no one has ever investigated whether slaves who cross dressed to escape bondage continued to dress up after they had attained their freedom. But it might make an interesting project. One guide did notice that some Underground Railroad conductors, that is ex slaves who journeyed into slave states to bring slaves out, regularly cross dressed on their rescue missions. Whether this makes them transgendered is a separate issue that is yet to be investigated. It will be interesting if it proves to be easier to write a history of transgenderism among the Indian and black populations than of the European populations. Black historians of the Underground Railroad have no trouble admitting the extent to which cross dressing went on in rescue missions. Maybe someday someone will write a novel about a slave who cross dresses to escape, likes the experience, but decides to undertake repeated trips to rescue other slaves because freedomland in the North was not wholly free of transphobia. For some, escaping slavery may afford greater freedom than supposedly free states.
It should be note that New Jersey was unique with regard to slavery and the Underground Railroad. Many slaves went right through New Jersey from the slave states and on to Canada. This was because simply escaping to a free state would not prevent them from being captured and returned to their masters after the Dred Scott decision and under the Fugitive Slave Act. But some abolitionists purchased land for escaped slaves in Lawnside, and they were relatively safe there. But might cross dressing have afforded an escaped slave additional protection by rendering him/her unrecognizable to a slave catcher?
It would be possible to go into immigrant groups from Asia, such as the Chinese, with their dans, the male opera sopranos. Right now, I wish to state that the reason for writing transgender history is to show that acceptance of transgenderism antedates transphobia by a long time. Writing a history of transgenderism in New Jersey could take a very long time. Against the background of the difficulties in writing such a history, it is now possible to understand the problems which organizations like our support group were designed to address. And we can now turn to a history of transgender organizations in the state and our place among them.