Although the case is little known in the United States, the life and times of 19th century transvestite Enriqueta Faber is well-known in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. We often forget that national borders in the early 1800s were permeable: people moved between Spanish, French and Anglo-American territories with ease. Moreover, societies themselves were in flux. Because of the high degrees of racial and class mixing, it was at times difficult to define everyone. Faber typified this notion. After the death of her husband, she sought her fortune disguised as a man. She studied medicine in France, served in the Napoleonic army in Russia and Spain, marching all the way across Europe. She later immigrated to Cuba, was given residency and married another woman in a Roman Catholic ceremony. Her life has been the subject of no fewer than four novels, innumerable essays, a short film, and a play.
The historical record doesn’t provide us with much information: historians more often than not have tried to write her out of History. What we know comes from the court documents from Santiago de Cuba and the order sending her into exile in New Orleans. According to Faber’s court testimony in 1823, after the death of her husband, Enriqueta Faber disguised herself as a man and enrolled in medical school in post-revolutionary France. After receiving a degree in modern surgery, Enrique Faber was drafted into the Napoleonic army to serve in the medical corps in Eastern Europe and Spain. After Napoleon’s defeat, Faber immigrated to the French colony of Guadalupe and, later under the name of Enrique, sought his fortune on the island of Cuba. Shortly after his arrival on the island, Faber was not only baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, but he also married a Cuban woman named Juana de León. Shortly after, Faber received an interview with the medical board charged with the authorizing medical practitioners on the island. After several days of thorough examination, the board was so impressed with Faber’s acumen that it granted Enrique legal residency, a license to practice medicine, and the title of medical examiner of the Faculty of Surgery for the town of Baracoa in Eastern Cuba. Despite some complaints from the local physicians that Faber was a foreigner and thus could not hold an official office, all accounts tell us that Faber had a successful medical practice.
Although there is a lot of speculation regarding the couple’s living arrangements, the marriage lasted for two years. After the two separated, Faber took residence in a nearby town. Once the townspeople began to question Faber’s manhood, Juana de León denounced her “legitimate” spouse, alleging that he deceived her by consummating the marriage through an artificial means. Despite her desire to keep the whole matter a secret, she now felt obliged to take legal action to annul the marriage. Several days later, Faber was taken into custody by local officials. From jail, he denied all of the charges and, in an attempt to dissuade his accusers, he offered to submit to a physical examination to prove that he was a man. Much to Faber’s surprise, the judge accepted his offer and ordered the examination to proceed. Faced with immanent unmasking, Faber quickly changed his testimony and confessed to being a woman. At this point, nonetheless, the judge ordered the examination to continue, and the court officially declared Faber a woman. The court documents report that Enrique “was found to have the entire pudendum appropriate to that of the feminine sex.”
After a trial, the judges declared Faber guilty of deception and blasphemy of the Roman Catholic sacraments. The courts rescinded the certificate of residency, medical license, and title as medical examiner. The marriage was annulled and Juana de León was indemnified. The judges obliged Faber to dress as a woman and condemned her to ten years in the women’s prison in Havana. On appeal, the sentence was reduced to four years, upon the completion of which she was to be immediately expelled from Cuba and all of the other territories under Spanish jurisdiction. Faber, however, did not complete her sentence. After repeated attempts to escape, she attempted suicide for a second time. Soon after, she was deported from the island to the port city of New Orleans. The final piece of information we have about Faber is that, according to an article that appeared in 1860, Faber apparently had repented and joined the Order of the Daughters of Charity and had taken residence in the newly founded hospital in New Orleans. At this point, Faber literally disappears from history.
Some versions of the events demonize Faber. They represent a sanitized version of history in which the guilty are punished, victims are indemnified, and the righteous are vindicated. Others, however, try to justify Faber’s behavior by describing her as a victim of circumstance. In general, each text tries to explain away Faber’s transvestism. For example, one historian, Andés Clemente Vázquez, argues that Faber would never have committed any crime had society allowed her to pursue a career in medicine. In this version, Faber becomes a pioneer in the feminist movement. He attributes Faber’s disguise “to social injustice and the condition of women.” For this reason, his novel focuses on the legal appeal in which the lawyer for the transvestite contends that society is much more guilty that she because it denies women basic civil rights. He also argues that Faber provides free medical attention to the impoverished people of Eastern Cuba. From this point of view, the transvestite hasn’t committed a crime because cross-dressing is the only way that she can have the opportunity to study, and work.
