Dr. James Barry (roughly 1789-1865) was a British military doctor, reformer, and gentleman of letters. During his lifetime he was best known for his ferocious temper, extreme efficiency when it came to running hospitals and instituting medical innovations, and the sodomy scandal he was embroiled in, along with Lord Charles Somerset, while serving in the Cape Colony. After his death, when it became known that Barry had been assigned female at birth the narrative around Barry shifted considerably.
I first came across Barry while doing research into early 19th-century medical reformers. The more that I researched him specifically, the clearer it became that Barry had very much lived his life as a trans man.
While 18th and 19th-century women who cross-dressed in order to perform military service went back to living as women after their service was complete, Barry did not. While many women who cross-dressed or understood themselves to be gender nonconforming still referred to themselves as women in their writings and very clearly identified as such Barry never did. After he transitioned, in roughly 1809, Barry lived exclusively as a man, referred to himself exclusively as a man, only used he/him pronouns, and did everything in his power to make sure that others treated him as a man during his life and that his legacy would be that of a man after his death.
The only reason this did not happen was because his wishes were ignored, his body disrespected and his privacy violated in an incredibly ugly way.
In 2014 when I started my research on Barry I could find no articles exploring Barry as a trans man. So, in 2015, I wrote my own, which has gone on to be the most read piece of nonfiction I have ever written … by a lot.
To be clear I am also a trans man. My experiences allow me to see a kinship with Barry's identity and his struggle, particularly at the end of his life, to make sure that identity was respected. Being trans has drawn me to trans history and exploring our shared past. I am also a trained historian, currently working in the field, and one of my goals when researching Barry is to separate the actual historical evidence he left behind from the myth that has built up around him since his death.
I am hoping that this newsletter will in some ways be a creative outlet for that research.
The man behind the man: this newsletter is written by David Obermayer (aka EE Ottoman) archivist and historian specializing in 19th century queer and trans history and author of multiple very queer historical romance novels.