The Real Story of the Female Hunter of Delaware County

Lucy Ann Lobdell quickly gained a reputation as a marksman during the 19th century. But after leaving home, Lobdell proved something different altogether — a transgender man.

BY Diane Anderson-Minshall

August 02 2012 4:00 AM ET

Pictured: Bambi Lobdell

Historically transgender people have been collapsed into homosexual categories, but you argue that we need to examine the people classified as extreme female inverts historically for hidden transgender men like Lobdell. Is there a movement in academia to do this? Are you familiar with other historical figures that should be rethought?
There are only a few people trying to reclaim transgender men from lesbian or passing woman history. Lack of written accounts where the subjects speak for themselves makes it very difficult to make the case that the female-bodied person identified as a man. Where there are any reports at all, they are written by authorities from a dominant, heterosexist, cissexist [see definition below] perspective, using terms dominant groups have created to frame people who do not conform to the traditionally gendered heterosexist imperative as unnatural, abnormal, ill, criminal, or somehow “wrong.” Sifting through sexological journals and reports and writings by authors such as Havelock Ellis or Magnus Hirschfeld could locate some subjects who might be misclassified, but finding information to corroborate transgender identify is often difficult. Gaining access to medical files of 19th-century patients in insane asylums is nearly impossible, and even then rarely contains the words of the subjects themselves. Even when we do have clear reports from the subjects, they are often mishandled by historians or theorists who enforce cissexist concepts to seize control of the identity of the gender-nonconforming subject. One such subject is Alan Hart, born Lucille Hart, who displayed masculine tendencies from early childhood, studied medicine at several universities, and became a successful doctor. In 1917, Hart was the first American [female-to-male] to have surgery to complete his transition, and later among the first to receive artificial testosterone. A year after transition surgery, he married Edna Ruddick. Hart went on to have a brilliant career as a doctor and medical researcher and success as an author. Despite his long life as a man, there were still some historians who insisted on labeling him a lesbian, privileging his birth anatomy and cissexist concepts to impose a label Hart never claimed — a fate similar to what Joe experienced. To impose cissexist or heteronormative labels onto bodies who have rejected them amounts to identity theft and works to reinforce cissexist thinking and power dynamics, so even where it is possible to reclaim a transgender subject, it can become a controversial thing to do.

Lobdell's story is so sad, in large part because his family sent him away and hid him from the world. The world, and his wife, thought he was dead. What really happened?

In 1878, Joe’s brother John helped him receive 15 years of back widow’s pension he had coming to him because the man he had been forced to marry had been killed in the Civil War. With that money, Joe bought a small farm, and he and Marie set up housekeeping like any other couple, which made him socially dangerous because he could no longer be arrested for vagrancy. In 1879 the same brother went to the judge in Delhi, the county seat of Delaware County in New York State, and asked the judge for a lunacy hearing. The judge told John to select 12 true and honest men and take their testimonies that Lucy was insane. Twelve men, including John Lobdell, handwrote testimonies that Lucy was insane for wearing men’s clothes, pretending to be a hunter, and pretending to love a woman. Three of these men had never even met Lucy; neither had the judge or the doctor who signed the certificate of insanity. In 1879 the Lobdell family released a false obituary that made newspapers from The New York Times to the Galveston Daily News, so wide was the Female Hunter’s notoriety. In reality, the family somehow managed to contain Joe in his brother’s house until he was taken to Willard Insane Asylum in Ovid, N.Y., in October of 1880. Joe was incarcerated at Willard but moved to the Insane Asylum at Binghamton, N.Y., in 1898, where he was held until he died in 1912. In 1882, Joe’s brother John died even though he was younger than his sister. Cousin Sidney Lobdell, who had also been on the committee to declare Lucy insane, took John’s place as administrator of Lucy’s income, and he died two years later even though he too was young. Another male cousin took over as administrator but he too died an untimely death. By the time Joe died, everyone who had been instrumental in putting him away in an insane asylum, including his own daughter, Helen, had died before he did. The only ones to leave any money to were his grandsons, innocent of the whole affair, who inherited $3,500 in 1912. Joe is buried on the grounds of the old insane asylum, his marker long lost, in a cemetery that is neglected, but surrounded by trees and woods and wildlife.

