J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, November 03, 2018

The Legacy of Francis Lewis

I’ve written a couple of times about Deborah Lewis, a child born to John and Thankful (Crowell) Lewis of Yarmouth in 1730. The family soon moved to Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard.

In the summer of 1764, still living on the island, Lewis made a major change. Adopting the name Francis Lewis, he began living as a man. He married a young widow, Anne Luce, and they had at least five children between 1765 and 1782.

Francis Lewis lived through the Revolution, the new Massachusetts and U.S. Constitution, the Jeffersonian ascendancy, and the War of 1812. He died in 1823, a ninety-three-year-old great-grandfather.

Francis Lewis is an example of a transgender American well before hormone treatment and gender-change surgery became available (over sixty years ago now). At birth he was perceived as “bearing a similarity of both Sexes,” but his family and local authorities decided he was a girl. He was listed in vital records as female and had the limited rights of a woman well into adulthood. We don’t have his account of those first thirty years, or of his last sixty years, but we can presume the decades after 1764 were more comfortable and happy for him.

Currently, according to a draft memo reported by the New York Times, officials in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are trying to establish that: “Sex means a person’s status as male or female based on immutable biological traits identifiable by or before birth. . . . The sex listed on a person’s birth certificate, as originally issued, shall constitute definitive proof of a person’s sex unless rebutted by reliable genetic evidence.”

Francis Lewis was identified at birth as a female and listed as such on his society’s equivalent of a birth certificate. But that society was able to recognize that designation as incorrect—even with no knowledge of “reliable genetic evidence.” The proposed H.H.S. approach would make us go backward at least two and a half centuries.

Closer to home, we in Massachusetts are faced with a referendum, this year’s Question 3, which would revoke protections from discrimination against transgender people. Again, I think of Francis Lewis. According to his death notice, Lewis’s “family has always deserved and received the respect of those who knew it.” Transgender people deserve the same respect from us today.


Anonymous said...

I'm baffled -- who fathered those children? And if it was Frances, who was the child identified as female on the basis of appearance at birth?

J. L. Bell said...

No one appears to have doubted that Francis Lewis fathered those children. When he began living as a man, in fact, one newspaper account claimed that he did so because Anne Luce had become pregnant and they couldn't conceal the relationship anymore. But the dates of the marriage and first recorded birth are too far apart to support that story.

Lewis was probably what today's doctors call intersex since there was reportedly discussion of the baby's sex in 1730. After puberty his genitals might have changed in appearance and/or function.

It's striking how many years Lewis lived as an adult woman, though. Any visible change might not have been striking enough to remove ambiguity, or being raised as a girl might have had such a strong effect that Lewis didn't make the switch until his maleness was undeniable. Our evidence is very sparse.

Daniel Morgan said...

You are mixing your political beliefs with historical facts in an attempt to force your political agenda down the throats of others. Please take your political grandstanding to a more appropriate venue, and be more professional. Too many political hacks out there already.

J. L. Bell said...

“Daniel Morgan” is confused in multiple ways.

First, this is my blog. “Morgan” has no authority to tell me what to write and what’s “appropriate” or “professional.” That’s simply closed-minded arrogance.

Second, I presented some of the historical facts that inform my political beliefs. Fact, whether from the past or present, should guide our understanding of the world and thus our political choices.

Third, people who are truly concerned about people forcing others to conform to their beliefs would not demand that everyone else shape their behavior around their own narrow understandings of gender. Nor would they demand that someone else not share his political beliefs on his own website.

Fourth, complaining about being exposed to other people's political beliefs and about "political hacks" are inherently political acts themselves. Indeed, given that "Daniel Morgan" left this comment, he or she clearly has a strong opinion on this political question. To imply that opposing views are "political" while one's own are not is laughable.

Unknown said...

Huzzah to both the original post and to your response to "Daniel Morgan"!

Much of my personal philosophy can be traced to a line from the play 1776, spoken by Stephen Hopkins:

"Well, in all my years I ain't never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about. Hell yeah! I'm for debating anything. Rhode Island says yea!"

Unknown said...

Thank you for unearthing and publishing this fascinating and factual account! I am sharing it widely.

Nature is infinite in variety and endlessly fascinating, even as the human species busies itself with homogenizing the planet according to our whims and conveniences.