Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Body Aware, Part 2: The Civil War Veteran I Owe My Life To

For the record, I don't identify as female. I'd feel weird if people suddenly tried to call me "Mr. Baker." So, I am somewhere in between. And when I think of how see myself today, this is what comes to mind:

The Pinterest of my manhood: a fox, a Beatle, British schoolboys, and Mary Martin.

But, when I came out it was another story altogether. Two solid facts were the bane of my adolescence: no, there wasn't a switch that was going to flip on that would make me crave boys. But, more upsetting than that was my body: I had boobs, and a butt, and some chub on top. Oddly, being a little overweight wasn't so much the issueno, no, what was devastating was that I had a classic hourglass figure: I was far from looking like my inner-boy. Meanwhile my inner-girl suddenly had a lot more assets (ha) on hand than she knew what to do with. 

It was time to make a decision.

Titian, Eat Your Heart Out. 

I made the wrong decision.
Damn, I wish I was your lover.
Seriously, though, I got rockin' curves—if I wanted to become the world's next best thing to burlesque I probably could have traded in my dapper hat for some pasties a long time ago. Initially though, I tried to placate the assuming eyes around me—for several years—and went in the exact opposite direction of what I desperately wanted. But, instead of going ultra-feminine, I still played it safe, and even worse, went unfortunate-feminine:

Between 1996 and 2006 there was a dramatic increase in my wardrobe of sad Mervyns' blouses--you know the type. The ones with "inventive" takes on the button-up shirt, so as to make something deemed masculine queasily feminine by adding such darling embellishments as pre-cut 3/4 sleeves, billowing frills on the front, dramatically pinched-in sides, scooped necks, and belts sewn into the waist. 

Long jean skirts happened. Shapeless jackets with smatterings of embroidery that looked more like stains than decoration happened. Off-putting and not-color-coordinated dangly necklaces happened. There were broaches, bracelets, anklets, gaudy rings, toe rings--all just for the sake of portraying "feminine."

It was like if life-size Barbie got a paint-by-numbers makeover. 

Not you, Toddy. You're lovely.
And it was bad.

Disguise, I See Thou Art a Wickedness

I know, I'm making it sound like torture when it really just sounds like an elongated episode of What Not to Wear. And you could easily blame this all on the 1990's.

However, that chapter of playing woman still stings; it's when I made my first entrance into the world of sexuality and gender—and I chose to reject myself. Failing to stand up for myself, coupled with thinking I was gross for wanting to date girls, was a raw deal. It left a mark. I still have a hard time looking back at pictures of myself during those years.

Eventually I found my confidence and it helped to have family that did not treat me like I had a third arm growing out of my chest for being queer. And for what it's worth, I know there is much more to a person than what they wear. It's just that for me, what I choose to wear makes me feel free of being a “woman.” And that freedom is priceless. I even remember that when I began choosing clothes for myself I felt like a gender refugee, wondering if I'd ever meet anyone else that had escaped, too.

So, years later, when I learned about Albert, I knew I had to share.

The War of White People Aggression 

Oh you know he would've worn them.

As an historical event The Civil War always seemed somewhat daunting to me. When I was a kid I just remember feeling overwhelmed by it as a subject of study: there were so many stories written down and photographed for the first time in history that it just felt too heavy, which is silly considering that portable cameras were only invented a few years before. Technology wasn't that fast-paced; this war was far from being live-tweeted. Yet, even the NY Times is wrestling with this behemoth by hosting a Real Time blog of the Civil War. It's entitled "Disunion." There's also an exhibit going up currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the photography of the Civil War. I think it's safe to say Americans are still uncomfortable about the reasons behind and outcomes of this war. And for years I instinctively shied away from dipping my toes into it.

Then one day I saw Ken Burns' documentary "The Civil War" pop up on my Netflix. And then that turned into 14 hours of my life spent absorbing pious version after pious version of Ashokan Farewell, gorging myself on box after box of white cheddar Cheezits. I became entrenched (ha) within the world of this War. Obsessed. And now I see every inch of our society coated in the anger, the entitlement, the shameless racism, and the abhorrent egos that got us involved in attacking one another in the first place.

But, I'm not discussing all of that today. No, instead, I'd like to focus on one person—one private in particular.

Meet Albert D.J. Cashier

Albert was born in the small fishing village of Clogher, Ireland in 1843. A Capricorn, he hadn't yet turned 18 when South Carolinians fired on Fort Sumter in April of 1861, which effectively kicked off the War. At the time of the infamous attack, he was living in Belvidere, Illinois, working in a shoe factory. Albert had a history of working the family farm in Ireland and knew grueling labor. And when war broke out, he enlisted.

He was small for his age, contracted chronic diarrhea, but did "as much work as anyone in the Company," according to a fellow Union soldier. He managed to survive the war and was honorably discharged at the end of it, almost exactly three years later in August 1865.

Oh, and also, Albert was born Jennie Hodgers.

