Setting the Ground Work
me, Dr. James Barry and some notes on a methodology for the trans past
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 Dr. James 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 couldn’t find 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. I want to talk about the actual historical documents that chronicle Barry's life. I want to place him back into the context of queer and trans history and dig into his character in more creative ways.
When it comes to my research and writing on Dr. James Barry I follow a set of guidelines and what I write here will reflect this:
First and most importantly Barry's own words and actions dictate how I think about his gender. He referred to himself as a man, lived as a man and used only he/him pronouns. So I will do the same unless I find explicit historical evidence from Barry himself that points to a different interpretation.
As a scholar and as a trans person I, of course, completely reject the argument that because Barry was assigned female at birth he must automatically be read as a cis woman, that "the body is Rorschach" or that the physical particulars of his body (which we know very little about) somehow trumps his own words and the lived experience of his life.
Although how we, as a society, understand gender and the language we use to identify it has changed over time the experience of being trans has always existed.
I use the term 'trans' because, although imperfect, it is the most understandable terminology to a large number of modern readers. It is also the language the trans community has chosen to use for itself and I would rather err on the side of not being completely historically accurate than use language now considered violent, dehumanizing and disrespectful by a group of vulnerable people.
I use the term 'queer' because I am personally a fan of it but also because it is the largely agreed upon academic term to refer to people who fit outside of the norms of gender and sexuality.
Saying that we can never truly know how a historical figure identified is a disingenuous stance to take since it is never applied to those who fit comfortably into the societal norms of their time or ours. It is only ever used as an intellectually lazy way of not confronting the true diversity of queer and trans experiences within the context of the past. Creatively and intellectually we can do better.
While genderfluidity, genderqueer and nonbinary identities are completely legitimate and important parts of the trans experience there is no evidence based on his words or actions that leads me to believe that Barry identified as anything other than a binary man, thus I will treat him as such unless other evidence comes to light.
On a related note statements like Barry's life "confounds any neat categorization" speaks less to the way Barry actually represented himself and more to cis authors and scholars personal discomfort with trans experiences and unwillingness to take Barry on his own terms.
I reject the framing, put forth by cisgender writers and scholars, that understanding Barry as a trans man and studying history through a feminist lens are somehow diametrically opposed projects.
Barry never used the name he was given at birth after he transitioned, thus neither will I, I also don't tend to dwell on his pre-transition life. We do know some about him during that time and other people have chosen to write about it but I want to be respectful to the way Barry chose to present himself so this is not the part of his life I have chosen to concentrate on.
There is a lot of misinformation and straight up lies about Barry so, in general, I try not to assume something actually happened or is correct unless I can find primary source evidence to back it up. That is in large part what this research will be about.
So these are the ground rules I used when tackling the topic of James Barry; respect him, check my sources, try not to be a tranphobic asshole and have fun.