But her pronouns

Another Pronouns War:

A debate about the gender identity of Dr James Barry, the pioneering Victorian who adopted a male persona to become the UK’s first female-born doctor, has erupted after the award-winning author EJ Levy was accused of disrespecting Barry’s legacy by using female pronouns in a forthcoming novel.

Levy announced last week that she had sold a novel about the “true story” of Barry, titled The Cape Doctor. The forthcoming book, which will be released by Little, Brown, will trace Barry’s life story: born Margaret Ann Bulkley in Ireland, the future doctor became Barry at the age of 20 and left for Edinburgh to study medicine as a man. Barry joined the army after graduation, the start of a distinguished career as a military surgeon that spanned Cape Town, St Helena and Trinidad and Tobago. In 1865, Barry returned to the UK with dysentery, and died. A maid discovered the doctor’s biological gender after the death.

When Levy, winner of the Flannery O’Connor award, announced the news of her novel by describing Barry as “a heroine for our time, for all time”, other authors began to question Levy’s reference to Barry as “she”, including novelist Celeste Ng, who told Levy: “I’m now seeing you use she/her pronouns for Barry even as many are telling you Barry himself used and wanted he/him pronouns. I hope you and L,B will listen to these concerns and take them into account.”

But Barry “used and wanted he/him pronouns” at a time when people with she/her pronouns were not welcome to study medicine in Edinburgh and become doctors, and then to practice medicine. There were a few pioneers but it was a very uphill battle. Given that, we can’t know whether Barry really “wanted” male pronouns or simply resorted to them in order to get the freedom and the work she/he wanted to do.  Barry didn’t leave a collection of tweets taking a position on pronouns.

Barry’s gender identity has been overwhelmingly framed as female by writers over the past 150 years, said Cardiff University professor Ann Heilmann, author of Neo-/Victorian Biographilia and James Miranda Barry: A Study in Transgender and Transgenre, exceptions being Patricia Duncker’s 1999 novel James Miranda Barry and Rachel Holmes’s 2002 biography The Secret Life of Dr James Barry.

“While I understand that emotions run very high (understandably so, given the difficulties trans people face and in light of ongoing tensions between feminism and the trans community), I don’t think that Barry can be that easily mapped on to contemporary trans thought,” she said. “Though of course there have always been trans people, the lived and felt gender identity of an 18th and early 19th-century person would have been very different from our contemporary identity politics.”

And that person would not have called it a “gender identity” or understood what you were talking about if you used it.

Jeremy Dronfield, co-author of Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, said: “In my biography, I used male pronouns for Barry. He was, at least outwardly, a man. But whether Barry qualifies as transgender in modern terms is complicated. When Margaret became James, it wasn’t primarily because she wanted to be a man. She wanted to live the kind of life which in 1809 was impossible for a woman. Once the persona had served its purpose, Margaret intended to discard it. Circumstances prevented that. There’s evidence that Barry missed being a woman. But we also know that he relished being a man, his behaviour exceeding what was necessary for disguise. However, the claim made online that Barry left a will asking to be remembered as a man is false. He left no statement of identity.

“If Margaret had been born in 1989 instead of 1789, free to be a surgeon and soldier, would she have chosen to become a man? On balance, I don’t think so, but Margaret might have identified as non-binary. I have no argument with seeing James Barry as a transgender icon, or Margaret as a feminist role model. I do take issue with those who insist on recognising one and erasing the other.”

And bullying people who refuse to comply.

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