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Biographica Incognita James Barry

BI: James Barry

I was anxious about writing this article. Whilst I feel that Doctor Barrys story is one that has been neglected by history the issues it raises particularly around the possibility of Dr Barry being a transgender male are incredibly polarising which is something I have never particularly undertood. Looking at social media almost any post you can find about transgender rights or any story involving and individual who identifies as a different gender to that which they were recognised at birth almost universally drive people to the extremes either having allegations of being transphobic, small minded bigots or overly liberal. I asked a friend and colleague of mine about this who chairs a local transgender rights society. She explained that people, like myself are often too nervous to openly discuss these issues for fear of being labelled transphobic, as a result the majority of people who get the airtime in these issues are people who reside in the extremes. She went on to explain she felt that peoples fear of opening a dialogue on any level in regards to transgender rights is the biggest challenge she and her members face. I found the conversation enlightening and I am grateful to her for helping me pick apart some of my sources to draw the conclusions I did. So the first lesson I would like to share from writing this article is that you should never be afraid to open a dialogue on matters that can appear quite socially uncomfortable, enter the conversation with an open mind and admit your preconceptions may be wrong. Its only by bringing these issues into the light and openly talking about them that we can raise awareness, making society as a whole more comfortable with the conversations and diluting the opinions of those on the extremes.

I am confident in my opinion that Dr Barry was not a transgender man, I am basing this on the fact he did not appear to identify as male, only bore the disguise to balance the incredible gender inequalities of the time. However I am looking at this through the lense of a twenty-first century, British male who identifies with the gender on his birth certificate. I absolutely recognise that there are a number of unconscious biases as a result of geography, location in time and general unbringing that I may have been influenced by unknowingly.I also recognise that whilst there is an extensive history around the world of people dressing in the clothes of another gender, history lacks the vocabulary to analyse this. Given the extreme societal biases against such things it is unlikely the individuals themselves would know how to express the disconnect as identifying as another gender. In this regard its only in the last decade, one hundred and fifty years after James Barrys death, that we have acknowledged transgender expression. This by no means suggests that I think we have developed far being attitudes in the seventeenth and eighteenth century. As stated above, as I see it the only way I can see us truly developing is by opening the dialogue and not being afraid to talk, to be challenged and to change our perspective.

Regarding the extensive statement this story makes about gender inequality, not just at the time but also now. I was shocked by how attitudes towards Barry immediately changed on the discovery that he was a woman. I have linked a couple of news paper articles below that were written in the years after his death. They read bleakly as “we knew it all along” and whilst I couldn’t share many of the source materials I used for my research for reasons of copyright, I felt a deep shame in reading them, putting a large amount of Barrys apparent volatile nature which was previously dismissed as him just being a lad, down to typical female hysteria. A number of articles suggested that Barry was the illegitimate daughter of Lord Erskine and only got away with the behaviours due to his favour. I have found literally no evidence that James Barrys father was anyone other than Jeremiah Barry, It is undisputed that a large part of Barrys success in passing as a male was a result of the support from Lord Erskine, much of the material reads as the authors felt it was impossible for a woman to have the intelligence to pull this off without being directed by a man. All of the great accomplishments for which Barry was celebrated throughout his life were almost immediately dismissed upon death as his gender was discovered. I couldn’t even find a published obituary which would routinely be published by Horseguards for an officer of Barrys station regardless of the fact he had retired at the time of his death. Whilst this speaks fairly darkly of attitutes towards towards women in the Victorian British Empire, the fact that Dr James Barry is still all but unknown and the immediate assumptions people make when reading this story suggest we have not developed as a society in our attitutes towards gender equality as far as we might like to think.

My first introduction to the story of James Barry was from a song by Katriona Gilmore and Jamie Roberts entited “Doctor James”. Once again proving that folk music is an essential component in our oral tradition and in some cases the only means by which these important stories and legends are preserved. I highly recommend this song to anyone so inclined.

The letters I had accessed with the help of the Royal College of Nursing written by Florence Nightingale to her family make for highly entertaining reading. As does a letter chastising the physician who certified Dr Barrys death for observing life extinct but failing to note that the corpse was “perfectly female in form”.

The numerous works of Hercules du Preez were invaluable in my research particularly an article “Doctor James Barry: The Early Years” where through frankly meticulous research a lot of the myths surrounding Doctor Barrys early years were debunked. A number his other articles whilst interesting lacked a fair balance of sources so whilst I used them, I took the details with a pinch of salt.

Several works of Robert Hume were useful, the article “Anatomy of a Lie” written for the irish Enquirer, was very useful in leading me other more useful primary sources.

These two newspaper articles written years after Barrys death are interesting in context however are poorly researched. The anecdotes made me chuckle but offer a bleak commentary on the perception of women at the time. I could never offer the social analysis this story deserves. As is the mandate for my Biographica Incognita, I try to write an accurate but interesting narrative with the purpose of inspiring interest in the reader and hopefully resulting in them reading further around the subject and drawing their own conclusions. I hope I have done an adequate job of shining a light on this incredible character who I feel has been mistreated by the tides of history.  

2 replies on “BI: James Barry”

Absolutely fascinating. I like the separation of this analysis from the body of the text. Are there any other examples of women disguising themselves as men around this time?

Keep up the Good Work

Thanks for the feedback. I thought the blog posts might be better used for analysis so the articles can remain fairly basic and allow people to read as much or as little as they want into the subject from there. Glad to know its working.

I’m sure history is littered with examples but the only two that come to mind are Hua Mulan(the basis for Disneys Mulan) who adopted the appearance of a man in order to spare her elderly father from fighting when the Chinese emperor requested a man from every noble household.

I also believe Pope Joan may be another example however I have never really looked into the voracity of that story.

What makes Doctor Barry remarkable is that he maintained the role for such a long time (a lifetime) which is the strongest evidence I am able to find that counters my belief that Barry didnt identify as a man. It would be challenging …..and isolating beyond belief to maintain this for that long if you didnt identify as a man.

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