Dr James Barry and the erasure of LGBTQ+ history

In 1865 Dr James Barry was stripped of his identity. A violation that’s still being exploited today. So who was Dr Barry and what does his story tell us about LGBTQ history?

Doctor James Barry was a well respected and hugely influential Army doctor. His work improved medical conditions for soldiers receiving medical care during warfare and his practices around cleanliness and sanitation made their way into hospitals back home too.

But that’s not why we’re talking about Dr Barry today.

Despite all his achievements, Dr Barry is mainly remembered because of rampant speculation about his gender.

After his death – despite his will and direct wishes – it was ‘exposed’ that James Barry had been assigned female at birth.

As a result of this, the good doctor has been claimed by some as a figure in women’s history. Several books about Barry include the word ‘woman’ in the title, with a new with a novel due out soon that presents Barry as a woman.

Still others argue that his identity is too complex to define… but is this the truth of it?

Dr James Barry in the 1840’s

But before we delve into the modern politics, let’s discover who this incredible man actually was.

Born in Cork, Ireland around 1795, James was an intelligent child who grew up with the aspiration to become a doctor and work for the army. In 1808 he put that plan in motion and set off to Edinburgh University to start his medical degree, receiving his medical doctorate in 1812, after which he moved to London and trained at the prestigious Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals. Shortly after this he passed his qualification under the Royal College of Surgeons.

As soon as he had this under his belt James up and joined the army, kicking off an illustrious and well respected career. Barry spent ten years in Cape Town, South Africa where he improved sanitation and water systems, which reduced deaths from infections.

He also set up a leper sanctuary while he was there and improved conditions for slaves, prisoners, the lower ranked soldiers and the mentally ill. This commitment to those in lower and more vulnerable classes was unheard of at the time and it meant he ruffled a few feathers. The fact he was also a bit of a belligerent ass also meant he was disliked by many of his peers.

He then had postings in Mauritius, Jamaica, the West Indies, Malta, Corfu and even found time to help with the Crimean War effort on his own time. Dr Barry was then posted to Canada, in all his posts he continued to fight for improved sanitation practices. His blunt and stern demenour got him repremanded by superiors many times, but the quality and skill of his work made him almost untouchable!

He had a famous run in with Florence Nightingale while they were both stationed as medical staff during the Crimean War. Nightingale described James as ‘the most hardened creature I ever met.’

In 1859 James was forcibly retired from the army due to his failing health and age. He passed away a few years later in London on July 25th 1865.

Dr Barry requested in his will that no autopsy be performed, his body not inspected in any way and it was to buried as he was found. Unfortunately he did not get his wish and the maid who prepared his body for burial exposed Barry’s previous identity.

She took this information to James’ physician, Dr R. McKinnon, who had signed him as male on the death certificate. Dr McKinnon refused to pay the maid when she tried to blackmail him and she retaliated by taking this story to the press.

Since this then there has been the rhetoric that Dr James Barry was just a woman disguising himself as a man to get by.

His story became sensationalised.

This kind of erasure of LGBTQ history and identity is something that’s prevalent among historians, history fans and in historical media today.

King James I was just good mates with George Villiers, despite love letters calling George his ‘wife’ and a passageway between their rooms being discovered. People still argue Anne Lister wasn’t a lesbian, despite the fact she wrote in her diaries that she loved ‘only the fairer sex’.

Transgender identities in history receive the most debate and outright aggressive erasure of the LGBTQ community.

The excuse used for this type of erasure is that none of these identities existed ‘in those days’. But here’s the thing- Not having the language to express an identity in a way that makes it palatable today doesn’t mean Trans people didn’t exist.

Are there are examples in history of women disguising themselves as men to get ahead in another profession? Yes. But these women still identified themselves as women (see Margaret King).

James was not a woman.

In all Dr Barry’s written discourse he referred to himself as male, he did not want his body examined after death. Dr James Barry was a Transgender man.

Portrait of Dr James Barry

There’s arguments for and against this statement, including the fact that Dr Barry was offered the chance to practice medicine in Venezuela, where women could practice as Doctors, but he turned it down.

Or the fact he maintained his identity as a man even when accusations of sodomy (illegal at the time) were counted against him.

The argument that Barry must have identified as a woman includes the fact that pictures of dresses were found in one of his trunks.

But all these arguments pale when we look at this one simple fact – Dr James Barry lived and died as a man. His correspondence was as a man and he wanted his identity protected after his death. Anything else is just projection.

Dr Barry is sensationalised in a heinous way that exploits and reduces trans identities down to sexual organs and ‘shock’ reveals.

Again I reiterate that he asked for his wishes to be respected after death, and he was violated in an unforgivable way.

And this violation continues today.

Dr James Barry had his identity stripped from him and we need to give it back. After years of arguments and misgendering we at least owe him that.

That was interesting, how can I find out more? Well I highly recommend the following articles by Jack Doyle and E E Ottoman for further reading.

