Posted by: sataniques | November 23, 2020

The Feminization of Dr. James Barry

This blog post will explore the life and speculations on gender about Dr. James Barry, as well as The Public[k] Universal Friend.

A portrait of Dr. James Barry, taken from here.

Dr. James Barry was a Victorian-era surgeon, had served in the British military, and was assigned female at birth. He was (most likely) born in county Cork, Ireland circa-1789. While yes, he had been assigned female at birth, he died as a man. Is this information important? Is James Barry one of the earliest examples of a #transicon, or would he have been mortified to be portrayed as such? The general public of today can obviously never know the answer to these questions, but they are still important to  ask. 

James Barry was enrolled in a medical university program in Edinburgh in 1809, changing his identity from his birth name and gender to the one that he would continue to live with throughout the remainder of his career and life. He was assisted by his mother (posing as his aunt, in order to distance herself from his immediate family) and several “liberal minded friends” of the family. They successfully guided James Barry through the application and selection process, and James Barry became Dr. James Barry, graduate of his medical program and quickly working through the next steps toward becoming a successful surgeon. When he was selected to serve in the British Army as a hospital assistant, Dr. Barry quickly moved up the medical ranks and established himself as an internationally known physician. He relocated to South Africa to practice medicine, and continued to move throughout Africa, The West Indies, and other places under British Colonial rule. Dr. Barry was becoming increasingly concerned with sanitation, and worked to bring new sanitation policies to the medical facilities that he served. Interestingly, he also carried out one of the first documented C-sections.

Of his character, Dr. Barry was apparently quite hot headed and quick to anger. There are several theories that this was an act in order to prove his masculinity, while others state that this is just how he was. The man even threw hands with Florence Nightingale! As someone who is a testosterone-taker, I have drifted in and out of the daydream that James Barry may have been one of the first AFAB people to experiment with self-dosing testosterone for masculinization…

But this is the problem. These theories, these articles, these speculations, they are not for us. Why do people feel so entitled to the private lives of people who cross gender boundaries? 

There have been several books and articles describing Dr. Barry as a Woman Ahead of Her Time or as the Male Military Surgeon Who Wasn’thow dehumanizing to disregard the deceased Dr. Barry’s request for privacy by writing these speculative things. Upon his death, Dr. James Barry had requested that he be quickly buried in the clothes and bedsheets that he died in, and that his body not be inspected. Obviously, this wish was historically disregarded as well because we KNOW about him. If he had been buried and quietly mourned according to his desires, he would have been another good doctor in the history of British medicine. A charwoman had apparently inspected and washed his body after death and had discovered that he had “female” natal genitalia and pregnancy stretch marks about his stomach. Word, obviously, got out. 

To ascribe any gender other than the one that he presented to the world throughout his entire life and the one that he died as to Dr. James Barry is wrong. While it is a seductive idea to pretend that Dr. Barry had to hide his identity as a woman, but really still identified as such, it has no basis in reality as far as we know. The true story of why Dr. Barry chose to present and identify as male is unknown, and trying to use his story as a feminist critique of Victorian (or historical) gender roles falls flat. There are plenty of other avenues to explore this concept while leaving Dr. Barry out of it. His wishes were not respected upon his death and the replication of this sensationalist story continued from the Victorian era to the 2020s, when articles are still being written about him today. In fact, a student at Mount Holyoke College is bending their own ethics in order to write about the topic for a publicly accessible blog, continuing the replication of Barry’s life. At least this student does not misgender him for the sake of continued scandal. Ahem.

Desperately attempting to misgender AFAB people throughout history who presented as male or nonbinary is a common theme.

An image of The Friend, taken from here.

Just shy of the Victorian era, in the United States, saw the existence of The Public Universal Friend, a preacher and non-binary individual. The Friend (which is what they preferred to be called) was likewise assigned female at birth and later came to identify as what we would today describe as nonbinary. They were a very religious Quaker and, after contracting typhus in their teens, woke after several days stating that they had died, been invited to Heaven and were now filled with the spirit of G-d: A gender neutral universal friend to preach and spread awareness of salvation. They eschewed their birth name, choosing only to be referred to as The Publick Universal Friend or The Friend, and asked to not be referred to with gendered pronouns. They wore only traditionally masculine or androgynous clothing and male Quaker headdresses. The Friend spent the remainder of their life as a genderless individual performing traveling sermons, collecting a group of followers. They died and wished to continue being referred to as a genderless person after their death.

Arguments against The Friend’s non-binary identity return to the idea that they could not have been as successful as a preacher if they continued living as a woman, so they chose to disguise themselves as a man. Likewise, they explore the idea that The Friend was brain damaged from their fever, or otherwise mentally ill because of the illness, and that is why they identified the way that they did. There are several books written about The Friend feminizing them, such as Pioneer Prophetess and Female Preaching in America. Again, these continued articles and books are disrespectful to the very real wishes of the very real person who lived hundreds of years ago.

I stated in my blog post The Masculinization of Dorian Gray that visuality played a big part in why depictions of the character tended toward the manly because “[i]t is easier to disguise the homosexuality of a protagonist if they are stripped of their femininity, as is the case with Enjolras and Dorian” and I believe the same is applied here, inverted. Feminizing Dr. Barry and The Friend provide an easy escape rope from having difficult conversations about historical trans/gender identity. The words for these identities were not always readily available in the public consciousness, so of course, there is something to be said about tracing transgender roots to places that perhaps the rhetoric was not present.

However, at the end of the day, Dr. James Barry lived and died as a man and The Publick Universal Friend lived and died as a genderless individual. That is the only truth that we know, and the only truth that we can ever know.

Respect someone when they tell you their identity.


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