Thursday, Nov. 10. author, historian and professor Dr. Susan Stryker spoke in Tucker Hall about the case of seemingly-intersex indentured servant Thomas/Thomasine Hall in a contemporary conceptualization of race. Stryker’s lecture, titled “On the Interrelatedness of Sex and Race Classification in Colonial Anglo-America” was hosted by the American studies, history and gender, sexuality and women’s studies departments, along with the Alma Mater Institute for Studies in Early American Culture at the College of William and Mary.
Stryker was introduced by Dr. Leisa Meyer, director of American studies and professor of history, American studies, and gender, sexuality and women’s studies at the College.
“Susan Stryker is Professor Emerita of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Arizona Tucson,” Meyer said. “Since retiring from the U of A, she has been a Presidential Fellow and Visiting Professor of Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at Yale in 2019–2020, Barbara Lee Distinguished Chair in Women’s Leadership at Mill’s College from 2020-2022, and a Mata Sutton Weeks External Faculty Fellow at Stanford University Humanities Institute, where she started in 2022 and is going through 2023.”
The work of Stryker in gender and sexuality studies is exhibited in her involvement as a co-director of the Emmy-winning documentary film “Screaming Queens: The Riot at Compton’s Cafeteria” which was released in 2005. This film approaches the topic of Gene Compton’s cafeteria riot of 1996 and was co-directed by Victor Silverman. She is also the co-producer of “Forever’s Gonna Start Tonight” (2009), a documentary film about a transgender performer and HIV-positive individual who works at nightclubs and lounges.
“This type of laundry list of accomplishments, however impressive, doesn’t make clear how deeply influential Professor Stryker and her work have been in developing and creating the field of transgender studies. And I would argue further in expanding and making more livable and viable LGBTQ studies, queer studies, and histories for transgender people.”
“This type of laundry list of accomplishments, however impressive, doesn’t make clear how deeply influential Professor Stryker and her work have been in developing and creating the field of transgender studies. And I would argue further in expanding and making more livable and viable LGBTQ studies, queer studies, and histories for transgender people,” Meyer said.
Stryker is also a published author of a range of books, including her piece “Gay by the Bay: A History of Queer Culture in the San Fransico Bay Area” (1996) co-authored by Jim van Buskirk. Stryker also wrote a sequel to this book, titled “Queer Pulp: Perverted Passions from the Golden Age of the Paperback” in 2001. Both of these books were nominated for a Lambda Literary Award.
Stryker is currently continuing her work on her next book, titled “Changing Gender,” which is under contract to Farrar Straus Giroux, as well as developing a variety of new film and television projects.
“I draw from both scholarship and cultural theory to inform the stories that I tell in my book about gender-changing people over the last 400 years, through which I demonstrate how the social system of gender itself has changed over time,” Stryker said. “I build an argument for why, here in the late anthropocene, gender needs to change further still.”
Stryker read a chapter from her new book and explained the history behind Thomas/Thomasine Hall’s experience as an intersex individual in the colonial era. According to historical records, an individual named Thomas Hall, who presented publicly as a man, arrived as an indentured servant from Plymouth, England to work in the tobacco fields of Virginia in late 1628.
“My original contribution here is to bring this well-trot historical narrative into dialogue with history of race and racialization, as well as with a more expansive sense of transgender history, to ground questions of sex and gender and race and ethnicity in the same underlying framework for understanding the social uses of embodied difference.”
“My original contribution here is to bring this well-trot historical narrative into dialogue with history of race and racialization, as well as with a more expansive sense of transgender history, to ground questions of sex and gender and race and ethnicity in the same underlying framework for understanding the social uses of embodied difference,” Stryker said.
The story of Thomas/Thomasine Hall was recovered and has been written about by prominent colonial historians of women, gender and sexuality, including Mary Beth Norton and intersex historian Elizabeth Reese.
Hall was born in 1605 in Newcastle upon Tyne in England and was raised as a woman after being christened Thomasine. Hall learned the art of lacemaking until 1627, when they chose to begin dressing as a male during the conscription of men into a battle to win territory for the English crown.