Although Clemente Vázquez’s contention is certainly plausible, there isn’t any historical evidence that the defense ever took place. It is most likely a fictional creation to hide some of the less palatable details of the case. In place of the references to the instrument, he simply inserts an ellipsis, a space marked by absence. The historical texts also go a long way to dispel any hit of lesbianism between Faber and Juana de León. Historians depict the marriage as if it were an act of charity: Juana de Leon is a poor orphan who needs financial support. Juana is also a sickly, young woman whose body couldn’t sustain the physical rigors of a sexual relationship.
Recently a researcher based in the U.S. found the original court records and published them in an anthology entitled Enriqueta Faber: Travestismo, documentos e historia (Madrid: Verbum, 2009). His contention is that History is frequently His-Story, a story written by men about what men want. As a result, historians often omit a number of detains that could overshadow their nice clean version of the truth. In this regard, historians have gone a long way in bowdlerizing the case. The eyewitness accounts describe Faber as a veteran of war. They also state that “her face was ugly, she was ill-tempered, and was obscene in her conversation, but that she had clear thinking and was skilled in surgery.” These testimonies also indicate that the complaints about Faber originate from the moment that he was named to the Faculty of Surgery in Baracoa. Many of the town’s officials objected that the Medical Board in Havana would name a foreigner to a position of authority. Faber’s marriage to Juana de Leon also provoked suspicions. The town priest who baptized and married the couple affirmed under oath that Faber wanted to “obtain the good graces of a white-faced woman…, and that he valued physical beauty much more than religion.”
The direct testimony also reveals that Faber’s real crime is not just marrying another woman, but rather it is what we would today call “possession with the intention of trafficking and distribution.” That is, the possession, fabrication, and distribution of dildos. The documents confirm that while Faber was a practicing surgeon, she also was making a number of prostheses, which the court referred to as “instruments.” Apparently, there was such a likeness that Faber was able to appear disrobed in front of a delegation of town officials so they could attest to his “manhood.” Do real men actually look?
Anyway, Faber made six of these “instruments” with the expressed intention of sending them to the town Mayor who had gone off on a moralistic binge and was intent on separating all unmarried couples. Faber was going to suggest that if the Mayor truly wanted to keep the couples separated, he should provide each woman with her very on instrument. In any case, the Mayor never received them because the room that Faber rented didn’t have a key and “they were stolen by some young black women who later dispersed all of these instruments.”
While this may sound rather strange to us, it makes plenty of sense. Being a surgeon in Napoleon’s Army, Faber would have had to perform routine amputations. She also would have had to make prostheses. Thus, it should come as no surprise to us that the judges believed every word that Juana de Leon presented in her case against Faber. She accused Faber of having “feigned consummation of the marriage through an artificial means, which in that moment, she couldn’t understand.” She also mentions “certain discomforts and circumstances that decency doesn’t permit her to discuss.”
In this regard, there is much more to this case than simply a question of disguise. Faber wasn’t just another version of Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie, defending the rights of women everywhere. The implications of her case go far beyond some provincial comedy, and they even call into question the role of men in sex. Are they truly necessary? Perhaps this is why the judges are adamant about confiscating and destroying the remaining instruments. The mere existence of a dildo suggests that men might not have the right stuff. Maybe something is missing, even when everything is in place. For this reason, most historians tend to write out all of the references to the instruments in their versions of the case. In a footnote in his novel, one even writes the following:
In the attempt to avoid the inconveniences that became evident in the respective court testimony, the author finds himself obligated to omit some of the incidents that produced the rupture between the heroine of the novel and the unfortunate Juana de Leon. Those who people that would like to learn the unpleasant reality may inquire in the pages of the journal La Administración, which was cited before. But what was excusable in a journal of jurisprudence, destined to circulate among lawyers, would be censurable in a novel like this one, which could be read by virtuous young women. In summary, the present book has conserved the culminating facts of the true history of Henrietta Faber, excluding only those of a certain libidinous nature, which are improper of a refined society that has not lost its right to be respected (Clement Vázquez, 186).
We don’t know whatever became of Faber after she left Cuba. There is some speculation, but it is hard to tell without physical evidence. It is hard to find a person who was an expert in camouflage. Perhaps there is a part of all of us that would like final answers to what became of her. Were there any more exploits? Was the rest of her life conventional? The Daughters of Charity have no record of her ever joining their order. Is there a grave somewhere in New Orleans where she is said to have died?
We may never know.
Jimmy Gabacho, www.jimmygabacho.com