RTÉ under fire after misgendering historic Irish trans person and military surgeon Dr James Barry

An RTÉ 1 documentary about a historic military surgeon, Dr James Barry, has been heavily criticized for misgendering the doctor and 'deadnaming' him.

A painting of Dr James Barry, who featured in RTE documentary

RTÉ 1 have come under fire after misgendering historic trans figure Dr James Barry as part of their Herstory: Ireland’s Epic Women series. 

Cork-born Dr James Barry was highly praised as the British Empire’s most celebrated military surgeon. Upon his death, it was discovered to the public that he had been assigned female at birth. However, throughout his life, the doctor identified as male and left instructions that once he passed, “strict precautions should be adopted to prevent any examination of his person.”

Though Dr Barry lived his life as a man, in recent years, he has been depicted as a heroine figure who rebelled against the patriarchal systems of the time. In 2019, award-winning author EJ Levy faced backlash after writing The Cape Doctor in which she used ‘she/her’ pronouns to refer to this historic individual. In response to the announcement of the book, writer Alexandra Erin tweeted: “He categorised himself as a man, lived as a man, died as a man, and would have preferred to be buried as a man. There’s no room for interpretation.”

Along with the recent episode focusing on Dr Barry, RTÉ released the following statement, “The decision to include this story was taken on the basis that the entire series is about illustrating that history is not black and white. This project is about bringing back into the light stories that were overlooked because they didn’t fit dominant narratives – and asking why these stories remained untold for so long. We felt that this story broadens out the issue of gender equality in a positive way and opens up really interesting questions about gender, and about history, that need to be asked. So we very much welcome a positive conversation around the story of Dr. Barry.”

During the episode which aired on Monday, the doctor is depicted a female who took on a persona rather than someone who transitioned into a male. As stated during the documentary, “One of the most extraordinary scandals to rock the late 19th century British establishment is the story of how a young girl from Cork dressed and lived as a man and rose through the ranks of the British military.”

Since the announcement of the episode, RTÉ has come under fire for the misgendering of Dr James Barry. One person wrote on Twitter, “Dr James Barry was a man. He wanted to be seen as a man. He wanted to live and die as a man. RTE here to remind us all that even when respecting the high-achieving dead, we can’t gender people correctly.”

Following the airing of RTÉ 1’s look back on Dr Barry, one person tweeted, “Trying to find a good book on Dr. James Barry is horrendous and having to see article upon article misgendering and deadnaming him makes me feel sick.”

Another person tweeted, “Seeing that the RTE programme deadnaming and misgendering Dr James Barry went out last night. Dr Barry was one of few known trans historical figures in Ireland and his memory deserves better, as do the trans people watching it today.

“Various historical sources reveal a person who was confident in their profession, incredibly smart, and above all else willing to be himself. Once the historic doctor made the transition, he lived and died a man as such it is important he be remembered this way.”

Near the end of the documentary, Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at UCD, Dr Mary McAuliffe,  said, “In the histories of James Barry there has been suggestions of being a hermaphrodite, of being intersex. I would think that if we look back from today’s perspective, perhaps we could say that James Barry was trans, and this is trans history we are talking about: a woman who felt uncomfortable in their own body, a woman who felt more comfortable and more themselves, their authentic self, being a man.”

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