By Michelle Garcia
Originally published on Advocate.com April 21 2014 7:05 AM ET
Imagine a young woman during America's colonial period, alone, with little or no family, no money, no property, and no formal education. Her only option for a chance to live independently? Live as a man.
It sounds a little like a tall tale, but Deborah Sampson was a real person, and she donned the uniform of a colonial soldier to not only fight for America's independence but also to forge a life on her own terms, without relying on a man. America's first female soldier, whose story has been embraced by feminists today, also captured the imagination of one of Sampson's descendants, Alex Myers.
Centuries later, Myers is a writer, transgender rights activist, and was the first openly trans student at Harvard University. But years before all of that, Myers was just a child fascinated by a family member who ended up being quite revolutionary.
"I remember being little, like 5 or 6, and my grandmother telling me, as we watched these reenactments, about my ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. And there were many of them, but one story stood out to me," Myers tells The Advocate.
That was the story of Deborah Sampson, one of seven children born in Plympton, Mass., in 1760. By age 8, Sampson was an indentured servant. She was eventually able to work her way out of indenture, supporting herself by weaving and spinning material, laboring on a farm, and teaching young children. Still, it was unheard of for a 19-year-old woman to be unmarried and financially independent. Frustrated by the limitations of her gender, Sampson made several attempts to present herself as a man. Finally one attempt worked well enough that Sampson could enlist in the Continental Army. She fled and enlisted in Worcester, Mass., under the name Robert Shurtliff.
Sampson's story has been told in several iterations, including a 1797 memoir she cowrote with Herman Mann in order to help raise money after coming on tough times. The accuracy of Sampson's own book, Myers says, is questionable at best.
"It's laughably bad," Myers says. "And Deborah lied. About half of it is outright lies."
For example, Sampson's memoir claims that she fought in 1781 at the battle of Yorktown, one of the major battles of the Revolutionary War. But that's a full year before her signature appears on any military papers. In the book, Sampson claims that she fought Native Americans during her time at West Point, but historical records show no evidence of any such uprising or raid there.
"You don't get a full account of what happened to her, but you get a sense of how she wanted to be seen," he says. "And that was extremely helpful, to understand that I think she was a person who cared very much about her reputation and her status, and that idea that she wanted people to be impressed by her. And who doesn't?"
Myers set out to adapt the story of his ancestor into a novel while still attempting to remain as accurate as possible, in his debut novel, Revolutionary. Since none of Sampson's original correspondence or documents remained, Myers started by combing through one account of Sampson's life, Alfred Young's Masquerade. Then he started pouring over the letters of rank-and-file soldiers during the war to capture the tone and voice of men (and a woman) on the battlefield.
The result is an exciting account of a young woman who experiences the sudden freedom that comes with shedding the constrictions of societal gender norms at a time when such a thing was unheard of. That joy in freedom, however, turns into anxiety as Sampson has to navigate the treacherous environment of close quarters with male soldiers, constantly worrying about essentially being outed. Myers also captures correspondence between Sampson and Jennie, a character created to represent her real-life friend, who was a slave that helped Sampson flee by stealing her master's clothing.
Centuries later, women can join the military, travel the globe alone, and own property, and the limits on identifying as any gender or sexual orientation are disappearing. Sampson, however, is one example of the lengths women would have to go in order to be recognized as equal human beings. With hindsight, does Myers think that his ancestor might identify as LGBT in any way now?
"I've gone back and forth on this extensively," he says. "In the Howard Mann book, she brags a lot about how often girls fell in love with her. That she was such a good-looking man, that she would have to beat them off with a stick. I think she's subtly nodding to the fact that she liked this and was possibly queer in that sense. But maybe she's just saying, 'Look how well I passed, that even young women thought I was attractive.'"
Initially, Myers said he grappled with whether to present Sampson as someone who would have identified as trans or gay or both had she not lived in the 18th century. It was especially difficult to make such a call, since vocabulary barely existed back then to describe being gay or transgender.
"But the more I wrote about her world, it seems to me that she was not really choosing between being a man and being a woman. I think she was choosing to be enslaved or free. To be a woman at the time was to have no freedoms," he says. "I think by disguising herself as a man, it was less of her saying 'I want to live as a man,' and more that she wanted to have personal freedom and independence. I don't think she was genderqueer, but certainly gender-transgressive. She wanted to do things that women weren't allowed to do."
And by trying to do things that women weren't allowed to do, she gave American women a symbol for daring to break rules, as a step in the march toward equality. She was truly revolutionary.