Deborah Sampson, who historians cite as America’s first female soldier, ran away from home in 1782 and transformed herself —cutting her hair, binding her chest and donning men’s clothes—to serve as “Robert Shurtliff” in the Continental Army. Writer Alex Myers first heard the tale of Sampson’s adventurous life as a child.
“It’s a story that I heard from my grandmother,” Myers says. Deborah Sampson is Myers’ ancestor, on his mother’s side; his grandmother is an amateur genealogist. “I probably heard [the story] when I was five or six,” says Myers, a writer and transgender activist who currently teaches English at St. George’s School in Rhode Island. “We used to go to the reenactments of the battles of Lexington and Concord with my grandmother on Patriot’s Day. I never thought much of it until later on in high school when I was coming out as transgender.” Myers was the first openly transgender student at Harvard University, where he fought to get gender identity added to the Ivy League school’s nondiscrimination policy (and graduated in 2000).
Myers’ new historical fiction Revolutionary uses Sampson’s story to illuminate a range of issues around gender identity. Myers looked partially to the work of Alfred Young, who wrote a historical monograph of Sampson’s life called Masquerade. However, according to Myers, Sampson told half-truths in her own memoir, so he had to sift out what was pure fabrication. Why, then, did Myers choose to write a novel rather than a biography?
“I wanted to have the space to imagine her psychologically,” he says. “I didn’t want to be confined to just the facts because no matter how good a history book is, there’s a limitation when it comes to knowing what the person was thinking or feeling and that, to me, is what makes any story more interesting. That’s the realm that fiction let me explore.”
In a number of passages throughout the book, Myers does just that—detailing Sampson’s inner life and struggles as she rebelled against the 18th century’s rigid definitions of what it meant to be a woman and a man and a soldier. For instance, after Sampson’s first taste of battle, in which one of his superiors praised his uncomplaining efforts, Myers writes, “Robert could scarcely keep himself from turning around to look once more at the meadow, the site of his first battle. Over and over, he heard the same phrase in his mind: that soldier is a man.”
For Myers, the hardest part of the writing process was researching the minutiae—roads, trails and landmarks—of Revolutionary War America; he wanted to include enough details for historical authenticity without eclipsing Sampson’s psychological life. He accomplished that research with a mix of primary sources, digital archives, and visits to historic sites, working on the novel for almost three years.
Revolutionary is published at a time when the transgender community is fighting for recognition and justice across the country. Commonplace attacks against transgender people and the military’s ongoing discrimination against transgender service members, coupled with Chelsea Manning’s coming out as transgender, have brought the topic of gender identity to the American dinner table. Revolutionary is a worthy contribution to that conversation. “I hope that with [my book] I’ve shown both women’s ability to fight and a transgender person’s ability to fight,” says Myers.
Transgender people are often called liars and told that they don’t exist. Myers is hopeful that Revolutionary will educate readers about the myriad issues facing transgender people. “I hope that people understand the pressure to pass and the desire to want to succeed in that gender role; whether or not you’re a soldier, I think there are still pretty strong gender roles in our society,” says Myers. “I hope that the book portrays some of that internal and external pressure of what it feels like to both be disguised and also to feel true to yourself, and the tension that that creates.”
Knowing that he had such a fearless ancestor, was Myers inspired by Sampson’s brave escapades in his own process of coming out as transgender?
“She has often [been] a reminder that gender and wanting to pass and the need to follow one's inner desires is a timeless quality,” says Myers. “Deborah's story has also kept me from complaining: If she can do what she did in 1782, then I darn well better be able to handle gender identity issues in 2013.”
Christopher Carbone is a writer living in New York City. He has also written for Slate and The Nation. Follow him on Twitter.