Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Step Forward Into the Past




Update (March 29, 2009): I generally do not accept overly negative or anonymous comments. However I thought some of my readers may find the opposing viewpoint interesting. I will have a response of sorts to post soon. Oh, the name is Stephanie Marie :)

Yesterday (March 21), I attended my first reenactment in female costume at the Battle of Bentonville. It was an experience to say the least. I knew it would be an education stepping out as a transgender woman into a mainstream and somewhat conservative environment. I was shown much kindness particularly by my fellow reenactors. Many of the site visitors weren’t quite sure how to approach me. However the staff was completely supportive of me and helped in so many ways. Much like my first Ghost Walk at Latta Plantation, I will learn from where I am lacking.

I spent Friday night at a hotel in Smithfield, NC. Still needing some passable boots for a Civil War era civilian woman, I ventured to the outdoor outlet mall. Most of my outings over the years have been in urban areas. Ninety percent have probably been in Charlotte, Greensboro, or Atlanta. I had some concern about how I would be perceived in a smaller town in a conservative region. A few years ago, that concern might have prevented me from venturing out en femme. Now it’s just an afterthought. I visited six shoe stores in the mall and finally found a pair of perfect black plain square toe boots at Easy Spirit. I finished with a trip to CVS for some lipstick and other supplies. Every place I went, I was treated with courtesy.

One issue getting ready for my trip the next day was one of luggage and clothing logistics. How much of my costume could I get away with wearing without creating a driving hazard? What could I pack reasonably into one suitcase that I could drag to the changing room at the battlefield site? I ended up wearing my pantalets underneath my long green broomstick skirt (which doubled as my petticoats), a waist cincher (still waiting on the corset), the new black boots, and a white cotton chemise under my long sleeve green sweater. I stuffed my hoop skirt, dress, and bonnet into the suitcase. Whewww!

Arriving at the Bentonville site, I looked up my reenactment group, Citizens of the Old North State (CONS) and found several working in the kitchen. My email contact had told them I was coming, but I don’t think she explained I was transgender. I’m sure I caught them by surprise that yes, I am doing a feminine impression. I met Lora, CONS’ contact with Bentonville, and Hilda initially. Lora set me up with the changing room.

Putting on the dress is always an emotional experience. I’ve written before how wearing the formal dresses reminds me of a time when living the feminine life was just a far off fantasy. Putting on the Civil War era dress brings similar feelings, but it goes even deeper. The costume does take a bit more time and effort to put on. Once you are done and you see yourself in a style of dress that hasn’t been worn in over 140 years, it really puts you in a different mindset. There simply is no modern equivalent. One day I will write more about the feeling of wearing the full Civil War era women’s dress. I think every woman should do it at least once.

The first couple hours were spent chatting with Lora while she served breakfast and cleaned up. I helped where I could, but Lora has the period cooking down to a science. I must admit to a bit of nervousness knowing I had surprised the group with being transgender. My voice is a work in progress while my feminine period look still needs to be developed. As much as I don’t want my transgender life to be a central issue, it does take some adjustment. Add to that being the new person in the group searching for a role, and the initial awkwardness was amplified somewhat.

I do believe God sends His angels when you need them, and sometimes they take the form of humans. My angel was a lady by the name of Jan. She struck up a conversation with me after noticing me struggling a little bit with my hoop skirt. Jan complimented me on my dress and offered me a few pointers on walking and some other period correct accessories. This is the type of conversation I enjoy so much. Jan and I spoke for awhile as I wanted to pick her brain for more reenactment tips. It brought me out of my shell as I realized this is why I like reenacting. It’s the people, the stories, the shared experiences, the knowledge, and they all love giving freely of themselves with fellow reenactors and the public.

The rest of the day ended up being quite fun as I walked around the grounds chatting with many of the display artists and site volunteers. One lady, Jennifer, had a wonderful display of care packages sent to soldiers. Another pair of ladies dressed in all black showed off mourning photos, jewelry, and other related items. If a period photograph could tell a thousand words, it goes to show how much we have in common with our ancestors.

I also have to commend Lora and her son Wesley as they did a fantastic job on a television news interview with the local NBC affiliate. As much as I preach education for us in the TG community, reenacting faces obstacles as well. Many people see it merely as dressing up and playing with old guns. Lora said so very well that it is one thing to read history from a textbook. It’s another thing to step into their shoes and hoop skirts and attempt to live their lives. I couldn’t agree more!

One incident almost put a damper on the day. After chatting with a couple of the site volunteers inside the Harper House (which was used as a hospital during the war), I was approached by a man (probably in his 30’s) outside who asked if he should call me sir or ma’am. I replied ma’am initially thinking he was joking. He then asked if I realized there were children around and if I was being a good example to them. I tried to give a 15 second synopsis of my TG life (impossible!). He repeated his question to which I responded, “If I am the worse thing they see, then they will have lived a good life.” He thought that was a good answer, wished me a good day, and left.

