‘Trans history is ever more marginal, even more invisible in the archives’: Dr Mary McAuliffe on the inclusion of Dr James Barry in RTÉ documentary series

RTÉ has come under fire for 'misgendering' the pioneering surgeon Dr James Barry in their series 'Ireland's Incredible Women'.

A drawing of Dr James Barry, who was featured in an RTE documentary

An RTÉ documentary about the Cork-born military surgeon Dr James Barry has received widespread backlash over ‘misgendering’ of the historic figure. 

On Monday, February 17, the RTÉ series Herstory: Ireland’s Epic Women featured an analysis into the life of Dr James Barry, who was prolific in his career as the British Empire’s leading surgeon. After the episode aired, there were many who criticised the programme’s ‘deadnaming’ and ‘misgendering’ of the doctor.  

After Barry’s death, it was revealed to the public that he had been born a female. He previously requested that there should be no examination of his body to ensure his identity would never be known. Historians and writers have debated over the late doctor’s gender identity for many years, yet it has been widely viewed and accepted that he was a trans man. 

University College Dublin professor of Gender Studies, Dr Mary McAuliffe, took part in the RTÉ series to discuss the life and career of Dr James Barry. She outlines her involvement in the documentary and her analysis of the ‘hidden history’ of marginalised people:

“This episode occasioned a lot of controversies, with the simple question of why a series on women was including a person whose history is not that of a woman? As a historian of gender, I was asked to be a commentator on the series. I was happy to participate but did raise my concerns about including Dr Barry in a series on women. These were based on my own analysis of the Barry story. I agreed to participate on the condition that I would argue that Barry’s story must be viewed as trans history, which is what I do say in the episode.

“As a researcher of LGBT+ histories, I am used to dealing with complex and difficult analyses, and most particularly, for LGBT histories where the archives are rarely definitive in showing us the private lives of our research subjects. Most recently I have been working on the private lives of Irish revolutionary women; women whose same-sex relationships certainly did not make it into the history books, even when their public activism did. Often these ‘inconvenient’ histories remain hidden, as our subjects of research are non-normative. To know their secret is to shine a light on what would be considered a shameful subject. This ‘shame’ is of course subjective.

“Twenty years ago, acknowledgement there are at least eight same-sex female couples among the well-known feminist and militant women of revolutionary Ireland, would not have been forthcoming (or indeed celebrated) as it is now. It has taken over forty years to get women’s history mainstreamed in the universities. LGBT+ histories are still lagging some way behind that. To say that Kathleen Lynn, Madeline ffrench-Mullen, Margaret Skinnder, Helena Molony, Elizabeth O’Farrell, Julia Grehan, Eva Gore-Booth were involved in same-sex partnerships is based on revisiting the archives and reintegrating their biographers who either ignored or deliberately obscured these relationships. These histories had been as Judith Bennett wrote ‘twice marginal, twice invisible’, both as women and as lesbians.

“Trans history is ever more marginal even more invisible in the archives. For the historian research and analysis of trans histories can be difficult, but worth the effort and asking the questions. These include how do we separate out histories of trans men and women from those people who ‘passed’ for some periods for their lives? There is a long history of ‘passing women’, those who choose for economic, educational, romantic reasons, or because they wished to hide their identities, to pass as men.

“In 18th century Britain and Ireland, newspapers often breathlessly retold the stories of women passing as men and were seen variously as adventurers, villains, monsters, or mad. One famous Irish pair were Anne Bonney and Mary Reid who cross-dressed to live as pirates, fell in love with each other, and subsequently revealed their ‘true sex’. Often these stories include narratives or elements of same-sex female desire. Less well known, although there are examples from all periods of history, are those who live their entire adult lives as other than the sex they were assigned at birth. We know only some of these stories because the ‘secret’ was revealed only on death. Another reason is that these lives, even where they are known, are read through the lens of women’s or lesbian and gay histories, thus obscuring or erasing trans histories.

