Arts & Culture

The Not So Curious Case of Thomas(ine) Hall

This is part of an ongoing series by Alex Petrovnia, known as #NoMoreRevisionistCistory, visiting transgender and gender non-conforming individuals throughout history and examining how the struggles they faced align with the struggles of transgender people today.
The Not So Curious Case of Thomas(ine) Hall

The tragedy of Thomasine Hall is primarily this - we know so, so little about them. In fact, the entirety of our knowledge of them comes from the proceedings of a single court case.

What we know is this — in 1629, a person going by the name of Thomas Hall arrived at the English settlement of Warrosquyoacke, near “James Cittie” (what would become Jamestown), in the colony of Virginia. They were working as an indentured servant at the time, but soon drew attention from the townsfolk, as they dressed alternatively in women’s and men’s clothing, and sometimes went by the name Thomasine, rather than Thomas. When confronted about this behavior, and asked whether they were a man or a woman, Hall replied simply that they were both.

In 1629 Colonial Virginia, this was not an acceptable answer.

Not only did Hall identify themself as both a man and a woman, but upon “examination” by members of the community, they were declared to be a man by one observer, then a woman by the next, then a man, until the case was sent to the Courts to determine. The initial charge brought against Hall was that of alleged fornication with a fellow servant, as well as rumors that Hall had sexual relations with both men and women.

The clerk of the local court collected the testimony of those who had examined Hall, as well as Hall’s description of their own body and history. According to Hall, they were born and labeled a girl at birth, and raised as Thomasine in England until the age of 22. At 22, however, Hall decided to follow their brother into the military, and so cut their hair, wore men’s clothing, and assumed the name Thomas for their service. After their service, they resumed living life as a woman, under the name Thomasine, as they had before, until they entered into a contract of indentured servitude as Thomas to travel to the new world. During their time in Virginia, they had fluidly changed between presenting as a man or as a woman, without concern for the stringently gendered social roles around them. Hall described their own body as being intersex, with both traditionally “male” and traditionally “female” anatomical features.

Intersex people at this time absolutely existed, but were almost always forced, either socially or physically, into choosing one gender role to occupy. When Hall was questioned about why they had not done this and simply posed as a man, they replied simply that “I goe in weomans aparell to gett a bitt for my Catt.”

If you read that and suspected it was a euphemism, you would be correct. Presenting as a woman allowed Hall to have sex with men, and so they chose to present alternately as a man and a woman according to their needs.

After listening to testimony from Hall and other members of their community, the Court declared a decision. It was stated that Hall must, “it shall bee published in the [plantation] where the said Hall lyveth that hee is a man and a woeman.” This was an incredible decision in a time when gender roles (and understanding of gender itself) were incredibly strict. To align themself with this judgement, it was required that Hall wear, “man’s apparel only his head to be attired in a Coyfe and Croscloth with an Apron before him”. This meant that they were to wear men’s dress from the neck down, but headdress in the women’s standard, and with a traditional women's apron.

A watercolor portrait of how Thomas(ine) Hall may have presented after their court ruling, with traditional attire of both men and women.
Portrait of Thomas/ine Hall, pencil and watercolor, Ren Tolson Copyright 2020: Ren Tolson All Rights Reserved.

While this decision may seem like it was momentously in favor of Hall, we must keep in mind the context in which this decision was made. Hall was an intersex and nonbinary person in a world in which intersex people were expected to either conform to the social standards of being a man or a woman, and even then were often highly ostracized and marginalized in doing so. By allowing Hall to present as both masculine and feminine, but at the same time, Hall was being labeled to anyone who saw them as a person violating gender norms, and thus, violating a social contract of protection. Hall would be afforded neither the protection offered to women at this time, nor the respect offered to men. Additionally, this mixed wear made it so that while Hall could previously dress themself to conform to social standards if they wished, they were no longer allowed the privacy or protection social conformity may have offered.

And tragically, after this singular instance in their life, Thomas(ine) Hall disappears from the record, never to be heard from again.

So what can we, in the modern era, learn from the story of Thomas(ine) Hall? Firstly we can learn that intersex and nonbinary identities are far from new, but are in fact a fully natural and expected variation in human beings.

But we can also learn that radicalism against gender binaries often takes forms that don’t look all that radical at first — ordinary people trying to live their lives in peace and pursuit of happiness. Queer existence is resistance.

The modern pressures for nonbinary and intersex people to conform, or to “pick one” are still powerful, and still limiting. It also shows us how our assumptions about the binary nature of sex are not only false, but immensely harmful for those who do not fall within those constructed boundaries, even if through no fault of their own. We can also see that these constructed binaries are very prone to confirmation bias (as seen by how those examining Hall were convinced they were either a man or a woman).

The story of Thomas(ine) Hall has been especially relevant as we have been collectively discussing the boundaries around how we define sex relevant to the Olympics.

An image of Laurel Hubbard smiling and putting a fist of victory in the air as she drops the weight she was lifting. She is a heavyset white woman wearing a ponytail and yellow shoes.
Laurel Hubbard celebrates after lifting. Source: The Financial Times.

In reference to Laurel Hubbard, an openly trans woman athlete competing in weightlifting, there have already been calls to limit women's sports based on testosterone levels, which at the stated levels, would exclude many cis women athletes. Several black cis women athletes, Castor Semenya, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, have already been prohibited from competing in this most recent games because they refused to take birth control to artificially lower their natural testosterone levels.

From left to right, three cropped and spliced together photos of famous athletes Christine Mboma, Beatrice Masilingi and Castor Semenya. They are all black women in various track uniforms.
Images of Christine Mboma, Beatrice Masilingi and Castor Semenya. Source: Tweet.

Sex is not a binary, but rather an assumed collection of physical characteristics that will vary from person to person, and across the lifespan. Without acknowledging this wide range of variation (aka insisting on a false dichotomy of "biological sex") we exclude anyone who happens to fall outside of an arbitrary "cutoff" assigned. Who is given the power to assign these cutoffs? What agendas do they have? I sincerely hope recent news, and stories such as those of Thomas(ine) Hall, allow us to perceive binary sex for what it is — a cultural assumption, not a biological reality. I also hope it gives us the compassion and wisdom to realize that the arbitrary limits we set to define this false assumption have the power to, and absolutely do, systematically exclude those already marginalize

This is part of an ongoing series by Alex Petrovnia, known as #NoMoreRevisionistCistory, visiting transgender and gender non-conforming individuals throughout history and examining how the struggles they faced align with the struggles of transgender people today.

For further reading:

**Seeing Eye to 'I'***We stand on the shoulders of giants. When we celebrate our progress, we look to those who came before. This LGBTQIA…*www.colonialwilliamsburg.org

**The Case of Thomas/Thomasine Hall: Intersex and Genderfluid Identity in the Colonial Period***This post is sponsored by Laura "Laura47" Boylan, with our great thanks. In 1629, a servant in colonial Virginia came…*the-toast.net

Continue Reading