I have mixed feeling about the above encounter. While I would like to “educate” as many as possible, I realize it is not always possible. My very existence and life is very different than the norm particularly in this community. I literally may be the first TG person many in the crowd have ever seen. I am also concerned that a snappy comeback is not always the best solution even though it worked here. I like to approach such encounters with humor and fun. If I can come across as a genuine person, then I’ve won. I was upset for about ten minutes. Lora thought I handled the situation well. One of the site volunteers also checked up on me which I very much appreciated. It had been too good of a day to be upset over one incident.

So all in all, it was a good day as I spent eight hours in the past (about 9am to 5pm). The weather was beautiful (a bit windy), and the large crowd attending the reenactment seemed to enjoy the festivities. I learned quite a bit. Even with a few missteps and much to grow in on many levels, I now have the reenacting bug. This is not a lark or a fleeting fancy. I feel I belong and have much to contribute. Living history for me is the perfect convergence of my feminine and social being. It’s hard to put into words, but it just feels right. I want to grow and express myself in a way that shows both the transgender and reenacting community in a good light. My education continues, and it will never end. That is the way it should be.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jaye,

Your impression is totally historically incorrect. Men and women would have been arresteD if they had tried to live a cross dressing life style, because it was against the law in most places in the 1860's. Also if you could document this type of life style, you would have been totally shunned by polite society. You also would have been concidered less than a prostitute in social standing.

So do not pat your self on the back for your coming out at Bentonville. I was there and you were a eyesore. Your intrepertation of the day is quite different from those who saw it from the other side. Like the Southern Ladiew we really are and you are not, we were too polite to insult you in public. You will not be so lucky next time.

The ladies in CONS were humilated.
The state site was irate as well as the staff.
CONS will not be invited to state sites anymore because of you. Their group has disbanded. Check it out, CONS website is down now.

Oh yes, your weekend was a sucess alright. You need to stay where you belong in the modern world, where you can cross dress to your hearts desire. There is no place for your impression in the historical accuracy of the past.

I dare you to post this.

A REAL TARHEEL LADY

Anonymous said...

Hummm..... something to ponder here.You said: "Men and women would have been arrested if they had tried to live a cross dressing life style, because it was against the law in most places in the
1860's" Interesting statement but inaccuate to the 100th degree.

As for historical documentation: There were between 250-400 "documented" cases of women dressing as men in the Civil War. Loretta Valesquez, Sarah Emma Edmonds, Sarha Rosetta Wakeman, Rebecca "Gerogianna" Peterman, Mary Ann Clark, Frances Clayton, Paulina Cushman..... shall I continue? Ok, there are inumerable ladies that were never identified as well, often many of them giving their lives for their cause and never being suspected. How about the lady from the Amry of the Cumberland who was even promoted to sergent and then gave birth to "a large baby boy"? How about Captain Billy, who went off to fight in the CSA with her husband, who died in battle, and she was promoted. Her name was never known. There are many women who did not have their names inscribed in history for the simple fact that they did not keep record of their life. Many of them did not have family, or were estranged from their families. Many went off to war with fathers, brothers, lovers, ect, and their secret kept by those loved ones. And yes, some were prostitutes looking for a better life and redemption from it. Others were imigrants, like Sarah Emma Edmonds, or how about Jenny Hoggins, who lived her entire "new life" in America as Albert Cashier. These are only the ones we know of due to the historical record. And guess what: NONE OF THEM WERE ARRESTED FOR CROSSDRESSING!!! They were accepted by their bunkmates and by their commanding officers. They were accknowledged for their deeds and for their accomplishments on the field of battle. Some of them died in prison camps, others were never discovered and presumably could have continued their lives as men or gone back to their lady like ways, as Sarah Emma Edmonds did.

Due to the incomplete documentation of that time period, families could have and would have concelled these identities due to either family embaressment or for the love of that family member that they encouraged and loved. So due to these circumstances, could there, in theory, been MEN who would have gone off and assimulated the role of a woman, just to dodge the conscription act?? There is no documentation of this, but if the historical recordes on woman combatants are incomplete, so could the historical records of such men. They would NOT have kept a diary of their life as a woman, for fear of being found out. They would not have written letters home due to the detachment from their families for what they were doing. So the historical record could be incomplete here as well.(I also have to go digging, but in my over 1000 scans of cdv's I do have a cdv picutre of a "woman" that has her hair parted very much on the side like a man. Has the very square jawline that we assimulate with men, and well, "she" is wearing a dress!)

