The Cross-Dressing Revolutionary: Alex Myers’ New Novel
In the American Revolution a woman named Deborah Samson donned men’s clothes and fought the British. Now transgender novelist Alex Myers has told her story and explores sexual identity in the 18th century.
Alex Myers’s debut novel, Revolutionary, reimagines the true story of Deborah Samson, a little remembered Revolutionary War soldier who disguised herself as a man to fight the British. Samson has fascinated Myers, 35, since childhood, not only because Samson is a distant relative, but also because Myers is a female-to-male transgender person. In the edited interview below, Myers discusses how his sexual identity informed the novel, the limits historical fact placed on him, and his own gender transformation.
How has being a transgender person influenced your writing of the Deborah Samson character?
It gave me an entry point trying to understand how she might have felt as she tried to pass, to belong to this group of men at West Point. In my own life, I’ve had similar experiences. They gave me the ability to ask: What would she go through? Where would have been the pressure points? And where would have been the humor, the irony in the situation?
The flipside was that I don’t think that Deborah was transgender, and I wanted to be very careful to keep my own understanding of transgender identity out of her story. I wanted to be very cautious not to transpose my 21st century notions of transgender identity onto her late-18th century notions of sexuality. I wanted to build a fence around her world and make sure my world didn’t cross into it.
A few of passages in the novel have Deborah debating whether she wants to continue to live as a man after the war is over. Did you find yourself turning to your personal life to fill in those passages?
In those specific passages I actually had to keep myself distanced from Deborah’s story. If I had been her, I would not have gone back home, married and had children, and started to live as a woman again. I would have gone to Ohio and continued to live as a man. But she didn’t do that. That was a place where I had to remove myself from imposing my desires, my understanding, on her story.
You seem keenly aware of the anachronistic nature of gender identity. How did you come to this awareness?
In my graduate studies in literature, I learned about when the terms “gay” or “homosexual” came into existence, and what we mean by those terms: Is it talking about a sexual act, a one-time encounter, or a lifestyle or sexual identity? In the novel, I have a character named Shaw who articulates a form of sexual impropriety, and which I meant to suggest was homosexual behavior. But there wasn’t a term for it in the 18th century. The term I did use—“molly”—was even slightly anachronistic, and more common in England than it was in America. It meant something closer to a “dandy,” and someone who cares a lot about his clothes, rather than what I meant to suggest—a homosexual. I just don’t think there was a term to describe men who had sexual encounters with men. In our current world, we think of “gay” people, and it becomes a kind of container, it holds a whole bunch of values and associations that I person can identify as. To impose such a term on the 18th century would be an imposition on the past; they didn’t have such a container.
You’re touching on the broader question all historical fiction writers must face: how much history do you keep in the fiction? How did you end up answering that?
This is where having a low-key character like Deborah Samson, rather than, say, George Washington, was really helpful. When you have character like Washington, where you know where he was almost every step of the way, you really don’t want to put him somewhere you know he wasn’t. That’s a baseline: if they can be accounted for at a particular place and time, they have to be there. But thankfully Deborah’s written records are very scanty. I didn’t have many exact places I had to be controlled by. For instance, records we do have show that she at one point nursed a wounded soldier in the attic of a private house. So I took that fact and built fiction around it. I made up the soldier she nursed, James Snow, and the romance between them. In the records, she did say that British soldiers attacked them while in the house, but she didn’t say that the soldier she nursed had died. So I made that up too.
What I tried to do was craft a story that reflected her psychology and her emotions. I definitely had to make up a lot. But she did leave an “as-told-to” biography, written in 1797, when she was in her late-30s. I think it’s really useless when trying to get at the facts, but it’s incredibly useful when trying to understand Deborah. She was telling her biographer, basically a publicist: Here’s how I want to present myself to the public. What that allowed me to say was, This is how she wants to be remembered; this is what’s important to her. So, for instance, in the biography, she repeatedly tells these anecdotes about how people would compliment her on her handsome calves, or how women would try to steel a kiss. I don’t know if any of that happened; in fact, I doubt that much of it did. But here’s what it tells me: It tells me that Deborah desperately wanted to pass; that she was respected; that she was good-looking; and that people liked her. She wanted to belong, and so that was a way I could get at the psychological truth of her.
You worked closely with Samson’s biographer, Alfred Young, a prominent historian who died in 2012. Did you two ever disagree when you wanted to take liberties and he wanted to stick to the facts?
