Recently, news outlets gave ample coverage to Casimir Pulaski’s skeleton. It isn’t often that bones make the front page of the New York Times. When they do, it’s usually because of war crimes, or perhaps some paleolithic discovery. But not this time.
On the face of it, Casimir Pulaski shouldn’t merit too much attention. Yes, he was a hero in the American Revolution. And yes, he is a minor celebrity in Polish-American communities. But if that was the sole extent of his fame, his skeleton wouldn’t have been national news.
The search for his remains was undertaken by historians with a penchant for putting things in their proper places (Pulaski’s burial site remained unknown for centuries). Had the project gone as planned, the researchers would have exhumed the bones, tested them, and given them a final grave. News of interest to some small segment of the population, and that’s that.
But Pulaski’s bones told an unexpected story, namely that the war hero was likely female or intersex. The clues were the pelvic bones. The jaw line. The facial structure.
Suddenly it’s a sensation: this celebrated war hero is actually female or maybe intersex. Interest swirls for a news cycle or two – what does this say about identity? How can this relate to the treatment of intersex people today? Can we classify Pulaski as transgender?
It’s curious. It is, I admit, fascinating. And yet, as a transgender advocate for some twenty-five years, as a person who transitioned from a girl to a guy, I am left to wonder: why is it that our bodies, specifically our dead bodies, are of greater interest, are believed to reveal a greater truth, than our lived selves?
People will ask me about my body – have I had surgery? Do I take hormones? – and I can gauge in their response their assessment of my authenticity. If I really meant it, if I really wanted to be a man, I would have surgery. But I can also simultaneously hear the subtext of their commentary (or sometimes not even the subtext): no amount of surgery or hormones would ever make me really a man.
For myself, I’ve gotten over this a while ago. I define myself as transgender, not as a man. I’ve physically transitioned through using hormones, and that’s sufficient to make me feel at home in my body. I don’t view myself as “less than” or “in between” because I refuse to measure myself against the binary. But I know other people do.
At best, it’s prurient curiosity: a desire to know what’s beneath a transgender person’s clothes. At worst, it’s damaging and discriminatory: the belief that chromosomes should determine a person’s path through the world. That other people have a right to make laws about our bodies and what they mean. When I hear these voices, clamoring for “bathroom bills” or other restrictive measures, I understand why Casimir Pulaski’s bones are front page news. Finally people can have concrete proof, the bare essence, a body that will not talk back.
Dead Monks Can’t Tell Tales. But Other People Can.
Many medieval collections of saints’ lives contain stories of so-called “transvestite saints.” This moniker was applied by medievalists in the 70s and has stuck; it’s long overdue for an update, though for me, I’m more interested in what, if anything, the medieval readers called these individuals (or for that matter, what the saints called themselves – but we’ll never know this. Their very identity and existence rests on them not having a voice).
There are dozens of these stories, each with its own character and setting, each sharing a similar plot. To give a cursory summary of the typical transvestite saint’s life: a woman in the early church is threatened in some way – arranged marriage to a pagan, a father who won’t let her practice Christianity – and she escapes, runs to a monastery, puts on a monk’s robe, and lives a holy life as a monk until death. The details in the middle of the plot vary, including, often, some sort of threatened revelation of the monk’s sex, but the endings of these saints’ lives are quite consistent.
After the monk has died, his monastic brothers come to prepare the body for burial. When they remove the monk’s robes – Lo and behold! – the monk is actually female. Just as in the case of Pulaski, the discovery is sensational, surprising, a monastic headline. Usually, too, the discovery is part of what catapults the monk to saint status: she denied her feminine self, she overcame the weaknesses of the female body, and so on (these are not feminist liberation narratives, to say the least).
In short, the reaction to the dead body is much more positive and affirming than the reaction would have been if the monk had been revealed as female while alive. (See Joan of Arc, et al.) In medieval times as well as for much of history, “women disguising themselves as men” are not given a space to exist or the language to define themselves as anything other than deceptive. Their lived experiences are not collected or understood; they are categorized as deviants or criminals but when their corpses and skeletons show the same discrepancy, they are viewed as fascinating, marvelous, miracles.
