Over 230 years ago, a young woman named Deborah Samson fled her role as an indentured servant in Massachusetts, disguised herself as a man, and enlisted in the Continental Army under the name of Robert Shurtliff. She served for a year and a half of the Revolutionary War before she was wounded and honorably discharged. About two centuries later, her descendent Alex S. Myers ’00 came out as a transgendered man and was the first openly transgender person to attend Harvard. Inspired by Samson's story, Myers penned a historical novel about her life called “Revolutionary,” which has just been released; he will be reading from the novel at the Harvard Book Store today. Informed by his own personal experiences, Myers uses the story of Samson’s journey and self-discovery to grapple with the complexities surrounding gender and identity.
In Revolutionary, Myers uses a few basic facts about Samson’s life, such as her enlistment in the army and some of her letters, and employs his imagination to fill in the gaps in her story. Myers says he found the task of recreating the mind of his ancestor to be an intriguing and challenging process. “I wanted to keep the point of view accurate while representing the psychology,” he says. “I had to ask myself, ‘What would she have wanted? What would she have felt was respectable and reasonable? What would she have found normal?’”
As the novel progresses, Samson’s identity becomes increasingly blurred and the gender barrier starts to break down to the point that she says at the novel’s conclusion: “I am Robert Shurtliff…but I am also Deborah Samson.” Indeed, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of who is speaking or thinking—Myers shifts between masculine and feminine pronouns in a single scene, and uses the names Robert and Deborah interchangeably, until it is unclear whether the novel’s protagonist is a hero or a heroine.
Samson’s journey mirrors Myers’ own beliefs that labeling gender and sexual identities is not a black and white process. “Deborah outperformed many of her male peers and got honors on the battlefield,” Myers says. “Our understanding of gender is completely constructed. If you treat a woman like a delicate flower, that’s how she will be. If you let people live to their full capacities, they can totally outdo [their] potentials.”
Samson’s path to become a man is, however, radically different from Myers’s own story. According to him, “Deborah more than anything wanted to be free, and it was only by becoming a man that she was able to achieve the liberty she desired.” Myers doubts that, if she lived today, Deborah would be transgender. “She would be able to do what she wanted today and wouldn’t have to be a man to do it. Maybe she would be transgender or queer, but largely she would just want more freedom.” Myers, on the other hand, has always wanted to be a boy. In 1995, in his final year at Philips Exeter Academy, he became the first openly transgender student in the school’s history and changed his name from Alice to Alex. At Harvard, Myers chose to identify as transgender instead of simply male and became an outspoken advocate. “As the only out trans person [at Harvard], people were understandably ignorant in the beginning,” he says. Overall, however, he found Harvard to be a very supportive place where his fellow peers were eager to learn about his identity and transgender rights.
His story differs from Samson’s, but Myers did draw on his own experiences while writing “Revolutionary.” Myers says he can relate to Samson’s feelings of frustration with her gender role on a smaller scale. “When I was younger, I had an older brother, and I always felt it was so unfair that he could do things that I couldn’t just because I was a girl,” he says. “I had to wear a dress while he got to wear pants.”
Myers describes modern America’s struggles with gender as minor compared to Samson’s, but he does feel that there is work to be done in breaking down the restrictions that women still face on a daily basis, particularly in the military. He hopes that “Revolutionary” inspires readers to continue to think about the complexity of gender to consider its ambiguity as well as the discrimination that many modern women face. In “Revolutionary,” Samson strikes down the barriers that face her with breeches and bullets; today, Myers is doing the same with his words.
—Staff writer Isabel H. Evans can be reached at email@example.com.
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