A recently announced novel plans to misgender Dr James Barry, an iconic transgender individual from history. Dr. James Miranda Steuart Barry is known for being the first doctor to perform a successful caesarean section in the British Empire while stationed in Cape Town. He is also known for improving sanitary conditions for both soldiers and civilians. Yet much of what is written about him focusses on what was discovered after his death.
Throughout his life, Dr. James Barry was noted for being a private man who never undressed in front of others and insisted that upon his death, he should be wrapped in the sheets of his deathbed and buried immediately. Unfortunately, contrary to his request the woman who performed his last rites was looking for a payout and told Barry’s Physician that the doctor had a vagina and his body was that of “a perfect female.”
When no money appeared, the woman then went to the press, to declare Barry a female and the British army quietly sealed his records. Soon the myth was born that Dr. Barry was the British Empire’s first female doctor. However, transgender scholars and writers have long held the belief that Dr. James Barry’s lived experiences and posthumous request means that he should actually be regarded as a transgender man, living in a time before the term was coined.
“The evidence of the longevity of this person living in the male gender in every way is definitive,” stated Ben Power, curator of the Sexual Minorities Archive in Holyoke, MA. “[Barry] lived in the male gender legally by name, physically by presentation, professionally in that era — in every way.”
Despite this school of thought, author and essayist E.J. Levy announced in February this year, that she has pre-emptively sold her début historical novel, The Cape Doctor, to publisher, Little, Brown, which will misgender this trans icon as female. Publisher’s Market, which announced the book deal wrote a summary of Barry’s life which suggested that the doctor had “been a woman all along.”
It was the author’s subsequent tweets about the book, however, that sparked a flurry of outrage. Levy, who previously won a Lambda Literary Award for editing the lesbian fiction anthology Tasting Life, tweeted that Barry was “a heroine for our time, for all time.” When this was met with concern from a trans man about misgendering Barry, the author replied “the body is Rorschach.”
In a response to the twitter uproar, in an article by BookRiot, nonbinary author Alex Acks accused Levy of having “constantly dismissed and belittled the feelings of trans people” in her responses online. Asks also added that if Levy’s book was published it would be “one more betrayal, one more act of erasure,” for transgender people.
In defence of the book, publisher Little, Brown, released a statement supporting Levy’s project, they said it was “a work of imagination, not a biography or representation of fact.” When them., an online magazine, asked for further comments on the matter Little, Brown did not return.
The Cape Doctor by E J Levy is not this first book to erase Dr. James Barry’s transgender identity though. For years, Barry’s legacy has been curated by cisgender writers and directors misgendering him as female including books like; Doctor James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time and The Iron Lady: The Secret Story of James Barry. While an episode of the BBC biographical series “A Skirt Through History,” portrayed Barry as a woman forced to adopt men’s attire in order to succeed in the medical field.
Ben Power, curator of the Sexual Minorities Archive in Holyoke, MA explains that, “We should be really challenging these books when they come out. We should be questioning that narrative, because it’s erasing trans people… It’s basically stealing our historic figures and their accomplishments. It’s theft. It’s a misinterpretation of those trans male lives that were lived before [modern] options were available. You don’t ‘put on a disguise’ if it’s your 24/7 for forty or fifty years… This is who [he] was.”