University of Edinburgh: overlooked LGBT history

In December 1809, a medical student enrolled at the University of Edinburgh under the name James Barry. When Barry died, his gender became the subject of rumour and scandal, with some suggesting that Barry was a woman or a ‘hermaphrodite’. We do now know that Barry was born Margaret Ann Bulkley. Barry grew up in Cork, Ireland but came to study in Edinburgh because of his mother’s concern for his education and family connections to the Venezuelan revolutionary, General Francisco Miranda. Miranda suggested to Barry to train as a doctor in order to work in Venezuela.

Miranda’s revolution failed but Barry successfully graduated in 1812. After this, Dr. Barry enjoyed a successful career in the British Empire as an army surgeon, a pioneering promoter of modern sanitation and the Inspector General of Hospitals in Britain. He even bears the honour of being insulted by Florence Nightingale.

Figures like Dr. James Barry present the historical complexity fo studying gender and related issues. Barry is usually written about using exclusively male pronouns, for clarity, whilst also being referred to as ‘the first woman to graduate in medicine in the United Kingdom. Barry was recognised as a man throughout his life, presenting the appearance, and behaviours expected of a man. In this regard, his gender was male as gender describes a socially constructed set of behaviours and standards defined for the sexes. Standards that can change as societies do.

Claims from Sophia Bishop, Barry’s maid, and Dr. McKinnon, Barry’s doctor, are that he was neither male nor female, which reveals the seemingly biologically concrete notion of ‘sex’ can also be illusive. ‘Sex’ describes a set of biological factors which are supposed to indicate whether an individual is male or female. However, genitals and visible markers are not the only biological aspects of sex, which is made up of numerous complex hormonal and genetic features. Additionally, intersex people have a mixture of characteristics from both sexes and even then, those born with the visible markers and hormones of one sex may identify as another.

Just as historians struggle to categorise Barry, vacillating between his male presentation and his purported female anatomy, modern commentators find the departure from binary genders and sexes unsettling, enraging and confusing. The complex nature of the human experience of sex and gender is one that is often misunderstood, wilfully or otherwise. For example, a lecturer at the University of Abertay Dundee, Stuart Waiton, wrote in the Scottish Herald that “operations and drugs may change your body but it does not change your sex.” That is despite his implication that the biological body an individual is born with ought to define themselves as male or female. Overall, Waiton fails to unpick the potential tensions between a biologically centred notion of sex and gender formed by the outside world.

Incomprehension and ignorance about transgender people have tangible social results. The Scottish Social Attitudes Report from 2015 concluded that “certain people are still subject to much higher levels of prejudice than others, in particular, transgender people” from employers, family, and associates. The fact that “25 per cent of transgender people within the UK have experienced homelessness at some point in their life” is clearly related to this hostility.

Considering the widespread misunderstanding of these complex concepts of gender and sex, it is encouraging to hear the recent news that Scotland will be educating school pupils about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) issues. With LGBTI History upon us, it seems a suitable time to recommend that anyone who is confused by the related issues should take this opportunity to educate themselves.

Without a final world on the subject from Barry himself, we will never know how he saw himself. However, we can still learn an important lesson about respect from Barry’s doctor, Dr McKinnon, who identified him on his deathbed, writing that “whether Dr Barry was a male, female, or hermaphrodite I do not know, nor had I any purpose in making the discovery as I could postivitely swear to the identity of the body as being that of a person whom I had been acquianted with … for a period of years.”

 

Image: Wilderwill via Wikimedia Commons 

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