Lobdell sounds like an early example of many contemporary transgender men say: that masculinity isn't just something organic to men's bodies but is more a set of qualities that makes one a man. Do you think the general public is ready to hear that?
No, I do not think the general public is ready for this concept, even though masculinity (just like femininity) is a social construction, one whose criteria changes with time and place. We have cultural stories that tell us how people should be as men or women, what they should look like and do to be socially acceptable and desirable to intimate partners. But the construct of masculinity is designed to be in the superior position over those things coded as feminine, reinforcing gender ranking and the general social dominant position men have over women. This is the core of a patriarchal social order. The details of masculinity that get layered onto male bodies define “real men” and create a pecking order of social worth and value for varying degrees of masculinity, with white, heterosexual, middle-class, Christian, able-bodied, educated men at the top of the heap as the mythic norm. Notions of male dominance over female bodies seep into the bedroom and influence how straight couples are encouraged to view straight sex, with the understanding that the one who is penetrated is somehow the subordinate, the weaker one, the one with less control, less power. This gendered understanding of sex as a pairing of opposites in genitals and power dynamics influences how nonheterosexual acts are imagined, which enables some people to assume all gay men are effeminate, willingly taking on the feminized role of the one penetrated, inspiring some to view homosexuality as a threat to marriage, family, and apparently the order of the whole universe — because male bodies are not applying the masculine prerogative of penetrating female bodies but taking on that subordinated role themselves. Concepts of masculinity include strength, power, control over that person’s environment, self-reliance, and a lack of vulnerability, fear, uncertainty, or inability — traits that would seem to justify those who claim those qualities being in the dominant power position. Because masculinity and all its attending characteristics have been traditionally reserved for male bodies only, female-bodied persons claiming and displaying masculinity are often viewed as a threat to the social order created around privileged male bodies. Such a disruption to the gender ranking that creates and maintains traditional social order is often viewed as a threat, one needing some kind of social disciplining — name-calling, rejection, shunning, forms of violence, loss of family or jobs or homes — in order for the illusion of social order to be maintained.

There are plenty of recent examples of this.
We see variations of backlash when female-bodied persons who claim to be women enter traditional male spaces like sports, politics, or business, but when that person identifies as male, the amplified backlash reveals its transphobic fear. For example, when Chaz Bono participated in Dancing With the Stars, he was very open about what type of man he was and what his goals were — to be a visible man. His mere presence on the show sparked enormous controversy, resulting in numerous negative comments and the American Family Association urging a general boycott of the show, and beefed-up security for Chaz. There are still varying degrees of danger for female-bodied persons to claim masculinity, and those who do are the ones breaking down the barriers and making it easier for the next generation to live a more freely gendered existence.

What did your family think of you writing this book?
Most of my family are my biggest cheerleaders, especially my daughter, Chelsea. Cousins helped me research, and many were interested in every new detail uncovered. Most of my family shares a sense of pride and reverent love for Lucy-Joe, so they are great supporters of my work.

How do you identify?
I identify as straight, but am a strong ally for LGBTQ people. I teach gender studies classes at SUNY Oneonta, where I have been turned loose to teach classes in queer studies and transgender studies and queer literature, which the students seem to be hungry for. I love working with student groups exploring any gender or queer issues, and am trying to find time to reach out to communities near me to get more involved with queer youth, especially trans kids.

One thing that you talk about is how Marie's queerness is rendered sort of invisible and largely unthreatening, and that partners of trans men historically have been victims of transphobia, if for no other reason than they're dismissed as merely femme lesbians.
Such classification serves to reinforce the refusal to see the trans man as a man, thereby reducing the legitimacy of trans male identity. It also ignores or denies the existence of different styles of desire, namely female desire for masculinity that is not housed in a biological male body. It robs the woman of the right to name herself and define her own desire as it seizes control through naming in a way that shuttles that desire off to a classification less authentic, but less threatening to dominant concepts and ways of framing the reality around us. It is theft of the queer in order to safeguard dominant heteronormative patterns and concepts.

