Art is Art and Water is Water

April 27, 2019

Don’t Deadname the Dead

Filed under: Twitter Threads — foone @ 4:54 pm

Original Twitter thread May 3, 2018

Cause reddit is bothering me right now:

This is Doctor James Barry, on the left. He was born in 1795. Born in Ireland, schooled at the University of Edinburgh, he rose to the rank of Inspector General in the British Army, in charge of military hospitals.

He greatly improved conditions both for British soldiers and in non-military hospitals all throughout the British empire, and is credited with performing the first caesarean section in Africa in which both mother and child lived. He was such an advocate for the poor and underprivileged throughout the world that on several occasions he was arrested or demoted because of his protests. He worked to improve sanitary and dietary conditions both for soldiers and civilians. He served as a doctor in the British army from 1813 all the way to 1859, when he was forcibly retired because of his age, and settled in London, dying 6 years later in 1865. He gave instructions for his body to not be examined after death, and simply buried in his bed sheets.

But here’s the thing: Those instructions were not followed, and through some slightly unclear circumstances, his body was examined… and the story was sent to the press. James Barry was born as a woman.

So here’s the thing: Obviously one way to look at James Barry is that they were a woman who wanted to be a doctor, and a doctor for the military. There’s no way they could do that, given the society they could live in, so they disguised themselves as a man. And in 1865 that was the general way it was interpreted. James Barry was really an Irish woman who’d pretended to be a man for 50 years. But today is not 1865.

And given that James Barry continued to call himself James (and “he”) after retiring when the “ruse” would serve no purpose … a modern interpretation can be that James Barry was a trans man, decades before “transexual” or “transgender” was coined.

The point is, James Barry isn’t here and we can’t just ask him what he wants to be called, but he lived as James Barry for half a century, and it’s somewhat offensive to both his memory and to trans men today to use his birth name or call him “her.” It’s only respectful to continue calling him by the name HE WAS BURIED AS, even after the big scandal, and the name he lived as for 50 years. But the thing is, it’s not really about him. Dude’s been dead for 153 years, who cares?

Because trans people even today get called by the wrong gender and name after they die. Because trans people don’t have many historical figures to look up to. (And when they do, people deny them being trans, just because they lived before the term). And probably most importantly because calling people like James Barry “her” sends the message that you can live as the correct gender for HALF A CENTURY while being one of the greatest doctors of your time and rise to the 2nd highest rank for medical officers … and it STILL WON’T BE ENOUGH FOR SOME PEOPLE. They’ll still call you “her” and use the name you were born with, not the one you called yourself for 50 years.

And the counter arguments that “well we just don’t know, we don’t have letters to say they REALLY felt they were a man, the term trans doesn’t exist, they HAD to be a man in order to have their career”… It’s possible but it comes off as very disingenuous. If it turns out you’re right and James Barry never considered “herself” a man, then all you do is piss off the ghost of a person dead for a century and half. If you’re wrong, you’re affecting real people who live now, by erasing their history and insulting their existence.

SO LET’S ERR ON THE SIDE OF “JAMES BARRY WAS A MAN, LIKE HE SAID, FOR FIFTY FUCKING YEARS”. The guy was important enough that he’d have a wikipedia article even if his secret was never revealed, he’s a great figure in trans history and we need more people like that.

Fun fact: since I started this thread, someone replied to one of my “please call him James Barry, and he” comments on reddit with “BUT WE DON’T KNOW, MAYBE HE/SHE JUST DIDN’T WANT THEIR WORK DISRESPECTED AFTER THEIR DEATH?” Because reddit is continuing to bother me: Here’s the thing about the “maybe ‘she’ just dressed up as a man to be a military doctor” argument: OR MAYBE THAT’S JUST WHY WE KNOW ABOUT HIM?

If James Barry had been a local carpenter or something, and died after a quiet life, no one would know about him. No one would go to the presses, and if they did they might not even publish it. They’d just have died as the man James Barry, which is what they wanted. And maybe there have been a hundred, a thousand, or more James Barrys out there, but none of them rose to such a high position, so we don’t know about them. They died quiet local lives like 99.9% of the population of the planet.

It’s this stupid feedback loop with history, where LGBT people lived hidden lives because they had to, and in the few cases where they didn’t, people deny their existence. And then people say it’s just a fad or trend, because otherwise there’d be people like this in history! GUESS WHAT: THERE WERE. You’ve just spent hundreds, thousands of years keeping them out of public life and the history books and YOU’RE STILL DOING IT TODAY. (Not just with historical figures like James Barry who get argued against but with modern people who get deadnamed, even posthumously).


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