“Born, in 1789, into a world of defined gender roles, James Barry was destined by contemporary perceptions of his gender, to live life as a woman. However, at around the age of about 17, and identifying as a man, Barry attended Edinburgh Medical School. He qualified as a doctor in 1812, and a year later he joined the British Navy as a surgeon and would spend the rest of his professional, and very successful life, working within the British Navy and Foreign Service. A spiky character he was never well-liked, but his attention to detail, his insistence on hygienic conditions and his success in difficult medical procedures such as performing one of the first Caesarean sections where both mother and baby lived, established him as the doctor all wanted to attend. Barry was also a reformer, demanding decent treatment for prisoners and passionately anti-slavery. While his professional career was stellar, his private life was controversial. His evident effeminacy and his close relationships with male colleagues gave cause for scandal – a scandal of homosexuality in an age when sodomy was punishable by death! While he was stationed in Cape Town in South Africa, one widespread accusation was that he had an ‘unnatural and immoral’ affair with the Governor of Cape Town, Lord Charles Somerset.

“Barry always referred to himself with male pronouns, signed his letters ‘Dr Barry’ and described himself as a gentleman. Scholars differ on how to position Barry vis-à-vis gender and identity. Ann Heilmann argues that while Barry may have assumed a male identity to study medicine, he “then ‘became’ male in terms of his inner (not only outer) … identity”. Jeremy Dronfield, co-author of Dr James Barry: A Woman Ahead of Her Time, argues that Barry became male to study medicine. He wrote that when “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”.

“Unfortunately, Barry is consistently misgendered throughout this and other biographies, despite Barry’s own insistence on the ‘he’ pronoun. Another of his biographers, Rachel Holmes, argues that Barry had androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) – people with this condition are genetically male, but have the external sex characteristics of females. In making her argument on this Holmes went back to a primary source few have read, Barry’s doctoral thesis, written, in Latin, on hernias, particularly wrongly diagnosed hernias, where women turned out to have dropped testicles. She argues that Barry may have been a hermaphrodite who choose to live life as a man. Other researchers see Barry, much too narrowly, as a typical ‘passing woman’, and through the lens of women’s history. Others read Barry’s relationship with Lord Somerset as a heterosexual one, rather than a homosexual one.

“The Barry story has been picked over by many scholars and interested readers – one thing which is relevant, however, in terms of viewing him through a trans history lens is his own solid self-identity. Barry always referred to himself as ‘he’ and deliberately misgendering him in these studies is an error. Returning to Heilman, she argues, correctly, that as a “‘trans-migrant’ and ‘trans-betweener’, gender changer and gender challenger at once; from a twenty-first-century perspective Barry can be convincingly placed in a transgender context”. For decades, Barry was written as a ‘passing woman’, but his well-defined male identity proved he was much more than that; he cannot be easily be placed in women’s history, nor should he be. He had a real sense of urgency about discovery, he very consciously demanded that his body not be stripped on death, he wished to continue to be remembered as his authentic self, James Barry, after death. Has his wishes been carried out we would celebrate Barry as a very successful man and forward-looking medical doctor, one who fought with Florence Nightingale over the (lack of) hygienic standards at her hospital in Scutari during the Crimean War.

“Barry’s life story challenges our understanding of a past that should not be looked at simply through the lens of a masculine/feminine heteronormative binary. By not heeding Barry’s own desires and words, by misgendering him, by focusing on his genitals (despite his own expressed wishes not to have them seen), we do a disservice to Barry. Should Dr James Barry have been included in a series entitled ‘Ireland’s Epic Women’? It is an excellent and educational series where it deals with overlooked women, all of whom achieved great things with their lives. But does Barry fit in this? On reflection, the answer must be no. Lessons need to be learnt here, not least by this writer! Women’s history, often marginal itself, cannot and should not be used as cover all for other, more marginalised histories, including and especially LGBT histories.”

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