Sunday, 9 October 2011

Extraordinary Lives 3

Peter Sewally (1806-1846+)

In June 1836 a black woman by the name of Mary Jones was arrested in New York for picking pockets and stealing wallets. The thefts occurred at night when Mary roamed the streets looking for men to start chatting her up. When the men started to get amorous and intimate Mary would pick their pocket. Sometimes she took the men back home to get even more intimate! Her crimes went unreported for a while, probably because the victims (all white men) were embarrassed. But police got a big shock when Mary was searched after her arrest. She was a man. No wonder her victims were embarrassed.

During his trial “Mary Jones” revealed himself to be Peter Sewally. His testimony is one of the first accounts of the life of a black man in America’s early lgbt community.

Sewally was born in New York in 1806, presumably to free black Americans. He claimed to have served in the army, but in which regiment isn’t known. Afterwards he began work in the homes of what he called “girls of ill fame”, meeting and greeting their “customers” at the door and collecting the money and acting as a sort of house-keeper. It was these “girls of ill fame” who first persuaded Sewally to dress as a woman, saying he looked better like that. He didn’t seem to offer any resistance to the idea and, by his own account, attended parties in New York and New Orleans dressed as a woman quite openly. Whether the other party-goers realised he was a man is uncertain. But it does seem certain that he began looking to have sex with men in his female attire.

Sewally’s trial was reported in the New York papers with each of them trying to out-do the other in revealing the lurid details of the case (and they say tabloid gutter press is a modern disease). In court Sewally was a victim of ridicule. Having chosen to appear in the dock dressed as woman someone behind him reduced the court to howls of laughter by snatching off his wig. Just the sight of a black man dressed as a woman was enough to reduce one court official to tears of laughter.

Such behaviour in court would reduce anyone in Sewally’s place to despair, but he was strong and firm, and utterly determined that he show the court who he was. Sewally was eventually sentenced to 5 years in the state prison for theft. A few days later a drawing appeared showing Sewally in his female clothes.

After his release Sewally remained out of public scrutiny until 1845 and 1846 when he returned to his masquerade and was imprisoned twice more.

What the story of Peter Sewally shows is that very early on in American history black men were cross-dressing and looking for sex with other men. The fact that the Afro-American community accepted him seems to indicate that they were more liberal than their white contemporaries when it came to displays of gender variance.

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