Clothes Make the Man

No, I don't know what Albert's sexuality was. No, I have no secret letters written between him and a lover named Annabelle, whom he met during the War after she had fled her overbearing father's plantation when he discovered her fooling around with her childhood schoolmate behind the levee, and how Albert had run into her while she was fleeing late one beautiful hot summer night, and taking pity on the beautiful, but obviously Confederate, woman, Albert taught her how to fish using a technique he learned growing up in his old fishing village—the same village whose constricting Catholic dogma drove him to flee for a new beginning, just like Annabelle, only to be thrown into the tempestuous emotional fires of Civil War—

...but, it'd be a kick-ass romance novel, wouldn't it?

ANYWAY, to be clear about what IS known: Albert D.J. Cashier's family knew full well Albert wasn't born Albert; they knew he'd be more likely to get a job (and earn more money for the family) as a man. So, they encouraged it. Moreover, Albert chose to identify as male, as exemplified by what he did next.

Note: I am calling Albert, Albert--not Jennie, not her, not zim/hir/zir/em/per—Albert. Or D.J. if I'm feeling nostalgic for Full House.

Just stop it, already.
Regardless of how he was indoctrinated into living as a man, Albert chose to live the rest of his life that way...and as militantly liberal as it sounds, I want to respect that. 

Cars Break the Man

So, 50 years go by. Then, as is wont to happen in life, someone hits you with a car and everyone freaks out that they’ve been having dinner with a transvestite.

By the turn of the century, Albert had built a life as a handyman in Saunemin, Illinois. He had a small house to himself and did not marry, and worked for years for one family in particular, the Chesbros. They became close; they ate together.

One day in 1913 while at the family's house, working presumably, Albert got hit by a car, which broke his leg. Now, given his unique circumstances, Albert had avoided any formal body inspection by doctors.

Even while sick during the War, Albert avoided treatment for fear of being discovered. He went on to apply for veteran's compensation, but upon being asked again for a health review, he chose to go without for decades. Eventually he fought for (and won) compensation without a doctor's prying eyes. But, the broken leg led to his secret being revealed, first to the Chesbros, then to local doctors, then to the press, and then to the Federal Government.

Soon thereafter, the state of Illinois declared Albert insane for being what we would now simply call gender queer. Albert died less than a year later in the Hospital for the Insane in Watertown, Illinois.

Wait, Wait, Wait. I Need Something Positive From This.

Thinking that Albert had been taking advantage of The Bureau of Pensions (the US Department of Veterans Affairs wasn't formed until 1930), the Federal Government did a formal investigation. They interviewed his comrades to corroborate his work as a soldier and good standing/qualifying status for veteran's compensation. Amazingly (this was 1914, people) every single surviving comrade stood by him—and demanded that he receive a true soldier’s burial, in uniform, with full military honors, no less.

And it wasn’t as if the family just handed Albert over to the Feds. They actually tried to keep his secret a secret, knowing full well the negative repercussions its revelation would incur. But sadly, the Chesbros couldn’t maintain proper care for Albert in his poor health and old age. So, they admitted him to the Soldiers and Sailors Home in Quincy, Illinois—he was a veteran after all—thinking he’d be safer there. However, once moved to the home, Albert’s “true” identity spread like wildfire.

Unlike the Federal Government, you see, the people that surrounded Albert saw him for who he was—beyond the clothes and beyond what he had underneath them. They saw Albert as…well, Albert.

The Craycray Agenda

What caught my eye with Albert is that unlike a lot of other Civil War non-cisgender soldiers, he dressed male before and after the War, which is why it surprised me that historian Elizabeth D. Leonard persisted in calling him Jennie Hodgers and/or “her” when describing the vet. One passage in particular from her book All the Daring of the Soldier* stung the most:
During her time at the state hospital, Hodgers was also required to resume the attire of a woman. According to a nurse who worked at the hospital at the time, Hodgers, who she described as a “dear and loveable patient” never could accustom herself to wearing a dress…the nurse reported, with the obvious confusion of pronouns that such a situation produces, Hodgers “would pull his skirt between his legs and pin it together to make pants.” [p. 189]
Leonard speculates this nurse that cared for Albert was afflicted by an “obvious confusion of pronouns” in that she persisted to call Albert a “him” and not “her.”

But, I beg to differ.

I think this nurse knew exactly who Albert was. 

Boys Do Cry

After reading and imagining this old handyman in an asylum, trying to pin his dress down into the shape of pants, I just broke down and cried. I sobbed openly in my tank top and boxer briefs until my eyes got puffy and my nose snotty. I cried and cried because staring back at me in a dingy photograph was someone I understood a bit better than most, hell, even modern-day historians can. For better or for worse, Albert and I have something in common—except he was a lot braver. I was never in danger of spying doctors, death or imprisonment. My family was supportive—is supportive. Last week for my birthday they gave me these:

My family in a nutshell: they think they're hilarious.
The point is I live in a city surrounded by supportive people, most of whom I don't even know. But, all of these people, my family included, wouldn't know to be supportive had people like Albert not existed. He demonstrated that the quality of his character couldn’t be judged solely by his exterior, but instead by his actions and ethic.

So, thank you Albert. Thank you for going for it. You might not have won that last battle, but for queers like me, you won the war; you proved we were here. We were always here. And we keep coming.

It’s time to start telling our stories.


*Leonard, Elizabeth D. All the Daring of the Soldier: Women of the Civil War Armies. (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1999. First Edition), 185-189.