On Disrespecting the Memory and Accomplishments of Dr. James Barry

  • by

Originally published February 16, 2019

Today I discovered that a publisher has decided to publish a rather disrespectful piece by an apparently transphobic author. As someone who is deeply closeted in the outside world and currently has no road to the life I’d like to live, I found this to be a terrible decision. An understatement, to be sure. My initial reaction was revulsion and rage, but I’ve had some time to think. The only argument I can even begin to consider in favor of such a decision on the publisher’s behalf is the old tried and true “Freedom of Speech” rebuttal. Yes, everyone has the right to speak their minds, but by publishing ideas rooted in negativity and hatred gives them an undeserved platform. If this author remained one of many people riddled with hatred, shouting into the void, I wouldn’t care, but SOMEONE thought it would be a good idea to give their hatred a megaphone.

Dr. James Barry was a man who achieved much in his life and for him to be so callously disrespected for no reason other than disdain for his chosen lifestyle lights a kind of fire in me I seldom feel. For those who are unaware, Dr. James Barry was an active duty military surgeon in the 19th century British Army. He was born under a different name and gender, but what does that matter? He lived the entirety of his adult life as a man in both public and private. His achievements and notability were under his chosen name of James Barry. If one’s intention is to write about his life, they do him a great disservice by ignoring who he truly was and what he accomplished. You cannot rewrite history to fit your modern narrative.
Trans lives have existed longer than modern society. This cannot be erased. Of course they didn’t call themselves trans or transsexual or transgender. They called themselves their preferred genders and, for the most part, society just went with it. It was no one’s business what was in another person’s pants. This bastardization of Dr. Barry and the life he chose for himself is a blatant disregard for the value of trans people throughout history and the world over.

As mentioned in a reply to a Tweet on Twitter:

And I think that about sums up my feelings on this entire debacle. One’s pronouns have nothing to do with their accomplishments. Either respect an individual’s life choices, or don’t. You are free to not respect them, but you are not free to disrespect them. Not without well-deserved backlash.
Upon his death and the discovery of Dr. Barry being female bodied (and potentially having born a child), his gender was brought under dispute and into the public eye. Had he really been a woman masquerading as a man “her” entire life?

This correspondence from his Wikipedia page is honestly one of the most interesting things I’ve ever read:

George Graham of the General Register Office:

Sir, It has been stated to me that Inspector-General Dr James Barry, who died at 14 Margaret Street on 25 July 1865, was after his death found to be female. As you furnished the Certificate as to the cause of his death, I take the liberty of asking you whether what I have heard is true, and whether you yourself ascertained that he was a woman and apparently had been a mother? Perhaps you may decline answering these questions; but I ask them not for publication but for my own information. Your faithful servant George Graham

Major D. R. McKinnon’s (Barry’s physician) response was as follows:

Sir, I had been intimately acquainted with the doctor for good many years, both in London and the West Indies and I never had any suspicion that Dr Barry was a woman. I attended him during his last illness, (previously for bronchitis, and the affection for diarrhoea). On one occasion after Dr Barry’s death at the office of Sir Charles McGregor, there was the woman who performed the last offices for Dr Barry was waiting to speak to me. She wished to obtain some prerequisites [sic in source, but has to be a slip for perquisites, “perks”] of his employment, which the Lady who kept the lodging house in which Dr Barry died had refused to give her. Amongst other things she said that Dr Barry was a female and that I was a pretty doctor not to know this and she would not like to be attended by me. I informed her that it was none of my business whether Dr Barry was a male or a female, and that I thought that she might be neither, viz. an imperfectly developed man. She then said that she had examined the body, and was a perfect female and farther that there were marks of him having had a child when very young. I then enquired how have you formed that conclusion. The woman, pointing to the lower part of her stomach, said ‘from marks here. I am a maried [sic] woman and the mother of nine children and I ought to know.’ The woman seems to think that she had become acquainted with a great secret and wished to be paid for keeping it. I informed her that all Dr Barry’s relatives were dead, and that it was no secret of mine, and that my own impression was that Dr Barry was a Hermaphrodite. But whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could positively swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquainted with as Inspector-General of Hospitals for a period of years. Yours faithfully, D.R. McKinnon

If you read that correctly, Dr. Barry’s own physician treated him and never once thought to peg him into any other gender than the one he expressed. He cared for the body Dr. Barry had and that didn’t mean he had to be treated called anything other than what he chose to be. He was no less the man he was just because his body didn’t match the gender he lived. If a 19th century physician had the decency to respect his patient’s gender, then surely a 21st century author and publisher should have the decency to do the same.

I hope I’ve articulated my feelings on the topic well enough. I’ve done my best to avoid falling into the overly emotional and dramatic response I had at first. As someone who hopes to one day pass fully as my preferred gender, I want to be remembered for the life I chose, not the one I was forced to live. I commend Dr. Barry for living the life he chose and accomplishing all that he did without even the military batting an eyelash. It wasn’t until after his death that they had to scuttle his past which is a shame. In life, no one second guessed him. In life, no one called him “she” or “her”. In life and for every achievement he made, he was Dr. James Barry.

A man.

Respect that.

Leave a Reply