Hänschen Rilow and Ernst Röbel

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Hänschen Rilow and Ernst Röbel, two characters in Frühlings Erwachen, an 1891 German play by Frank Wedekind translated in English as Spring Awakening (or variations, such as The Awakening of Spring), are a same-sex teenage couple who – in a reversal of later conventions – have the most optimistic storyline in the production. Röbel is a mediocre student on the verge of failing his classes; Rilow, the more apt and sexually forward pupil who seduces him. (Rilow may also be read as bisexual given a scene in which he masturbates to an image of a woman.) The final scene in which they appear takes place in a vineyard and concludes with a declaration of love; remarkable, given that two of the other children end up dead and one on the run after breaking out of a reformatory.

For its frank discussion of sexuality Frühlings Erwachen has been repeatedly censored, including an incident in New York where an injunction had to be sought in order to put on a single matinee performance. (Ironically, Frühlings Erwachen was adapted as a Broadway musical in 2006.)

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Isadora Duncan

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Bisexual American dancer Isadora Duncan based her career on a rejection of the highly technical ballet popular in the 19th century and the embrace of a more freeform, natural style inspired by Greek artwork. She began teaching dance as a child before moving to Britain after limited professional success in the United States. Although her attempts to found her own dance schools floundered, her influence did spread, bringing a new aesthetic to American and Western European dance; what troupe she did forge she called the Isadorables. Her memoir was published soon after her accidental death, and was written due to a sharp decline in her fortunes as age made performing less of a possibility and her sympathy for the Soviet Union left her unpopular. A dance company named after her now performs her pieces with an all-female troupe.

Charley Parkhurst

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Credited on a bronze plaque as “the first woman to vote,” Charley Parkhurst was assigned female at birth but went on to become a stagecoach driver in California, a high-status position known as a “whip” or “Jehu”. Known as “One-eyed Charley” for the eyepatch he earned from a horse kick, he had a reputation for being an agreeable type who drank, smoke, and drove a respectable “six-horse”. Legend even tells of him taking down a notorious highway baron. Parkhurst has since been featured as the subject of several novels based on rumors about his life.

In addition to the possibility that Parkhurst never voted at all, the consistency and longevity of his assumed identity (like many other historical trans figures he made the newspaper after his body was inspected post-mortem) suggests that he identified as a man rather than a woman, and so could not have been the first woman to vote anyway.

Gertrude Stein

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Author, art collector, lecturer, and proprietor of a chic Parisian gathering spot for up and coming creative celebrities, Gertrude Stein was a living cultural hub. Originally from California, she and her partner Alice B. Toklas moved to the Left Bank to join Stein’s brother Leo as he was pursuing painting. They opened up their household, 27 Rue de Fleurus, as a gallery for artists and writers like Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Picasso. Stein’s own writing, a mix of poetry and prose, employed a deliberately simplified style that went on to play an influential role in American Modernism. Although Stein had a reputation for feminist and democratic politics, she was – and is – infamous for her support of the Vichy government during World War II, despite her own Jewish heritage.

Historiography Saturday: Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde

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In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, a Victorian parable so integrated into popular culture that its adaptations alone have their own Wikipedia page, the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll devises a drug that allows him to become an alter ego not restricted by expectations of respectability. The two halves coexist until the Hyde personality begins to take over and commits murder; facing discovery, Hyde commits suicide, ending both their lives.

Although the novella is clearly an allegory, Stevenson resisted applying a specific meaning to the Jekyll-Hyde duality. However, scholars have suggested that one possible interpretation might be that Jekyll creates Hyde as an outlet for his homosexuality, an attraction that would be unthinkable for a respectable physician to act upon.It is important to note that while many adaptations add a female love interested (or at least lust interest) for Jekyll, the original only contains two women, neither of which is even given a name. In 1885, the year before Strange Case was published, the Labouchere Amendment was passed, criminalizing sodomy and leaving homosexuals vulnerable to blackmail; the repeated references to a fear of blackmail could be read as references to the Amendment. One critic has gone so far as to suggest that the character is a stand-in for Stevenson’s own attraction to men, though her textual evidence is spotty. Regardless of authorial intent, the tale does take on a different spin when read as a tragedy of the repression of same-sex attraction.

Mrs. Nash

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The woman remembered only as Mrs. Nash was a 7th Calvary fixture. Officially a laundress for the US army regiment, she was also a well-liked seamstress, baker, and midwife who befriended the wife of the now-infamous Captain George Custer (and received paychecks from him for her services). She married a series of soldiers, the first two of which ran off with money she had saved. Sources disagree on whether she married three or four total, but what is certain is that she and her final husband enjoyed each other’s company until she fell fatally ill while he was on patrol. Her dying wish was for her friends to bury her as she was without any of the usual preparations; out of care for her they disobeyed, and discovered that she was not a cis woman. When her widower returned he was mocked mercilessly until he committed suicide.

In accordance with her long-term identity this blog refers to Mrs. Nash as transgender and employs female pronouns.

Murray Hall

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The death of transgender Tammany Hall staple and bail bondsman Murray Hall in 1901 caused a minor scandal in the daily papers when his trans status was disclosed to the coroner by his physician (to the physician’s credit, he refused to comment publicly). Hall had died of untreated breast cancer after living as a man for more than a quarter century, including two marriages to women and dutiful ballot-casting at every opportunity. By all accounts he lived up to the political machine stereotype, cigars and whiskey included, which the Times used as a dig against the politicians who “flatter themselves on their cleverness” but who had been fooled by Hall’s behavior into believing he was a cis man.

The Smithsonian hosts a more complete biography of Hall here; a solid collection of cited excerpts from Hall’s news paper coverage is available here.