The gender of a person in the
1860's would have been dictated by the clothing they wore. It was uncommon to see women in pants therefore many men never suspected that a woman would be among their units. There was no make up back then, there was 1000s of lbs of hair being imported into America for false hair pieces, that would easily make a wig or chigon very easy to aquire. Since us women were dressed up to the neck most of the time, and the only thing that ever showed was our face or even an arm under a sheer dress, and many women at that time were not large busted, and beyond popular belief many women were tall (Sarah Emma Edmonds was 5'6") a man could have easily passed as a lady in smaller towns that is for sure. Think about it.... they could have.

I'm sorry to hear that your group, what was it, the CONS, disbanded, but I doubt that this person, Stephanie Marie, had anything to do with that. I have a feeling, if you look at yourself and the group at large, there was a split brewing in there already, this was just the vehical for those that are conservative, close-minded and well, just plain ignorant, the opportunity to move the split along. I also doubt very highly that ALL of the historical sites in the area would disallow your particpation in historical events just because you knew of someone that is a transgender person. Oh, and get our of your pretty little head that I happen to be transgender- I'm as female as female comes! I just happen to be supportive of ANYONE that wants to join this hobby. Due to folks like yourself that tend to want to "live" history and have no room in your worlds for "mainstream" re-enactors, who do their research, as I have clearly shown, the hobby is dying in areas. If you keep closing out folks who really want to do this hobby, you might as well pack away your hoops and corsets, cause it will die out. Instead of fearing something that you clearly don't understand, and that you yourself have made the judgment on, you have gone and lost what could have been a great friend, had you given it the chance. It is you who I feel sorry for, for you are missing out on a great opportunity to help someone get into a hobby that is sorely in need of a reality boost. You, and your conservative "Progressive" friends have shuned a person that YOU never gave a chance to. Instead of facing a fear head on and trying to understand the hows and whys of it, you and your friends have choosen to run away and blame someone that you have no right to blame for something that was already brewin' on it's own.

I hope that you and your friends can live with your decision and how you have treated this person and others that may have tried to get into the hobby. I for one would love to have Stephanie Marie in my own unit (which is 74 members strong and continuing to grow) but "she" lives way too far away. Our groups main purpose is to help people get into this hard hobby accurately and efficiantly. We welcome ANYONE that wants to get into this hobby for it is no longer a "good ol' boys" hobby. It is open to anyone with a love of history, as Stephanie Marie has clearly shown.

So in closing, go ahead and blame whomever you wish to. The one that you should look at is yourself.

Respectfully,
A Union re-enactor - who has done her research past one book!

Josie Sands said...

I do hope that if you continue to dress 1860's that you will research how women dressed and improve your interpretation. Women did not have bangs, they always wore their hair confined, they didn't wear solid colored cotton or pagoda sleeves in cotton (only silk or wool), they wore one piece dresses, etc. At this point you are, as we say in the hobby, a farb (that stands for fashion atrocity reenactor bull....). Check www.AGSAS.org for wonderful tips on how to dress properly.

Josie Sands

Anonymous said...

The Tarheel Lady is correct in her statement "Men and women would have been arrested if they had tried to live a cross dressing life style, because it was against the law in most places in the 1860's." You were not arrested if you PASSED as the opposite sex.

The Union re-enactor is only listing examples of women who PASSED as men, not men passing as women as the Tarheel Lady is talking about. Just thought I would point out that difference in case you had not noticed.

Also if you have done your research, you would know that Loretta Valesquez was arrest for dressing as a man in LA during one of her spying missons.

JUST THE FACTS PLEASE

Anonymous said...

As a public historian and an employee of NC State Historic Sites I would like to say the following:

1. You look great (and accurate) in your Civil War costume.

2. If the CONS broke up over your participation, it is their loss.

3. The angry anonymous poster did not have her facts right. Her history was incorrect (as has already been stated by another poster), and the CONS have not been banned by any NC state historic site.

Ignore that venomous post and keep doing whatever makes you happy.

-- a supporter

Anonymous said...

I read the first post, and it made me sad and angry. I just wanted to write in support of what you're doing. Those groups need a little spice, and your costume is fantastic!

Also, I have to say this. A REAL TARHEEL LADY is obviously not a real southern lady. A lady (southern or not) acts with some kindness and understanding and isn't reduced to threatening people in order to get her way. Don't listen to her!

So, good luck with your new hobby. I hope you find a group that's right for you. I'm sure there are good ones out there.

Jessica Britton said...

Any group that would disband over ONE person is a group that had serious issues to begin with.

Give 'em hell, Stephanie! You're a braver, better person than any of the naysayers.

Oh, and as for "Real Tarheel Lady" hiding behind her "anonymous" status, a little thing I learned in the SCA. A true lady NEVER has to tell people she is one.

Shelly said...

