By Diane Anderson-Minshall
Originally published on Advocate.com August 02 2012 5:00 AM ET
Born in 1829 to a working-class family in upstate New York, Lucy Ann Lobdell quickly gained a reputation as a marksman, earning the nickname “The Female Hunter of Delaware County.” But after leaving home, Lobdell proved something different altogether: a transgender man. Now Lobdell’s distant relative, professor Bambi L. Lobdell, has written a fascinating account of Joseph Lobdell — who she calls Lucy-Joe — and what happened after he moved to the frontier, married a woman, and bucked 19th-century social restrictions and gender expectations. It’s a fascinating story of forced marriage, arrest, and incarceration in an insane asylum. Although 20th-century scholars have labeled Lobdell a lesbian, the author, while incorporating queer theory and Lobdell’s own writings, makes a fascinating argument in A Strange Sort of Being: The Transgender Life of Lucy Ann/Joseph Israel Lobdell, 1829-1912 that there never was a “female hunter” but really a transgender man who would eventually be locked away from society and his beloved for insisting on being a man.
The Advocate: I can't help but notice you share a last name with your subject. What's your relationship?
Bambi L. Lobdell: I am a distant relative — second cousin four times removed.
You write that Joseph Lobdell's descendants sort of downplayed his story, reducing him to the “female hunter” at best, or erasing him altogether. Can you tell me more about that and how you heard his story?
For decades, Lucy-Joe was a skeleton in the Lobdell family closet, a bit of an embarrassment, mostly for the charge of insanity, which carries a heavy social stigma even now. When my family first came across information on Lucy, there wasn’t much to go by. Lucy’s autobiography, The Narrative of the Female Hunter of Delaware and Sullivan County, published in 1855, gives no indication of male identification or desire for women. The autobiography presents an intelligent and strongly worded feminist manifesto for equal pay and opportunities for women and a personal refusal to live an oppressed life in the domestic sphere; she also presents her bold plan to seize freedoms and opportunities that women did not have legal rights to at the time by going out into the world in men’s clothes. The few newspaper articles available were modern retellings of older newspaper articles that often only featured Lucy as a woman who refused to stay in the place society set for her. When this lack of information was combined with a general cissexist ignorance of transgender identity that is still common, the first stories out of my family were not complete.
So how did you come to the story?
I was at a point in my graduate career where I was struggling to find a topic to research for my dissertation when my aunt Eadie placed a photocopy of Lucy’s book in my hands and told me I was going to love this story about a woman ancestor. I set it on my desk and immediately forgot about it because I was caught up in my dissertation crisis, trying to figure out what to do. But my aunt Eadie is not a woman to be put off, and she inquired about my opinion of the story so much that I ended up reading it mostly to shut her up. [Laughs] I got so excited after reading it that I mentioned it to the woman who ran the office at the apartment complex where I lived, Susan Crawson Shields. It turned out she is a distant cousin of mine, and Lucy’s great-great-granddaughter. When she asked me if I wanted to see pictures of Lucy, I realized my dissertation topic had found me! [Laughs] This project was quite intimidating for me because I felt a familial obligation to this person to get his story right, plus I knew nothing about gender or queer studies – didn’t even know they existed. But I found a professor more than willing to work with me on this as a dissertation topic and she steered me toward a reading list. After coming across Dr. Wise’s article, which quoted his patient Lucy three times insisting that he was a “man in all that the name implies,” my dissertation director, Leslie Heywood, introduced me to the concept of transgender and set me on my path of study. As I learned more about transgender [people], I started talking about Joe rather than Lucy and explaining the concept of transgender to my family. I was surprised at the lack of resistance most in my family had to seeing Joe as transgender, and while individual family members are at various levels of understanding, I find they are most comfortable referring to our ancestor as Lucy-Joe, which I think actually highlights the transgender aspect of Joe’s life. When a local reporter recently asked my aunt Eadie what she thought about Lucy, my aunt replied, “She was one tough dude.”
So this is an experience you’ve shared with your family.
This project has been a learning experience for my whole family, and while most of them celebrate the resiliency, determination, strength, and adventurous spirit of our ancestor and want to honor Joe for who he was, there is one conservative family member who is quite uncomfortable with Joe, his transgender nature, and his relationship with Marie. The one who gets forgotten or ignored the most is Marie. Joe is so obviously different, rather charismatic, and the center of the reports and histories of him that Marie tends to fade into the background or is only mentioned as a qualifier for those trying to give Joe the label of lesbian. I am focusing research time now on Marie in hopes of addressing this issue.
