Alex Myers’s Revolutionary (“Books,” Lavender 492) is a historical novel based on Deborah Samson, a weaver in a small Massachusetts village, who, as Robert Shurtliff, assumed male attire and enlisted in the Continental Army in 1780. She fought with the troops for seventeen months in the latter months of the Revolutionary War until she was wounded in 1782 and honorably discharged in 1783. Lavender talked at some length with Myers, who knows from his own life journey the intricacies and importance of living one’s gender.
Why did you chose to tell Deborah Samson’s story?
Alex Myers: I am directly descended from Deborah Samson’s brother through my mother’s side of the family. My grandmother was an amateur genealogist and both she and my mother enjoyed telling stories about family members. Deborah was one ancestor of several who fought in the Revolutionary War. We used to go to visit my grandmother and watch the re-enactments of the battles of Lexington and Concord when I was little. That was usually an occasion for Deborah’s story to be told, so it is a tale I knew deeply, one that I’d had almost my whole life to think about.
What did you find particularly compelling about Deborah’s gender expressions? Rather than being compelled by inner, transgender urges, Deborah seemed to make a pragmatic choice to present as a man as her only way to a decent and productive life. I didn’t get the impression that she would have used the pronoun “he” except while in her Robert persona.
AM: I think you have it correct: her choice was pragmatic. She wanted to be free, she wanted to make some money.The only way to do this was to be a man. Yet I also think that to maintain the disguise convincingly for a year and a half, she had to have, in some sense, become a man. I have to imagine that she was “comfortable” in that role—likely because of the independence that it gave—and in a way adopted that gender identity as her own. There was a surprising number of women who lived as men for varying lengths of time. For instance, Deborah would certainly have read stories/novels of Hannah Snell, who served as a British Marine aboard ship in the early to mid-1700s.
What things did you change from the actual historical events for the sake of the shape of the novel? Why?
AM: I made up all the minor characters except Jenny, who was real, though in real life was a free black servant. I kept the events that could be traced (the times and places of enlistment, action, and service) accurate, but the psychology and emotions are all fictional. For instance, Deborah reported that she nursed a soldier in the attic of a private house for a time and that they were betrayed and attacked by the British. I kept the sense of that event, but expanded it into a love story with [the soldier] James.
I did change one historical fact in Philadelphia: I had her hit on the head and end up in the hospital when in reality, she caught a fever. And at the end, I have her return home to Jenny while in reality she went home to an aunt. Mostly, I changed things to simplify or heighten the drama or to explore more of Deborah’s character. Oh, I also changed the facts about New Windsor. She did serve General Patterson as I wrote, but she lived in the huts with the men, not in her own quarters. I changed that for two reasons: first, I wanted to mark her as different than before. Also, I could not figure out how on earth she passed in those huts!
I read a few criticisms of your slipping back and forth on personal pronouns, but I personally found your pronoun evolution effective, changing or kicking in at apropos moments. I think also, when one is in the process of transitioning, pronouns aren’t always written in stone even in one’s own head. Would you comment on your pronoun use?
AM: I think you’ve nailed it. When I came out (and when others have come out to me) the pronouns go back and forth a bit. For many reasons. In the novel, I tried to peg it to moments when she might feel like a man and then moments when she remembers something from the past that makes her feel female. Pronouns are such a strong and public marker of self and identity; I couldn’t resist playing with them!
What in Revolutionary do you find has most resonated with readers? Deborah’s courage? The gender issues? History?
AM: Deborah’s strength. As with much historical fiction, the truth of it resonates with readers. They have commented that they just didn’t know life [then] was like that. They can’t imagine taking the risks that Deborah did.
What would you like Lavender readers to know about Revolutionary?
AM: I set out thinking it would be a novel that would shed some light on the fact that transgender isn’t a recent invention: people have been living as the “other” gender for a while and for a variety of reasons. But as I wrote and re-wrote, it turned out to be much more than that. I ended up wanting to write just about gender: forget the trans. How has “being a man” or “being a woman” changed over time? And then, how does that affect our understanding of trans identity now? What shifts those gender categories that we tend to think are so essential and fixed? Those were questions that I wanted to hint at and explore—and still want to write more on!
People are just opening up to the concept of transgenderism, and I think—hope—are becoming more open to learning more about us. When did you first realize your true self?
AM: I felt from as early as I can remember that I was a boy. I can recall telling people that when I was four or so.
At what age did you have the actual vocabulary to express yourself? “Transgender” wasn’t a even word until I was about 13.
AM: I hadn’t heard the word until I went off to Phillips Exeter Academy. I think it first crossed my path around ’93. Before then, I had heard “transsexual” and “transvestite,” and I had mostly heard those applied to MTFs [male-to-female], not that I knew that term, and so didn’t think of myself in those terms at all. In ’93, I came out as a lesbian to my friends, and it wasn’t until ’95, when I met transgender people and FTMs for the first time, that I came out as transgender. I had to see it to understand what it meant, and as soon as I saw, I knew: that’s me.
How did your family and friends react? You and your parents must have digested the fact and worked together if you transitioned as a minor. When did they know?
AM: It took a lot of explaining. Most of my friends were great. My parents were initially confused and scared, I think, but within a couple of years, they came around fully and have been tremendously supportive. It just takes time and patience. As a teenager, I was lacking in patience, which didn’t make the process any easier. I never came out to them as a lesbian, though I think they suspected, and “transgender” wasn’t a term they knew.
