Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Cross-Dressing Patriot

As you lift your beer and sparklers in celebration of our nation's independence this 4th of July, don't forget to give a toast to Deborah Sampson Gannett, the crossdressing patriot. Although present-day Tea Partiers would probably write her out of the history books if they could, she's certainly someone to remember.

Gannett was about 20 years old in the late 18th century when she strapped her breasts tight to her body with a strip of cloth and donned a man's suit she'd been secretly sewing in a barn for months. One would imagine she sidled into the New England tavern where Revolutionary troops went to sign up for combat and collect their reward money for doing so. The story goes that, upon collecting this large sum, she drank herself into oblivion, passed out in her bedroom, and missed next morning's roll call, thereby invoking the ire of her superiors, who searched for her in her house and, apparently, discovered she was a woman.

Gannett wasn't to be deterred, though. Sick of farm chores and suitors, she put on her suit and ran away to another New England town, where she signed up for the Revolutionary War again, this time assuming her brother's name, Robert Shurtleff, and began her 3-year service with fellow patriots.

As with all cross-dressing war stories, this one gets complicated when she gets a small bullet (read: miniature cannon ball) in her upper thigh. As her body is carried into the tent where the doctor is going to take off her pants to dress her wound and, thereby, discover her secret, she tries to shoot herself in the head, but the gun is too unwieldy and her resolve fails her. She goes with plan B instead. She distracts the doctor by telling him she just needs to sleep, and when he leaves the room to tend to the others, she steals his surgical instruments and cuts the ball out of her own thigh. She then hobbles back to the battlefield, telling her comrades, "I'm just fine, boys; let's get moving."

So they do, and she serves well for the remainder of the war -- at least, until she reaches the fever epidemic in Philadelphia and comes so close to death that her body is dumped on a wheelbarrow intended for a row of cold unmarked graves. Doctor Binney notices her movement and plunges his hand into the front of her shirt, immediately coming to two realizations: (a) Soldier Gannett/Shurtleff's heart is still beating and (b) He has breasts.

Binney carries her to his house where he "leaves out" the fact that Shurtleff is a woman and allows her to recuperate there. He then parades her as a Revolutionary war hero to his friends, still maintaining her disguise. "Shurtleff" is courted by a lovely young 17 year old woman, who baffles Gannett in her ardor. After accepting loads of gifts from the young girl, Gannett finally tells her the truth and takes off with the other troops. Her biographer maintains that Gannett/Shurtleff and the scorned lover "remained friends," but, woman-to-woman?, I doubt this is true.

Binney rats out Gannett to her superior officers only after Gannett has moved on. She is honorably discharged and provided a sum for the remainder of her life from the American government. It isn't enough, though, and to make a little dough on the fascination with the war shortly after its close, she acts out her biography onstage at the Boston Federal Street Theatre. Each night, she paced through 27 military exercises before giving her speech to a packed house. Audiences loved and hated her.

So this fourth of July, as you celebrate all that the red, white, and blue stands for, don't forget to the thank the crossdressing soldiers who made this holiday possible.