First of all I want to say it is not my place to judge whether or not you should or shouldn't be at a re-enactment. In my opinion anyone who can and wants to participate accurately should be able to, as long they can afford to, and do their research. I have thought long and hard for a few days about what I wanted to say to you in this post. Normally I would have just let it slide and not have said anything yeah or neah, but having been under the criticizing eye of the "authentics" myself a time or two I'd like to offer some advice that I would offer anyone just starting out, and in fact have gave this advice many times...

RESEARCH, RESEARCH, RESEARCH. This is a hobby that there are far too many in, that do not have a clue where, when, or why an engagement or historical event happened. Don't let this be you. Don't depend on someone else's research and solely let this be your reason for doing something a certain way, do your own too. I can tell you there are way too many people in just to play dress up, aka Farby Barbies. So, if this is your reason for being in the hobby, stop now before you get in too deep.

One of the first things I have advised ladies that wanted to join our group, is get the book Who Wore What by Juanita Leisch. I don't know if it is still in print or not, but you can probably get it on interlibrarial loan if worse comes to worse. Let this be your bible of do's and don'ts in dressing yourself. If you are at the mercy of buying your clothing from sutlers be discriminating! Not all sutler's are equal. Learn to sew your own things, you can afford much nicer for less if you do. Go to museums, and historical clothing exhibits and view them firsthand with your own eyes. Janine and Phillip Whiteman along with others from the hobby have amassed a nice collection of men, women and children's clothing that they display and share with the community and with anyone wanting to learn. It's been awhile since I've viewed their things, and I don't know if they still travel around with their collection, but it's worth while to look them up.

I believe in the 1860's, someone in your situation would not want to draw attention to themselves, so they would not want to do one single thing to draw unwanted attention to themselves. This is the advice I give to you, and would do if I were in your situation and wanting sincerely to participate in the hobby for the right reasons. More likely than not, I would dress in country style, not high style. If you can not afford silks and woolens, and cotton is your only alternative, unless it's cotton sheers, then go the homespun route with a corded petticoat. Sheers were considered dressy summer wear, and they will not hold up in the field. Daily wear, most often referred to in the hobby as "work dresses" were usually cotton homespun in the South. Especially deep into the war years when it was the only thing they could get or afford. Instead of a dressy bonnet, consider a slat bonnet. This thing will hide a multitude of things when you need them to, in my case, usually a bad hair day, or to keep myself from getting sunburned most likely. Save your good dressey dresses for living histories at plantation homes or other likewise venues where women would have been dressed to the nines. IMHO the field is not the place to wear this sort of thing, but you see it all the time.

Learn period skills, making soap, open fire/hearth cooking, sewing, quilting. Learn about the material culture. It is my experience that people are genuinely interested in these sorts of things, and they want to learn about them.

In closeing, let me just say be there to educate not to just dress up and pretend that a canvas shelter is a southern plantation. There are already too many of these types in the hobby, or just there because their spouse or significant other is, and it is the only way they can spend time with them because they are involved in the hobby.

Good luck, and most of all, have fun! Too many forget that it is a hobby and you are suppose to have fun.

Sincerely,
Shelly
CBB

Victoria said...

I must say that I am very proud to have Stephanie Marie in the reenactments. It shows courage on her part to brave the wolves such as the first poster by attending. That is more than I can say for many beligerent people that she will meet.


I have been doing reenactments for ten years. I am a member of the Daughters of the Confederacy. I am the typical "Southern Belle" to many of my friends. What only my family and closest friends know is that I am TG. I was at Bentonville and believed that Stephanie Marie was accurate in her period costume and a very kindhearted person. People who allow ignorance in their units instead of knowledge are a disgrace. As poster #2 stated, this is a very difficult hobby to enter and anyone who denies people because they are "different" is helping it die. I hope that the people who thought they were "ladies" because they didn't insult her until she turned her back, are proud of themselves. We called people like that growing up less than honourable names.

Stephanie has my full support as she brings enlightenment to this dying trade. I wish others felt the same.

Sincerely,

Victoria

Anonymous said...

Very nice I to feel as you ,and think I should of been born back than,I also have many dresses corsets an everything needed to go back in time,I would love to do as you did an help others in are history

Anonymous said...

First I'll say up front that I wasn't there nor do I know much about the historical aspects- I should be ashamed as I'm a Southerner myself, but a more modern one. I do support those keeping our heritage alive, and Stephanie is one of those doing just that. I knew Stephanie from a decade ago, back in a time when my own life was different, and she is a woman at heart- and that's what being yourself- TG or not- is all about. Those who don't understand it should leave it alone, just live and let live. And before you consider asking someone to not be somewhere think about yourself and how you would feel with that applied to you over something you have no control over. If you still feel the same way then I hope your pettiness bites you in your butt hard as it probably will someday.

I am proud of you for being yourself Stephanie, and I'm glad that you haven't given up on yourself as I have had to do.

Penny