Ask a Badass

Ask a Badass is a modern advice column answered by history’s hidden badasses. Women and people along the gender spectrum write from a place where they can see their whole life and the modern world – call it purgatory or barzakh or the moment of revelation. Through the lens of historical fiction, we hopefully identify eternal truths.

Maria van Antwerpen answers “Big Dreams”

Picture of a 18th-century soldier

Dear Badass,

My partner and I are thinking of dropping our comfortable lives in one of the world’s most desirable cities and moving across the ocean without jobs or enough money to get us through a whole year. Is this a good idea?

Sincerely,
Big Dreams

Dear Big Dreams,

What do you mean by a good idea? Is it the safest idea? No. But the future is not a horse to be corralled and broken. It is wind and wave, powerful and unpredictable. All we can do is set our sails in our best direction and hope we can ride it out.

My father was a solid, respectable man who worked at his brewery while my mother ran the house. They were decent people who believed that hard work paid for a secure future, just as good deeds paid for a comfortable eternity. They had no expectation of dying early and leaving a brood of young orphans, but I still found myself a servant alone at the age of 13.

I tried to follow the path they had laid for me. Even then, I knew there was something out of tune. I could sense that to fit into the role assigned to me was to amputate some essential part of me.

It was hard to worry about your spirit, however, when my body is starving. I kept my head down and tried to fit in. I think the families must have seen something in me. Something none of us could truly name. Something they abhorred or feared.

I moved from job to job until I was cast out. They were a prosperous comfortable family, and I was a poor misfit. All of their moralizing and self-proclaimed piety, however, didn’t keep them from kicking me into the cold of a winter’s night.

I need to tell you about how we lived so you will understand what I risked. We were a land that lived by our communities. Working together, we recovered fertile land from the sea, dammed the water, and harnessed the wind. We idolized our collective vision.

If you were someone who fit into your assigned role, there was great safety – and even freedom – in that group. But to transgress against the place society gave you was heresy, both religious and social. Earth and Heaven would turn their back on you.

I don’t know if it was only fear and need that drove me to dress as a young man that night. I knew it was a risk to talk to the man recruiting soldiers in the pub, but I could sense how great the reward might be.

Once I became a soldier, but I knew immediately that I finally fit. Every note that clanged for Maria of Antwerp sang for Jan of Arnhem. I knew what would happen if I was caught, but somehow I didn’t feel fear. I felt only relief that I had finally found the missing part of myself, the way for me to be in the world.

A risk is worth taking not only in relation to its possible reward but to the safety of staying put. Only you can evaluate both. What would you gain by the move if the best happen? What do you lose if the worst happens in your move? How do these outcomes compare to what you will find if you stay in your comfortable lives?

Whichever course you set, do it boldly. Do not allow yourself to wonder about the person who followed the other path. A life divided against yourself is a life lived by halves.

Maria van Antwerpen
aka
Jan van Ant
aka
Machiel van Hantwerpen

About Maria van Antwerpen

Born on January 17, 1719, in Breda to brewer Johannes and his wife Johanna. Died on January 16, 1781, in Breda of causes unknown and buried in a poor grave in Markendaalsekerk. When Maria was abruptly dismissed from service in 1746, he assumed the name Jan van Ant and enlisted as a soldier. His marriage under this name was ended when he was caught and expelled from the army. He shortly assumed the name Machiel van Hantwerpen, enlisted in a different province, and married again. When he was caught and tried a second time, he declared during the trial: “ik ben in de natuur een manspersoon, maar uiterlijk een vrouwspersoon”, which roughly translates to “I am by nature a man, only outwardly a woman.”

Maria was one of more than 100 women in the 18th-century Dutch Republic to live as a man, but the only one whose words reflecting a trans identity were recorded. Some – like the couple who dressed as a man and a woman to get married and returned to living as two women when they got home – seem to be what would identify as lesbian today. Some – like the woman who worked as a sailor to get from Amsterdam to the Caribbean where she immediately began dressing as a woman and married a man – seem to be cis straight women overcoming societal barriers. Some men were discovered to be AFAB only when they were laid out for burial after dying of old age, suggesting that Maria was not the only trans man in the group, merely the only one who left a statement.

We try to do justice to the complex challenge of discussing historical people through the lens of our modern understanding of gender and sexual identity. We have used the pronoun “he” in light of his words at trial and the name “Maria van Antwerpen” because that is the name by which he is known to history (so you can find out more about him). The picture is from an account of an AFAB soldier.

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