Women in Uniform: Revolutionary & I Shall Be Near to You

It would be easy to read Revolutionary, a novel about a woman who disguises herself as a man and enlists as a soldier during the tail end of the Revolutionary War, through a trans prism—especially since the author, Alex Myers, has told The Daily Beast that his own experiences as a transgender person informed his understanding of the real-life Deborah Samson, “how she might have felt as she tried to pass, to belong to this group of men at West Point.”

Easy, but too simplistic. “I don’t think that Deborah was transgender,” Myers immediately clarified. “I wanted to be very cautious not to transpose my 21st century notions of transgender identity onto her late-18th century notions of sexuality.” Though Deborah becomes so deeply invested in her adopted identity as Robert Shurtliff—”Robert after a favorite uncle, Shurtliff a middle name come down through the generations”—that the novel’s close third-person narration begins referring to her as “he,” Robert never considers himself to be a man in a woman’s body. By living as a man, however, Robert comes to enjoy a freedom that simply isn’t available to an unmarried young woman in colonial Massachusetts. “How easily men could say no,” Deborah observes early in her military career, “how readily they did as they pleased.” And yet, Robert tells another character who discovers his secret much later, “perhaps if society treated women differently, I wouldn’t mind being a woman.”

(In the same way that he avoids defining Deborah/Robert’s gender identity in modern terms, Myers is careful in his portrayals of sexual identity. Though Deborah’s closest relationship back home, with a young woman named Jennie, is emotionally intense and physically intimate, it’s never portrayed as a lesbian relationship, nor does Robert imagine marriage to Jennie as a possibility.)

24 February 2014 | read this |

Life Stories #64: Janet Mock

Subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes

Life Stories: Janet Mock
photo: Aaron Tredwell

I recorded this episode of Life Stories with Janet Mock the morning after a particularly contentious interview with Piers Morgan, who just couldn’t seem to wrap his head around why it might be offensive to refer to a transgender woman as having been “born a boy.” So one of the first things we did in that conversation was to reframe the issue, discussing what it’s like to have a self-identity that’s so thoroughly contradicted by what the rest of the world expects you to be. The story Mock tells in Redefining Realness isn’t about “becoming” a woman, or “transitioning” into womanhood, but about the struggle to live her life on her own terms, to be the person she knew herself to be.

You can read some of the highlights from our conversation in this Buzzfeed Books feature on Mock—as always, please show your friends that URL, because it ultimately leads to more Life Stories episodes—but I really hope you’ll give this interview a listen. And if you’ve heard the previous episode with Leah Vincent, I think you’ll recognize some common ground in their stories; these two remarkable young women have overcome childhood environments that seemed bent upon preventing them from expressing their true identities, and they’ve fought back hard against that and come out victorious, but at a powerful emotional cost.

Listen to Life Stories #64: Janet Mock (MP3 file); or download this file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click). Or subscribe to Life Stories in iTunes, where you can catch up with earlier episodes and be alerted whenever a new one is released. (And if you are an iTunes subscriber, please consider rating and reviewing the podcast!)

18 February 2014 | life stories |

« Previous PageNext Page »