The Only Good TransWoman is a Dead TransWoman
There are few cases of “cross-dressing” stranger than that of the Chevalier D’Eon. A spy for King Louis XV and King Louis XVI, D’Eon lived as a man through middle age and then lived the rest of his life as a woman. When he made this transition – which was quite public – word was put out that he had, in fact, a female body, and had disguised himself as a man in order to be a soldier, a courtier, and a spy. D’Eon herself propagated this narrative as she began life as a woman; at times she resisted wearing a dress and insisted on her right to wear their Dragoon’s uniform and Croix de St Louis but from age 48 on, she lived as a woman.
When D’Eon died, in poverty, in an apartment she shared with another elderly impoverished woman, her roommate prepared her body for burial and discovered that D’Eon was, in fact, male. Doctors rushed to inspect the body for themselves, looking for some defect in the genitals, some explanation for the cross-dressing. But the medical professionals made the same finding: D’Eon’s body was standard issue male. They padded their observations with notes of “roundness of limb” and “fullness of breast” but, in the areas where it mattered most, the doctors had to admit that D’Eon had “male organs in every way perfectly formed.” He had lived as a man and then she had lived as a woman, with the underlying truth the opposite of what had been trumpeted. She had been permitted – even encouraged – to live as a woman based on the false assumption that she was actually female. It was understandable, if not palatable, that a woman would want to run away and be a soldier. The opposite, that a man would want to wear a dress, was unthinkable. So D’Eon concocted andouble-layer transformation of sex and self in order to live as she wished.
D’Eon’s transformation – unlike many other “cross-dressers” at the time – was headline news in both England and France. Even after she transitioned, D’Eon continued to make headlines and cross gender boundaries, supplementing her income for a time by fighting sword duels in public against male challengers, while wearing a dress. She won most of them.
When D’Eon was alive, she was repeatedly challenged (and even offered money) to reveal her sex before a doctor, but she refused to do so. She asserted her right to live as a woman and she simultaneously asserted her right to wear her uniform and military honors. Perhaps she knew that, had she undergone a medical examination and let that information be made public, no one would have permitted her to continue living as a woman. She would have been, at best, an oddity, and, more likely, a pariah.
But after death? She was a sensation. A mystery. News once again spread about this curious gentleman. And now the newspapers could have the final word: D’Eon was male. That was all that mattered.
We Still Have Skeletons in Our Closets
It isn’t just the dusty past that produces such legends. In the twentieth-century, there’s the story of Billy Tipton (to pick one from dozens of possibilities). Tipton was a jazz musician, born female, who lived as a man for all of his adult life. He died in 1989 and the doctors who were treating him at the time of his death discovered he was female: it was news to his wife and three adopted children. It was news to the nation for a while after that, with tabloids and television stations carrying the story front and center.
But let’s consider other endings.
If Tipton had been born male, he would have died and likely been forgotten. A minor jazz musician. A footnote, perhaps, in some compendium on American Music.
If Tipton had been discovered to be female earlier in his life, he would have been arrested. Or perhaps publicly shamed without arrest. Or, depending on how early in his life he was discovered, he might have been prevented from having a career in music at all. There wouldn’t have been any headlines, and if there were, they wouldn’t have been positive.
Which is not to say that the coverage the National Enquirer gave after Tipton’s death was uplifting and affirmative. Indeed, it was full of language that was, at best, sensationalizing, and, at worst, dehumanizing.
This is how mainstream society likes transgender people. Dead, on a table, bodies fully on display. This is the only position where transgender people can be trusted to tell the truth. Only when it isn’t possible to speak, to explain how it felt. Only when transgender people are just bones, nothing more.
I’d like to call up the shades of those transvestite saints. I’d like to share a drink with Billy Tipton while we watch the Chevalier D’Eon duel (and win). As for Casimir Pulaski, he’s welcome, too. I’m fairly certain they’d laugh at me and tease me for how easy I have it as a trans-guy in 21st-century New England. They’d be right. But when the teasing had died down, I’d like to hear from them the real stories. I’d like to put some flesh on those bones.