Rachel Hope Cleves

The 2015 meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City kicked off to a great start on the afternoon of Friday, January 2, at 2:00, with a panel titled “Beyond the Binary: Promiscuous Interdisciplinarity and the Writing of Trans* History.” This session convened four of the contributors to the fall 2014 special issue of Early American Studies, “Beyond the Binaries: Critical Approaches to Sex and Gender in Early America,” for a conversation with the issue’s editor (myself) about the extension of trans* history and non-binary perspectives to the study of pre-Civil War America. Although queer activism and queer studies have sparked an increasing attention to transgender history during the past decade, the work in American history has focused largely on the recent past, reaching back little further than the late nineteenth century. This panel, and the special issue it discussed, aimed to push the field back in time and illuminate the existence and social knowledge of early American bodies, gender identities, and desires that defied neat divisions.

The panel began with brief presentations by the panelists. Greta LaFleur, Assistant Professor of American Studies at Yale University, spoke first about the challenges of doing trans* history avant la lettre. Although many historians have cited a fear of anachronism as their primary reason for not applying a trans* lens to early America, LaFleur expressed greater concern that “transgender” as a category might flatten the diversity of past experiences. LaFleur argued that this concern is especially pressing in light of transgender’s operation within a neoliberal political context, which creates the risk that the terminology might erase imbricated forms of state violence. LaFleur concluded by asking whether recognition of gender as a transhistorical category might help us to separate trans* history from the history of trans* people.

Scott Larson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of American Studies at George Washington University, spoke next on his dissertation research into the figure of the Publick Universal Friend, a self-declared genderless prophet who led an American religious community from the late-eighteenth through early-nineteenth centuries. Larson, who also holds an M.A. in religion from Yale Divinity School, spoke about the “God problem” in his research, or the challenge of taking seriously the Friend’s claims to genderlessness while preserving skepticism about the Friend’s narrative of death and rebirth. Trans* history has often stressed the category’s roots in modern medical forms of knowledge, a genealogy that has contributed to scholars’ unwillingness to apply the category to pre-modern times. However, Larson pointed out that religious history offers another important, and older, lineage for the development of transgender subjectivity. Larson concluded by asking whether American religious history is a history of gender beyond the binaries.

Third to speak on the panel was Sean Trainor, Ph.D. candidate in history at Pennsylvania State University. Trainor presented his research into the figure of Madame Clofullia, a bearded lady who appeared in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum during the 1850s. Trainor argued in his essay for Early American Studies that Clofullia did not challenge the sex and gender binaries of antebellum America, and few spectators questioned her womanhood or femininity.  Identifying himself as an outsider in the volume, Trainor pushed back on his co-panelists’ claims, questioning whether the many subjects examined in the special issue would have understood themselves as outside the binary. He concluded by noting that all the essays share an affective note of optimism, and he asked whether the authors went too easy on early America, a period that doesn’t deserve to be let off the hook.

T.R. Noddings, a Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern University, spoke last, observing that despite decades of research challenging and unseating the stability of sex and gender in early America, the binary framework continues to hold sway. Noddings suggested that non-binary conceptualizations may hold lesser explanatory ease for many scholars. Noddings praised Sharon Block’s suggestion in the special issue that the word cloud, a tool common in the digital humanities, might offer a productive alternative for visualizing gender.

After their presentations, the panelists engaged in a roundtable discussion of the special issue’s central concepts. The notion of history “beyond the binaries” came under skeptical questioning from Sean Trainor who asked whether the project depended on a straw man conception of the binary itself. Scott Larson agreed that the binary was accommodating, and that gender required a great deal of flexibility to remain durable. Greta LaFleur imagined the essays in the special issue as contributing to a thickening and enriching of the binary, and also pushed the conversation towards a discussion of sex in early America as not a self-identical category.

Questions from the floor followed, sparking productive disagreements. Questions from Kathryn Falvo, Maddie Williams, and Jesse Bayker, pushed Trainor’s observation of the optimistic bent of the special issue. Trainor suggested that variations in the expression of masculinity in early America need not be treated as “assaults” but could be understood as tolerated iterations. LaFleur stressed that her attention to the wide-range of non-binary gender expression in early America was not optimistic but intended as a corrective to the paucity of alternative stories. She announced herself willing to work in the speculative mode, not just the declarative. Larson went further, insisting that he felt an ethical imperative to make bold claims for trans* history, and to escape the “land of caveats” in which academic history often operates.

Claire Potter asked whether the search for same-sex intimacy in early America has obscured the history of transgender, a point on which there was wide agreement. But Jen Manion challenged the panelists by asking whether they shared a working definition of transgender. I explained that as editor I neither expected nor wanted consensus among the contributors. I pushed all the essayists to clarify what they meant by their terminology so that readers could compare and evaluate a range of possible approaches. Bruce Dorsey suggested Susan Stryker’s terminology of “non-gender-conformative people,” while acknowledging it to be so broad that all gender history could end up being trans* history. Scott Larson, in yet another felicitous phrase, introduced the idea of a “gender buffet.” Claire Potter returned the conversation to the notion of genderlessness. And with that, the clock struck four. We ran out of time in the meeting room and I ran out of space on my pad to take notes. Nobody, however, appeared to run out of questions. The conversation moved from the presenters’ table into the audience, before it spilled out into the hallway. Jen Manion, in a final word, suggested that the “Beyond the Binaries” panel may have been the first trans* panel on early America ever convened at the AHA. Considering that the panel gave rise to as many questions as it resolved, I have high hopes that it will not be the last.

Rachel Hope Cleves is an associate professor of history at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. She specializes in early American history and has written about the history of same-sex marriage and about American reactions to the French Revolution. Her books include The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (2009), and Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014).


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  1. Thanks Rachel–wish I had been there.

  2. Reblogged this on Brian Sandberg: Historical Perspectives and commented:
    Beyond the Binaries: On Gender History

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