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Author Discusses Gender With Middle School Students
Posted 12/04/2014 05:25PM

In 1782 Massachusetts, a young woman yearned for economic stability.

She was 22, unmarried, a weaver who was barely eking out a living.

Then she saw a way out: Gen. George Washington needed recruits. The pay was $50 in silver, a fortune for a weaver. So she donned men’s clothing and enlisted. 

This is the story of Deborah Samson, a distant relation of Alex Myers, who wrote the novel, Revolutionary, based on her life. Myers spoke to the Riverdale Middle School yesterday about Deborah’s story, and his own story of gender identity.

Myers's talk was part of the Middle School’s assembly series on the theme of invisibility, which has featured speakers on a range of subjects related to artistic expression, identity, and social justice.

Myers, who teaches English in an independent school in Washington, grew up in Maine, and his family had connections going back hundreds of years across New England. As a child, he heard stories from his grandmother about Deborah’s remarkable life.

Deborah was revolutionary in more ways than one. At the time, it was against the law for a woman to wear men’s clothes. She stayed in the army for a year and a half, and as the war was ending, she was shot in the thigh during battle. She performed surgery on herself so that she would not be found out.

Deborah’s story fascinated Myers, who as a child was a tomboy named Alice. But while he wanted nothing more than to be a boy, he didn’t view Deborah’s story as a possibility for himself. “I don’t think that I ever believed that because Deborah disguised herself as a man, I could do the same,” he said.

In 9th grade, he came out as a lesbian. Two years later, he attended an event for gay teenagers and learned the term “transgender.” The knowledge was liberating. As he entered his senior year, he changed his name to Alex and began to live as a young man, becoming the first openly transgender student at Phillips Exeter.

The students asked him a lot of questions about the book and his life. He said that while he would love to know whether Deborah wanted to live her life as a man, he noted that concepts of gender change over time. “I think she wanted to be a free and independent and women at the time could not be free and independent," he said. "The only way she could do that was to be a man.”

In response to a question about whether he felt “invisible” as a child, he responded: “I think I was invisible before I knew the word "transgender." That word let me define myself and explore what gender meant and why it mattered.”

Myers told the students that the school nurse at Exeter had been somebody he could trust to help him through the difficult transition and that his family had been loving and supportive, although it was not easy for them to adjust to the fact that their daughter was now a son.

A student asked him why he considered himself transgender instead of male.

"Genderwise, I look like and act like and think like a guy," he said. "My body and my genetics are female. I see myself as both."

He said he lived for 17 years as a girl and a young woman, and that experience had formed an important part of his identity. “Transgender means to be crossed over, a mix of the two,” he said. “I’m happy with that. I don’t think I’d want to be just a man.”

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