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

The Baddest Bitch of Stonewall

Marsha P Johnson was a fucking badass. A badass with a big heart, a creative sense of style and a fearless attitude. She was a veteran of the Stonewall riots in the late 60’s, she campaigned for Queer rights and set up a charity to help disadvantaged Queer youth.

The influence Marsha and other trans women of colour had on bringing Queer rights into the mainstream as well as the creation of Pride, protests and change in laws is often ignored or whitewashed by mainstream culture.

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Marsha never missed a protest 💪🏿

Marsha was a child of poverty, she grew up in a rough neighbourhood and moved to New York City from New Jersey when she was 18. Once in New York she legally changed her name to Marsha and started getting the reputation as being the Queen with a big heart.

She was often homeless, hustled to make money (as many trans women had to) and was always getting picked up by police.

The thing I love most about Marsha is her creativity. She was a street queen who could turn any junk into treasure, she was known to put christmas tree lights in her hair and use bits and pieces she found in the trash to make her outfits.

If someone complimented her outfit she was inclined to give it to them. That’s just how she was.

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Our babe Marsha 🙌🏿 Via Giphy

Marsha was at the Stonewall Inn Celebrating her birthday with friends when police raided the bar at 1.40am. The police treated the Queer community like shit and were constantly raiding and arresting people in some of the only available safe spaces they had. So tensions were already high.

Marsha fought back against the police that night and threw a shot glass into a mirror stating she knew her rights thus instigating the riots and protests against their treatment by police that lasted THREE FUCKING DAYS! This became known as the:

‘Shotglass heard around the world’

You don’t come to fuck up Marsha’s party and leave without an ass kicking.

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Damn right bitch! Via Giphy

After the riots Marsha and her friend Sylvia Rivera (another trans activist) founded STAR (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) and they used every penny they had to set up a halfway house for runaway LGBT youth.

Seriously EVERYTHING they made went on clothing and food for the ‘children’ they supported. They were utterly selfless.

They were still often homeless and went without themselves to help their kids. Marsha became known as the ‘Queen Mother’ of the house.

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My kinda Queen Mother 👑

Marsha and Sylvia are heroes and should be lauded as such right? But during one of the first gay pride marches in New York, Sylvia took to the stage to make a speech AND THE AUDIENCE TRIED TO BOO HER OFF THE STAGE!

No, I don’t see the logic her either… but Sylvia wasn’t going to just walk off stage. Bitch turned that crowd around and by the end was leading a mammoth chant of

 ‘GAY POWER!’

Marsha was also often dismissed by other gay rights activists at the time because of her appearance and ‘kooky’ demeanor. She struggled with mental health issues and was in and out of prisons and mental health facilities throughout her life.

Once when she was in court a judge asked her what the P stood for and she replied

‘Pay it no mind.’

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Same. Via Giphy

LEGEND! The judge totally let her off.

Marsha had a varied and incredible life despite her shitty living conditions.

In 1975 Marsha was photographed by Andy Warhol for his Ladies and Gentlemen series. He painted a beautiful picture of Marsha that captured her essence perfectly, our girl looks fucking radiant!

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Marsha and her Warhol portrait.

As if that wasn’t cool enough she started performing in the mid 70’s with Hot Peaches an experimental queer cabaret group.

She was super popular with the audiences and loved being on the stage. She played up to being tone deaf so screamed rather than sang her numbers, AND EVERYONE LOVED IT!

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Marsha scream/singing. Via Giphy

Now, guys I’m really sorry but… Marsha’s story has a really shitty ending.

She was found dead in the Hudson River not long after the 1992 New York Pride march. The death was dismissed as a suicide by the police, but her friends were adamant that there had been foul play.

There’d been sightings of Marsha being harassed in the street the night she went missing. But hey, she was black, gay and trans so they didn’t give a toss.

Marsha’s case was finally reopened in 2012 which was 20 WHOLE YEARS after her death thanks to a campaign by transgender activist Mariah Lopez (another total badass, who opened the first transgender housing unit for Rikers Island, the largest American Prison in 2014.)

Marsha’s funeral had hundreds of mourners and they threw her ashes in the river along with bunches of bright flowers. She was known for having flowers in her hair, so this gesture gets us right in the feels.

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😭 Via Giphy

Her friend Sylvia was bereft without Marsha, but this bitch was tough. She carried on campaigning and helping disadvantaged LGBT youth until her death from liver cancer in 2002.

We love Marsha, she was an incredible woman who was full of life and love for everyone. We could all do with being a bit more like her tbh.

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Beautiful Marsha. Via Giphy

This was really interesting! Where can I find out more? The documentary Pay it No Mind: The Life and Times of Marsha P Johnson is on Youtube and it is much watch stuff!!

But please, we beg you… DO NOT USE THE HOLLYWOOD FILM, AS A REFERENCE! The film, Stonewall, is a whitewashed steaming turd of a mess (obvs our opinion, but…)

Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.

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