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To Go for a Soldier Boy

Monday, July 19, 2021 - 21:00

In some ways, this chapter feels like Manion is happy to play fast and loose with the theme of "female husbands" in order to cast a wider net on the subtitle "a trans history". The people transing gender to take up roles--whether temporary or long-term--as a soldier or sailor generally did not end up in marriages with women, though they might use flirtations with women as a strategy for gender acceptance. One perhaps unusual feature of the figures covered in this chapter is that they all had (auto)biographies published about their trans experiences. Though of course we wouldn't know as much about them if they hadn't. But those biographies often tell us more about the accepted shape of gender-crossing narratives of the time than they do about the actual experiences of their subjects. We know this because there's enough supporting evidence from other sources to point out where they diverge from history in favor of standard tropes. While their actual lives were diverse in details and ambiguous in meaning, the biographies create a standard narrative of essential femininity, constant risk of discovery due to female physicality, flirtatious but ultimately futile romantic encounters with women, and eventual resolution into a normative female life.

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Manion, Jen. 2020. Female Husbands: A Trans History. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. ISBN 978-1-108-48380-3

Chapter 3: The Sailors and Soldiers

PAF transing gender to join the military or go to sea were common both in life and popular culture, with a wide variety of motivations. In isolated cases those who performed well before being unmasked might be celebrated and even rewarded, such as James Gray, William Chandler, and Robert Shurtliff whose (somewhat fictionalized) autobiographies helped ensure their fame. Common knowledge of stories such as theirs kept trans possibilities in mind, although there were significant barriers to success. Their roles in popular culture were contradictory, both establishing trans possibilities but always framing them as women and therefore both “normal” and anomalous.

Within the male-dominated world of sailors and soldiers, the romantic or sexual pursuit of women could be an essential feature of gender crossing, as well as sometimes aligning with their own desires. But these stories often do not feature permanent partnerships in the way the previous examples of female husbands do. Rather they focus on flirtations that are framed specifically as a strategy or an unwilling necessity.

The chapter focuses on the three aforementioned people. James Gray (née Hannah Snell) served briefly in the army and then at sea, eventually being wounded in battle and was discharged with a pension. Only then did they deliberately announce their assigned sex. Gray then turned their experiences into a celebrity career, writing an autobiography. Manion discusses how the publicity around great focused strongly on the act of disguise and supposed near misses at being discovered, all of which emphasized their female body.

Samuel Bundy has a less typical story, alternately presenting as a man or a woman, and while they adopted a sailor’s outfit it isn’t clear that they served on a ship. Bundy entered into a marriage with Mary Parlour and when Bundy’s assigned sex was revealed, resulting in a charge of fraud, the charge was dropped because Mary declined to pursue it. This again points to the difficulty English law had with identifying an actual crime involved in marriage between two women. But the marriage was dissolved, Bundy returned to skirts, and sometime later married a man.

William Chandler preferred male coded activities from a young age and in 1759 at age 19--with no particular trigger for the decision--decided to leave home, change into male clothing, and make their way in the world as a man. Within a few days they had an offer to become a sailor. After some time at sea, the apprentice to a ship right in Portsmouth. After working in that trade for a time, Chandler returned to wearing female clothing, wrote an autobiography of their adventures, and eventually married a man they had first known as a fellow shipwright. Chandler’s autobiography follows tropes of the genre that are at odds with their actual experiences: fear of discovery, concerns about being physically weak, near-miss sexual encounters with women. Given this, some doubt the too-tidy resolution in heterosexual marriage, and there is ambiguous evidence regarding cohabitation with a woman named Elizabeth Slade. But Manion has turned up a marriage record to a Mr. Slade by one Mary Lacey, Chandler’s birth name. So Chandler’s story defies categorization in all manner of ways.

We cross the Atlantic to take up the story of Robert Shurtliff (née Deborah Sampson). Shurtliff’s proclaimed motivation in joining the Continental army in 1782 was simple patriotism. They served as a man for a year and a half. Later they returned to female dress and eventually married a man with whom they had three children. Many years later, Shurtliff was approached by a writer who wanted to tell their biography and the money was too good to refuse. Turning their experiences into performance art via a speaking tour, Shurtliff also had the opportunity to claim a government pension. (Cross-gender soldiers were often rebuffed and denied pensions solely due to their perceived sex, if discovered.) Shurtliff’s biography--like Chandler’s--is full of stock tropes, especially romantic and sexual encounters with women while being read as a man. These encounters are framed as harmless and even natural, given that the women took Shurtliff for a man.

But the story of simple patriotic fervor side-steps the fact that Shurtliff continued inhabiting a male role as a farmer after leaving the army and returning home, also continuing flirtations with women. And early stories about Shurtliff’s experiences were somewhat more condemnatory than the later attribution of patriotic motives, perhaps assigned in order to make their actions more palatable to 19th century images of womanhood.

The chapter concludes with a discussion of the overlap in themes of trans-masculinity and male effeminacy that could create a double-bind for those transing gender.

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historical