You first attended Phillips Exeter Academy as a girl, then graduated with a male gender expression. How were you received by the faculty and your fellow students?
AM: Exeter was tremendously supportive. I go back to visit and speak to the health/sex ed. classes almost every year, and I think that’s a testament to how important this issue is to them. The school has had a number of out trans students since my time. The faculty was mostly great. One or two were not, same with the students. But the supporters overwhelmed the non-supporters. I look back at that now and think, Wow! I can’t believe I didn’t wait until college to come out. But then I remember how much I wanted to be myself, to feel free and empowered and true. And so I showed up for senior year as a guy. I think I channeled some of that feeling into Deborah!
When did you graduate Harvard? Was your gender a particular issue as an undergraduate?
AM: Only when I made it one. I graduated in 2000 and I was an activist for much of my college time; working to get gender identity included in the non-discrimination clause, doing lots of protests and rallies on behalf of transgender crime victims, etc. It is too easy to be silent, to live normally and let people forget—or not know—who you are; I felt it was important to speak up because I was in a privileged and safe space. Still am.
What has been the most trying aspect of being trans? Or have there been any problems? It seems that if one is taken at face value, problems don’t arise.
AM: I think the “problem” for me is finding the right balance between being “in” and being “out.” It would be very easy for me just to pass as a guy and live my life in a seemingly straight marriage, etc. But at the times when I’ve tried to do that, it hasn’t felt right. I like masculine pronouns, I like to look like a guy. But, at heart, I am transgender. I identify with the having been/being both. That’s how I see the world. So, the challenge is coming out to people who know me as a guy and telling them, “I don’t want you to change your pronouns, etc., but I do want you to know that I am transgender.” Sometimes, people wonder why am I telling them this? Why not just keep quiet? But assimilation isn’t the answer for me.
Did you encounter other trans students at college or grad school? Do you know other trans individuals now? If you do, have you found that transwomen have a more difficult time vis-à-vis the public than transmen?
AM: Yes, I have known other transfolk starting in high school, though they weren’t students at the same high school, and have had transfolk among my friends and acquaintances ever since. I think that MTFs have more “visibility” in the media and that is both positive and negative. There is no FTM equivalent for some of the early drag queens that were, though sometimes comic, very positive figures and empowering for MTF identity. The flip side of that is MTFs tend to be the victims of crime more often and there are many complicated reasons for that.
Have you ever faced resistance from gays or lesbians? Some trans people have reported problems with others on the GLBT spectrum. (Do you say GLBT or GLBTQ?)
AM: Yeah. We don’t really belong there, in some sense. Gender identity is not sexual orientation. Sexual orientation depends on gender identity. To be a lesbian, first you have to be a woman. For me, identifying as trans, there is no sexual orientation that fits. I call myself queer, and therefore GLBTQ is my [preferred] term. I strongly identify with the GBLTQ community and want to be a part of it; I just find myself misread or misunderstood some of the time.
Do you find, having seen things from both sides as it were, that you feel you have a better insight into Deborah’s motives for the choices she made? I know, for a certainty, that people take me more at face value and listen to me more attentively as a man.
AM: I absolutely agree with your observations. When I interrupt someone in a business or academic setting, it is tolerated much more because I am a guy. And so on. Yes, I do think that having been/being both gave me insight into Deborah’s character—but limited insight because her times and circumstances were so different! I had to let her be her own character in her own context.
Have you been rebuked or criticized for having transitioned? What do your critics say? What do you answer? Does direction matter? I personally think that men really get upset about someone “giving up” manhood for womanhood.
AM: Yes, I think your assessment is right: the direction we go in as FTMs is much more “logical” in that we gain status. Sure, I’ve had people critique me and my identity. Some of it has come from a religious perspective (I’m a sinner, I’m wrong) some from a social context (I’m a freak) and some from strange angles. Lots of people have made comments that in any other era I’d “just” be a butch lesbian. Others question why I don’t get surgery (no plans to) and “really” be a man. I think people are uncomfortable with the liminality, with the in-between-ness. Like homosexuality [was], trans identity has long been categorized as an illness/sin and it will take society a while, if ever, to change that categorization.
What else would you like to say to Lavender readers about transgenderism?
AM: I think that it is crucial to remember that every trans person is different and defines themselves differently—this is part of what makes us annoying! So, even if you’ve met ten transpeople, the eleventh might have a very different take on gender expression. For me, I welcome the chance to have conversations about this and to sometimes politely and permanently disagree with how someone else defines gender or sex. I would encourage members of the GLBTQ community to look for ways that they can foster conversation about trans-identity; to set up meetings and forums and speakers where this issue can be raised and questions can be asked and things can be aired.
What are you doing now? Your plans for the future?
AM: I am earning an MA in English at Georgetown, where I work as an associate in the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Practices. I also work at American University, where I am the assistant director of the Kogod Center for Business Communications, teaching graduate and undergraduate business writing, public speaking, and team presentations. For writing, I am working on a contemporary novel, also with a transgender character, which I think is best described as a “coming of gender” (à la coming of age) story. Whenever I need a break from the longer work, I turn to writing essays and short stories on a variety of themes.