If you are at all on twitter, or in trans or writer circles, you may have heard about a controversy regarding a book being written about a man named Dr. James Barry. The book was bought by a publisher, and it's author tweeted this about the book:
In death, as in life, Dr. Barry engenders controversy, but one thing is clear: she refused facile gender categories. So do I, in my novel.— E. J. Levy (@EJLevy) February 14, 2019
But there is only one problem:
Oh my god, no. Just no. At no point did Barry, even privately, use female pronouns. He called himself "a gentleman". “Do not consider whether what I say is a young man speaking, but whether my discussion with you is that of a man of understanding.” -- quoth Dr James Barry. https://t.co/2ojGBbdEB3— Elizabeth May (@_ElizabethMay) February 15, 2019
There is a great overview of the controversy on Book Riot. I want to talk about why it has garnered so much attention, and also what it means for me personally.
I'm not a historian. But one thing I do know is that history, like any field of study, is not neutral nor objective. The perspective of the writers of history is a key element in what message that history sends to us in the present. And this is true whether or not one is writing what is supposed to be an actual account of events, or if one is writing fiction. Years of fictional accounts of the US west, for example, has shaped our perception and ideas about Native Americans, for the worse.
And the challenge of history, particularly as it relates to gender identity and sexuality, is that so many concepts around gender and sexuality are new. People didn't identify themselves in the same ways as they do now, and don't talk about themselves in the same ways, so there is room for interpretation.
And those of us with particular identities, whether it be as a feminist fighting gender norms, or queer, or trans, want to be able to look back at history, and see ourselves written there. But it's not easy, because the ways that we talk about ourselves, and our identities have changed.
Before I transitioned at the tender age of 57, I identified as a lesbian. When I was coming out as a lesbian back in the 80s, there was a lot of people talking and writing about lesbians in history. And back then I didn't at all resonate with the women in "Boston Marriages" (not only because I'm not white) - two feminine women living together. Nor did I identify with the glamorous hollywood women like Greta Garbo, or Tallulah Bankhead. I resonated with those who chose to try to live their lives primarily as men.
In retrospect, it makes perfect sense - I wasn't really a lesbian at all. It feels weird to say that now, having lived in that community for so long. But I'm coming to understand that as true. And since I am a product of an earlier generation, I have lived some of that history in my own body.
The question that is raised for me is: whose gets to own the history of these people? Are they the history of "proto" trans men? Or are they the history of "proto" lesbians (at least, the ones who chose women as lovers/partners - obviously, some were likely "proto" gay trans men, like Dr. Barry.)? I see myself in those people, who, despite being assigned female at birth, chose to do what at the time was an extremely difficult task - to live, some of the time, or all of the time, as men.
But I can also see how those who, for instance see themselves as lesbians, or feminist women fighting gender roles, might want to own that history. But it's not that easy. There are some feminists who, for reasons I don't really understand, wish to erase the existence of trans people. They tend to find trans women particularly problematic, but they don't much like trans men, either. To them, as basically gender essentialists, the gender one is assigned at birth is the gender one has forever (and, of course, this completely erases people born intersex). And so from their perspective, historically, anyone who was assigned female at birth, but chose to live partly or entirely as a man, isn't a man, but someone who "refuses facile gender categories." But the evidence for many of these men, including Dr. James Barry, is that they wanted to live as men, and wanted others to consider them men.
Ultimately, what's most important is that even though people in earlier generations didn't do identites in the way that we do now, it is possible, in many cases, to know how these men want to be known and remembered. In the case of Dr. James Barry, and others, if they used male pronouns, wanted to be known by male names, and lived male roles, it's important not to erase their own desires to be known as men, whether in non-fictional or fictional accounts.