This isn’t the first reinterpretation of Lobdell’s life. But you’re the first to really treat Lobdell as a transgender man instead of a lesbian or an insane wild woman. Tell me more about coming to that decision.
Except for Lucy’s autobiography, all the primary source materials I found are written by someone other than Lobdell, and they are influenced by a dominant, cissexual perspective of people. Even so, they just did not sound like the story of someone trying to disguise themselves to gain anything, so something always felt not quite right to me when people talked about Lucy as a woman. Writers in the 19th century write about Lobdell as an “unsexed woman,” but not a lesbian. Common thought in that century believed that women had no sexual desire; they saw desire as an active, masculine thing belonging to men only. So it never occurred to them that women might desire each other. Most 19th-century people think Joe is perverted or insane, a corrupting influence on Marie, whom they see as sweet, but confused. Many newspaper and history writers focus on Lobdell’s obvious resistance to dominant gender roles and expressions, and mention repeatedly that Lobdell insisted on wearing men’s clothes and being called Joe, even when it brought him trouble. After leaving the family home, three times Joe was outed in communities where he had established himself as a respectable man, once chased out of town by a tar-and-feather crew, and twice jailed and tried for the crime of impersonating a man, and he still continued to live as a man, well knowing what the risks could be for doing so. Once he moved back close to the family home, because of his fame as the Female Hunter, his identity was not kept secret for long. Even when the general public discovered this person was Lucy Ann Lobdell, Joe continued to wear men’s clothes, do work that is traditionally reserved for men, go by the name of Joe, and refer to he and Marie as husband and wife, even though doing so brought a great deal of ridicule, legal harassment and arrest, and social abuse.
He seemed unable to tolerate being identified as a woman.
Despite Joe’s peerless abilities with guns, the only time Joe ever acted violently was when law officials forced him into women’s clothes. On one particular occasion when this happened, he ripped up those clothes and screamed until the sheriff brought him men’s clothes, at which point he became very calm and cooperative. Even after being incarcerated in Willard Insane Asylum, Lobdell “dressed in male attire throughout and declared herself to be a man, giving her name as Joseph Lobdell, a Methodist minister; said she was married and had a wife living,” according to Dr. Wise. Dr. Wise states that his patient is lucid, clear, coherent, not confused, not erratic, and able to relate vivid recollections of his life. In other words, Joe is not acting deluded or disconnected from reality. And in this frame of mind, Joe tells the doctor, the man who could release him, that he “considered herself a man in all that the name implies.”
Did talk of sex come up?
In discussions about sexual activities, Joe reveals a self-perception that he has a penis, which is not uncommon with transsexual men, and this is a direct quote given by the doctor: “I may be a woman in one sense, but I have peculiar organs that make me more a man that a woman.” [Dr. Wise’s report says] “She says she has the power to erect this organ in the same way a turtle protrudes its head — her own comparison.”
The concept of trans identity is both a modern one, but also one that we didn’t have words for back then in many cultures.
Please note that I am not claiming Joe was transsexual. I do not know what terminology Joe would use today. I only know he used the terms and concepts available to him while he lived, and referred to himself as a man, and did so with clarity and certainty — not confusion. If Lobdell had merely wanted a quiet life with Marie, he could have worn women’s clothes, presented as a woman, and lived with Marie. Because of the basic ignorance of the time, the community around Joe and Marie would not have known their relationship was an intimate one. It just so happens Joe identified as a man, and he and Marie thought they had a perfect right to live as man and wife, and did so stubbornly and openly. Considering the great deal of harassment and incarceration Joe experienced because of his gender presentation, I conclude that his reason for doing so was that he felt he was a man and brave enough to live as one openly.
Dr. P.M. Wise, a sexologist at the Willard Insane Asylum, where Lobdell was sent against his will, declared that Lobdell lived with and loved a woman, identified as a man, and had the mannerisms of a man, but since he had been born with female anatomy, that meant he was a woman with rare form of insanity. How common do you think that story is?
