Colonial Williamsburg was a lot queerer than we were led to believe, and new efforts are underway to make sure this ignorance of LGBTQ+ contributions to American history is soon a thing of the past.
The popular living museum and restored colonial era community in Virginia is renowned for bringing the past to life, and the folks at Colonial Williamsburg are also working hard to include the stories previously ignored or hidden due to a historical bias against the LGBTQ+ community.
The efforts to unearth our hidden history in Williamsburg began several years ago when a gay male couple asked Aubrey Moog-Ayers, a queer weaver in full costume at the living museum, about the LGBTQ+ history of the area and era. She told Atlas Obscura the question left her stumped and sent her on a quest to “tell the whole story.”
Moog-Ayers met with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and soon the Gender and Sexual Diversity Research Committee was formed to conduct research and uncover the hidden history and personal stories of queer Williamsburg and other colonies.
The most notable early gay American at least somewhat familiar to the modern reader is Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben, better known as Baron von Steuben for those who are bad with long names. Celebrated in the history books as the Prussian military expert hired by George Washington to turn an undisciplined and demoralized Continental Army into an effective fighting force, he was also openly gay according to many modern scholars.
One of those scholars, Ren Tolson of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, believes the reason people know so little about LGBTQ+ contributions to American history, is because over the years few experts were looking for those contributions. This lack of scholarly interest in early American queer history means many people just assume it never existed.
“Long before Stonewall, people with nonconforming identities existed and sought companionship, community, understanding, and love,” Tolson wrote on the Colonial Williamsburg blog. “People who we would now classify as gay, lesbian, bi, transgender, nonbinary, and intersex existed and strove to express themselves and be acknowledged by those around them.”
Tolson told the Daily Press one particular story to demonstrate this point. Tolson came across two marriage certificate requests from the era for a landowning Virginia woman of some wealth and influence. The first request was denied, because she was a woman seeking to marry another woman and there was no marriage equality in colonial times. But a second request the following day was granted because she had applied while dressed in the manner of a man at the time. The eye-opening discovery proved LGBTQ+ folks existed at the time and, apparently, enjoyed some tolerance from the greater community.
“It’s not that the information isn’t there, it’s that it hasn’t been properly researched and a lot of other groups are overrepresented in the historic record,” Tolson reiterated to the Daily Press.
Tolson has written of folks like Anne Lister (of Gentleman Jack fame), who lived in the 1800s and left behind a wealth of information in a coded diary. Decoded then transcribed by Helena Whitbread, Lister’s entries showed long-term, intimate, same-sex relationships existed and thrived during the period. Lister used code to write she only loved “the fairer sex” and had no sexual attraction to men.
“We don’t have to guess what Anne thought or how she viewed herself,” Tolson wrote of Lister’s diaries and their significance. “She states it plainly and without pretense. These are her innermost thoughts. She was a woman who loved only other women. Today she might identify as a lesbian.”
Tolson also teased history buffs, queer or otherwise, telling the Daily Press the committee has been successful in their efforts, and will be revealing more of their discoveries soon.
You can learn more about the Colonial Williamsburg living museum, read their historical blogs, and even take virtual tours of the historic town at the website. ColonialWilliamsburg.org