You say that acknowledging Marie's trans-queerness challenges classification of her as a femme lesbian. Can you talk a bit more about that?
When sexual attraction is reduced to a mere pairing up of opposite sets of genitals in our cultural understanding, the aspect of gender is absent. There seems to be an assumption that desire experienced by straight women is based on longing for sex with a body that has a penis, and desire experienced by lesbian women is based on longing for sex with a body with female genitals, as if gender is not a consideration. But what if desire and sexual satisfaction for some women are built around a desire for masculinity and masculine qualities and characteristics, but not a penis or traditional male body or person? We have such rigid boxes for what sex styles people can subscribe to, which greatly limits the potential for human sexual experience. Even today with the boxes of gay and lesbian more acceptable, those categories are still based on the genitals each body has, as if genitals alone are the source of truth about identity and desire. What if they’re not? What if genitals are not the core of a person’s identity or the single criteria for how to form intimate relationships? This is the question that “transgender” begs us to consider.  If genitals are not the sole determinant for how we define and classify people as individuals or as people in relationships, does the basis for how we construct sense of the world and social order fall apart? Is this why some people are so fearful of queer forms of sex styles and relationships that fall outside the meager “straight or gay” boxes? I think this kind of queer desire holds huge liberatory potential, which is, of course, what will make it a threat for some. It carries the echo of the social fear of the “lesbian threat” that was prominent a hundred years ago when lesbians were first “discovered.” Parents were warned to keep their daughters safe from “predatory lesbians,” because once the innocent girl was corrupted by the lesbian, she would not learn to love men. And what would men do? This would lead to the destruction of marriage and family and social order as we know it, and directly to the extinction of people, according to the authorities at the time — many of them sexologists who were studying such women. So queer desire that excludes biological, heterosexual men is often viewed as a threat to the established social order and its building block of the family, rather than a route to freedom from so many limiting roles and rules.

How much of Marie's story is known after Joseph is taken away?
Somehow Joe was called away from his farm to visit his family, and he did not return home. When Marie went looking for her husband, she was told Joe was dead. She was not allowed to keep the farm or the widow’s pension that had belonged to Joe. Marie wandered the woods near Honesdale, Pa., where she and Joe had lived, but Marie did not have the same survival skills that Joe had. Beloved by the community, many folks let her stay in their barns or homes temporarily. Sometime after 1883, Marie made her way back to Whitman, Mass., near where she had grown up, and worked at Dunbar, Hobart, and Co., a factory in Whitman, until she died in 1890. She did not know that Joe was still alive.

What can modern readers (and activists) take away from Joseph Lobdell's story?

Oh, I hope they take away Joe as a model of integrity, and hope for positive change when all people who do not conform to traditional gender presentation or identity can live safely and be celebrated in our culture. I hope Joe’s story educates those who are looking to know more about transgender history, and I hope it works to help build a legitimate transgender history in our culture. I hope it helps people understand that transgender is nothing new and that transphobia is a degrading, ugly, and destructive trait that must be eradicated from our culture. I hope readers gain a sense of respect for people willing to endure enormous social backlash, loss, and difficulty just to be themselves. Is there anything stronger and more desirable than that? Being one’s self? I hope some find a connection to Joe, one that comforts and inspires. I hope people fall in love with Joe and try to honor his life by working to change things now.

What’s the reaction of trans people to your book? Have you heard from any?
I have only heard from a few so far, but mostly they love Joe’s story, and I am told they feel a sense of place in history, an anchoring, a background that includes someone like them that they did not have before. I have had a couple trans men tell me they really enjoy a story about a trans man who has so many positive and desirable qualities and who is tough enough to stay true to himself. They also love Joe’s adventurous nature and his many talents. And many express a tender appreciation for Marie.

What are your hopes for the future of Joe’s story?
I really think Joe’s story can shed a lot of light on transgender embodiment and the cultural positioning of transgender people, perhaps in a way that encourages acceptance and reduces the uneasiness often felt in our society. As role models, I think Joe and Marie could be very inspiring. A filmmaker named Geoff Ryan, whose current film, Fray, is now making the film festival rounds and gathering up awards and critical acclaim, is working with Joe’s story to make it a feature film. Mr. Ryan focuses his creative work on social justice issues and feels Joe’s story would be an important contribution to the cultural dialogue on transgender [issues]. I can’t wait to work with him because he feels it is important to tell Joe’s story just as Joe lived it, and I think a film like that could be very powerful.

 

*Cissexism/cissexist definition: “Cis” refers to a person for whom assigned sex and gender and internal sense of gender and sex match up (that’s a nontrans person). Cissexism then is bigotry or discrimination toward people who aren’t “cisgendered” (such as transgender, transsexual, and genderqueer folks).

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