For centuries the church managed these types of personal behaviors. Transgressions of gender or sexual behavior would have been labeled as sins and fallen under the purview of the authorities of the church, who would then dispense harsh punishment meant to reestablish social order, making gender nonconformity very dangerous. Eventually civil law developed around the same heterosexist understandings of “normal” embodiment and also policed gender nonconformity and found ways to arrest gender outlaws. And frequently groups of citizens, often informally labeling gender nonconformity as insanity, took it upon themselves to punish gender outlaws through shunning or more violent methods in an effort to reestablish gendered social order.
Where does sexology come in?
The development of the pseudo-science of sexology in the mid 19th century moved management of nonheterosexist styles of gender, sex, and sexuality from the realms of religion and law to that of science. These doctors — precursors to modern psychiatrists — insisted that people who did not live according to traditional and dominant patterns of gender, sex, and sexuality suffered from congenital mental illnesses that they could not help; therefore they were not sinners or criminals but rather ill individuals who should be accorded compassion rather than punishment as sinners. Declaring themselves the new authorities over such cases, sexologists took over the management of their patients, whom they incarcerated in insane asylums and studied. Because of the common belief that only men experienced sexual desire, their investigations for decades were only of men, many whose difference was more obvious because of nontraditional gender presentations. Sexology started in Europe, and while the doctors there wrote about female same-sex desire, smug American doctors assumed that such behaviors were the result of immoral women and prostitutes, the type of which simply did not exist in America, where the women were believed to be pure and sexless. So imagine their surprise when they met Joe. [Laughs] It was Joe’s gender difference that got him committed, and his frank discussion of sexual desire confuses Dr. Wise, who believes his patient delusional. Joe describes experiencing nuptial satisfaction with Marie, which Dr. Wise dismisses as delusion because at the time, everyone knew sex was not possible without a penis, which Joe did not have. Joe’s words seem to reinforce Dr. Wise’s opinion that his patient is insane, and having never seen a person like Lobdell, he declares this case a rare clinical curiosity, never to be seen again. Dr. Wise’s 1883 article creates an awareness among sexological professionals, who first believe such people to have inverted gender natures and the brains of men, an ironic concept in Joe’s case. So technically, stories of female-bodied persons living as men and being declared insane were not prevalent before the second half of the 19th century.
But cross-dressing wasn’t new at that point.
Female-bodied persons certainly did live in male clothes, doing male activities, and marrying other female-bodied persons. Some made the national newspapers because of some scandal that exposed them, like Frank DuBois, female husband of Gertie Fuller, or, Edwin Nostraud, female husband of Lottie June, or Annie-Charles Hindle. Some newspaper articles present scathing reports of one female-bodied person living as a man and husband to another woman, but often these women leave the area and change their names before any authorities can incarcerate them. Often, the only reason there is any record of gender nonconformity in female-bodied persons is because they were arrested and then exposed, or exposed by some neighbor or family member and then incarcerated, and the reports written about them do not contain the words of the subjects — only those writing the reports. As a result, there are very few records of these people speaking on behalf of themselves, so no way to know just how many identified as men or at least not as women.
Later feminists and queer theorists sort of rediscovered Lobdell and declared him a passing woman, a lesbian who passed for economic reasons. But you don't think that economics really played a pivotal role in Joseph's ID as a man. Why is that?
Lobdell enjoyed only modest economic success as a man, and then that success was very temporary. Once outed as having a female body, he was chased from one community by a tar-and-feather crew, and arrested and tried for impersonating a man in two other communities. Once Joe’s identity as the celebrated Female Hunter of Delaware County is revealed, news spreads quickly, making it dangerous for Joe to enter towns near where he had lived as the Female Hunter. To avoid persecution, Joe and Marie live in the wilderness and enter towns only when necessary. Even then, Joe is frequently arrested on the charge of vagrancy. The fact that the very feminine Marie was not arrested makes it clear that the authorities were persecuting Joe for being a gender outlaw. Marie and Joe lived in caves and huts that Joe built in the woods and wandered over long distances, enjoying enormous freedom from traditional domestic arrangements, but living a tough life of poverty. Joe’s wilderness and hunting skills enabled them to survive, and they did odd jobs wherever they could to earn a bit of money. But life as a man was filled with enormous risks for Joe and subsequent loss for Marie. But both were willing to live in poverty in the wilderness so Joe could be who he was and they could have the marriage they wanted. If Joe had put on women’s clothes and returned to the name Lucy, the pair might have been able to live together quietly, without persecution. As it was, there was no financial reward for Joe to live as a man — only one of personal integrity.
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).