What Was It Like to Be Gay in Colonial America?

This March marks an unusual milestone: It’s been 239 years since the first U.S. soldier was thrown out of the Army for being gay.

His name was Lt. Frederick Gotthold Enslin, and he served in the Continental Army under George Washington. Though you’ve probably studied the Revolutionary War over and over throughout your education, you’ve probably never heard the story of the Valley Forge trial involving slander, court martial and exile.

The First Gay Man to Be Discharged from the Army

We know very little about Enslin. He may have arrived in Philadelphia from the Netherlands in 1774, according to a ship’s log. In 1778, during a cold winter in the midst of the Revolutionary War, an ensign at Valley Forge began spreading a rumor that Enslin had committed sodomy. At first, the ensign was charged with “propagating a scandalous report,” but he was later acquitted when the rumors were judged to be true.

George Washington himself wrote the report, and approved a sentence of exile from the army. “Lieut. Enslin to be drummed out of Camp tomorrow morning,” records indicate.

And so on March 15, Enslin was forced to march from camp with his coat turned inside-out, never to return. There are no records referencing his eventual fate.

Native Americans Vs. Colonists

That’s certainly not the only record of a difficult life for queer people prior to America’s founding. Though Native Americans fostered a welcoming and inclusive atmosphere, the invading Europeans established harsh penalties for same-sex relationships.

The Mamitaree tribe freely allowed people to choose their gender expression; and in the Crow tribe, a woman led battles and married other women.

The invaders did what they could to oppress queer indigenous people: “There will be much to do when the Holy Faith and the Christian religion are established among them,” wrote one religious official.

The colony’s “Body of Laws and Liberty” explicitly identified sodomy as a capital crime. In contrast, many European countries were decriminalizing homosexuality at this time, thanks to enlightenment philosophy that elevated individual freedoms.

The maypole of Merrymount

Harsh Puritan Penalties for Homosexuality

The Puritans established a brutal and punishing society, torturing individuals they thought guilty of homosexuality. In this climate, some queer people attempted to separate themselves from the cruel colonists.

In the 1600s, Thomas Morton founded a town called Merrymount (which was at the time an obscene slang term) and built a giant penis (a Maypole) in the town center. The Puritans destroyed the town a few years later and had Morton deported back to England.

A century later, a woman named Deborah Sampson Gannett disguised herself as a man and joined the army, fighting alongside men until an injury exposed the truth.

We have only limited knowledge of the queer lives of colonists, because they were forced to remain hidden. At certain times, homosexuality was punishable by death. It is only in recent decades that America has begrudgingly accepted that its citizenry includes queer people—echoes of those court-martials, deportations and executions still remain with us to this day.