“One of the conscripted men was Hall’s brother and Thomasine saw a chance to change her own lot in life by joining him,” Stryker said. “She cut off her hair, donned masculine apparel, and changed her name to Thomas.”
Hall returned to Plymouth to serve in the prosperous lace industry, under the name of Thomasine. Thomas/Thomasine later became an indentured servant in order to embark to the industrial hub of Warrosquyoake Shire, Virginia in 1628 in male attire.
“Hall began dressing as a woman sometime before February of 1629, much to the astonishment of their neighbors,” Stryker said. “The case is known almost entirely from a single entry in the records of the General Court of Virginia, yet it nevertheless offers an expansive window into how early English colonists in America thought about gender and the interrelated questions of race.”
Hall’s master, John Titas, was unbothered by Hall’s change of attire, as was reported to the General Court of Virginia under testimony. However, others in the community launched a series of investigations regarding Hall’s gender. Hall was examined by Nathaniel Basse, who represented Warrosquyoake in the House of Burgesses, who found Hall to be a woman and ordered them to dress accordingly after a series of anatomical inquiries.
A group of three women were greatly intrigued by the biological components of Hall’s body, pressing the court to reopen the case to reexamine Hall and decide their gender on a legal basis.
“The power struggle between them and Bass suggests that the determination of sex, then as now, is as much a matter of social authority as it is of physiology,” Stryker said. “It suggests too that enforcing and interpreting what counts as sex has long been a site of struggle between different social constituencies and different forms of power and authority.”
A key focus in Stryker’s manuscript, especially in regards to the case of Thomas/Thomasine Hall, concerns the evolution of the treatment of biological differences in economic and legal practices and their relations to social practices involving the categorization and labeling of bodies.
“Ideologies of race and sex, as I’ve been trying to suggest, bind a common root and operate according to similar logics in these new uses of biology to define personhood and social status. This is an important dimension of how gender has changed in the context of colonization.”
“Ideologies of race and sex, as I’ve been trying to suggest, bind a common root and operate according to similar logics in these new uses of biology to define personhood and social status,” Stryker said. “This is an important dimension of how gender has changed in the context of colonization.”
Stryker closed the lecture by emphasizing that the life of a transgender individual involves the understanding of the exploratory experience of “surviving within and pointing beyond” the world order constructed in a period of European colonization and enslavement on the basis of biological differences.
By unjustly dividing people in terms of hierarchical categorization, Stryker believes certain meanings are assigned to the person’s flesh. However, Stryker asserts that the meanings attached to bodies are historically contingent and can be changed with loving and collective recognition of commonalities and differences.
Attendee Carina Pacheco ’23 heard about the lecture from her history professor and was excited to attend the event.
“I first heard about Dr. Stryker’s lecture through my Gender Sexuality & Women’s studies class, and immediately as a history major I was interested,” Pacheco said. “One of my favorite professors, Dr. Watkins, specializes in the history of gender and sexuality, so since taking my first class with him my freshman year I’ve been trying to expand my own understanding of how gender, sex, class and race intersect and influence history.”
Dr. Jerry Watkins III, senior lecturer in the History department at the College, has specialized in research on LGBTQ+ communities in the post-WWII United States.
“I’ve long held Professor Stryker in high esteem since she is one of the founders of my field. The talk was fabulous,” Watkins said. “I’ve taught about Thomas/Thomasine Hall in classes before but never considered the relationship between them and chattel slavery. Professor Stryker’s talk inspired me to think differently about the relationships between bodies and power at the moment in our country’s history. I plan on assigning the chapter on which her talk was based when it comes out.”
Stryker’s work contributes to the overarching dialogue of the life of intersex and transgender people, especially in the context of history. The release of the manuscript also opens a dialogue about the qualities of biocentric classification and offers remarks about the need for further change in the modern world.
“Professor Stryker has also called repeatedly on all of us to think more critically about the ways in which gender and race are coimbricated in the constructions of hierarchies that exclude and define the non-normative with the monstrous,” Meyer said. “In doing so, she’s asked what affinities might be shared between those who are differently racialized and subordinated but who also might work together towards common goals.”