He was fantastic to work with—detail-oriented, but so pleasant to work with. He read through the manuscript and would correct me when I was wrong. When there were moments he was uncomfortable with, we reached a kind of truce. In the opening part of my book, for instance, Deborah tries to enlist and initially fails; shortly after, she’s raped and successfully re-enlists under the pseudonym Robert Shurtliff. In fact, it was quite some time before her successful attempt to re-enlist. Alfred had written about this and I knew all that, and even included parts of it in my earlier draft. But I had to get the story off the ground, so I cut most of that out. When Alfred read my later draft, he said that I made up the rape scene, and under circumstances that were completely inaccurate. I said, “I know! I know! But here’s why I had to do it…” He said, “Okay. I understand that; that makes sense.” He was ultimately willing to work within the parameters of fiction, but still make it as accurate as it could be.
Coincidentally, one of the leading historians of gender in the revolutionary era, Thomas Foster, has a new book coming out in February titled Sex Lives of the Founding Fathers. Foster partly argues that we tend to view 18th century society as more prudish than it actually was. This misperception makes books like yours seem more shocking than the tale may have actually been. Does your book capitalize on popular misconceptions of 18th century attitudes towards sex?
The issue of 18th century attitudes toward sex came to me in an interesting way. When I was researching Deborah’s life, I found out that after the war, she married a man and had a child with him. But the child was born five or six months after she was married, so she must have conceived the child before marriage. But the records called that an “early baby,” which suggests that there was a well-known, canonical term for out-of-wedlock sex, even though the act was officially disproved of. I remember reading that and thinking: I believe that a later period, a Victorian era, that read back onto the Founders a repressed sexual life, or a non-existent sexual life, to make them seem more “pure.” As for Deborah, there was certainly a puritanical strain in society, but she was a Baptist. And the Baptists then were not like the ones now: They were radicals, they were egalitarians; they were edgy. So, for a variety of reasons, I think we often read onto past figures sexual attitudes that are probably not accurate. But I hope that part of my readers know otherwise.
But as you write in the novel, Baptists excommunicated Deborah for dressing as a man.
Well, even they had their limits [laughs]. In the minutes we have from her excommunication, it seems that it was just too scandalous for them. Baptists had to protect their reputation.
Your novel makes a parallel between Deborah’s quest for personal freedom from the limitations imposed on 18th century women, and the patriots’ broader fight for political equality. Some historians have argued that, in fact, the Revolution unleashed a momentary “sexual revolution” against traditional marriage and in favor of women’s rights. By making the parallel, were you trying to draw attention to this historical interpretation?
Yes. I do think that there was a huge opportunity for women’s rights that got dampened shortly after the Revolution. There’s Abigail Adams’ famous remark to her husband to “Remember the ladies.” And privately, if not publicly, there was talk among the some of the leading lights of the Revolution that equality for all meant equality for women as well. But those ideas never gained much ground. However, when Deborah went on the lecture circuit to tell her story in the 1790s, that represented a very brief window of time for women’s rights. But there was a backlash, and you don’t see it again until Seneca Falls in 1848.
You first heard of Deborah’s story as a child, from your grandmother, who’s a distant relative of Samson’s. Your grandmother presented Deborah as a proto-feminist. Do you still see Samson that way?
I don’t think Deborah was nearly as interested in winning women’s rights as she was in advancing her own personal freedom. But I don’t mean that as a criticism of her as much as of the reality in which she lived. She was an incredibly impoverished woman with very few options. My grandmother always presented it as a story about this great women, who cared so much about her country. After researching the book, I don’t see it like that anymore.
As a child, did dealing with your own sexual identity draw you to Deborah’s story?
I definitely know that when I was growing up as transgender, I remember mentioning to friends that I had this distant relative who dressed as a man. But I saw it as an amusing and entertaining coincidence. I can’t say it was a huge influence on my influence in her story.
Now if we can shift toward your life as a transgender person. What was the coming-out process like?
It’s kind of strange to translate to people who have never questioned their sexual orientation or have always felt comfortable in their gender. But how I explain it is that I was born and raised as a girl, but from the earliest I can remember, I didn’t simply want to be a boy—I thought I was a boy. I would get upset when I had to put on a dress; when people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d say I wanted to be a boy. This was the very early-‘80s, so they weren’t so aware of these transgender identities, and I was only called “a jock” or a “tomboy.”
Then, in high school, I went to boarding school at Phillips Exeter Academy, and I met some gay and lesbian students. But I realized that those categories didn’t seem to fit how I felt either. But I also met some transgender people, and it wasn’t until I met them that I realized, “Oh, you can do this: You can be a woman and say that you can live as man.” You don’t even need to have surgery. So during the summer between my junior and senior year, I cut my hair short, and asked people to start calling me “Alex” instead of my birth-name, “Alice.” I still haven’t had surgery, and I didn’t take hormones until I was in my mid-20s. Now I’m married to a woman. People often say to me, “It must have been so hard.” I think it was actually pretty easy because it’s who I am. It’s how I always felt.