‘Revolutionary’: A 250-year-old story of gender rebellion

 

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In September 2015, Alex Myers came to the Southwest Harbor Public Library in Maine to talk about his first novel, Revolutionary (Simon & Schuster, 2014). If the advance publicity for the lecture had not so stated, I would never guessed that the handsome young lecturer was a trans man. He seemed completely at ease with himself, talking about his transition as if it was the most natural thing in the world. When asked, he assured his audience that his parents had always been supportive, though it took them some time to get used to the actual situation. Alex also credits his older brother for his acceptance, guidance and support.

The “revolutionary” of the title of his book is Deborah Sampson, a historical personage and a distant relative. She was born in Plympton, MA in 1760. After an impoverished childhood and five years of indentured service, she decided to enlist as a soldier in the strictly male Continental army. She surreptitiously borrowed men’s clothing, passed muster and received $20, then almost a fortune. Deborah served valiantly beginning in July 1782, was wounded, recovered and returned to her regiment to be honorably discharged at the end of the hostilities in September 1783. Thereafter she married Benjamin Gannett and bore three children.

There is no record as to Deborah’s sexual orientation, but chances are that she cross-dressed to escape poverty in an ingenious way. She applied for a military disability pension. After much red tape, and supporting letters written by Paul Revere, it finally granted even though as a woman she had served illegally. After Deborah’s death and more red tape, her husband even managed to continue collecting her pension. So much for gender inequality!

Of course, as a woman fighting in men’s clothes, Deborah may be less famous than her predecessor Joan of Arc, whose svelte armor-clad body is displayed in monuments the world over. Joan achieved sainthood even though cross-dressing is specifically prohibited in the Bible. During her imprisonment Joan refused to wear women’s clothes and this became a major issue during her long trial. It played a role in her eventual conviction.

From early on Alice Myers, Deborah’s distant descendant, knew that she was dissatisfied with being a traditional girl, though she had a pretty normal “tomboy” childhood. She went to elite Phillips Exeter. According to a 1997 article by Joe Mathews in The Sun, in sixth grade Alice’s hair was shorn so short that one of her teachers mistook her for a boy. (An experience shared by my own granddaughter at Stuyvesant High School in New York.) Eventually Alice came out as a lesbian at Exeter because, at the time, it was the only way she felt she could be masculine.

While at Exeter Alice discussed becoming male with her parents, and though they were supportive they feared she would be ostracized. Alice’s older brother was more sympathetic, welcoming her as a brother. Alex applied to Harvard as an FTM (female-to-male) student. After his first interviewer turned out to be biased, the school gave him a second interview and accepted him as the college’s first openly transgender student. He legally changed his name in 1996.

Today in the United States, the attitude of the general population towards transgender people is what it was towards gay people twenty to thirty years ago. I bet that it will take a much shorter time for complete acceptance. I know that it can be difficult to get used to your daughter becoming your son or your son becoming your daughter, but basically they are still the same kids: loving or stubborn, helpful or not.

PFLAG, GLSEN, and the LGBT Center all offer resources for transgender children.

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