6 Women Who Changed Their Lives By Concealing Their Gender

Tim Weinberg

World
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With the release of Disney’s live-action Mulan, girls are being offered the role model of a warrior on screen, rather than a simpering – or even sleeping – princess.

We have previously discovered that women have disguised themselves to show their ability and equality in the military. More often, however, women have disguised themselves as men for personal security, for opportunities routinely offered to men yet denied to women, or because gender reassignment was inaccessible.

Here are some people who tried to hide their sex completely. Amazon warriors, women writers who took male names, and female pirates are not included.

1. Saint Marina/Marinus (5th/6th Century)

After her mother died, Marina’s father disguised her as a boy so that she could join him in a monastery.

A nearby innkeeper’s daughter took a shine to ‘Marinus’ and, when the girl became pregnant – to avoid her true gender to be discovered – Marina allowed herself to be accused of rape, was thrown out of the monastery, and helped raise the child for a further five years before she died.

Afterwards, when Marina’s true gender was discovered, the abbot regretted his harsh actions and had her buried with great reverence.

Marina/Marinus being presented at the monastery (Credit: Public Domain).

2. Margaret Ann Bulkley/James Barry (c.1789-1865)

Beginning to cross-dress in her late teens, Bulkley lived her entire adult life as James Miranda Steuart Barry, firstly to be accepted to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and then to be a surgeon.

Barry was commissioned as a Hospital Assistant in the British Army in 1812 and went on to become a notable army surgeon with an illustrious career.  She carried out the first successful caesarean in Africa by a British surgeon, and ended her career as Inspector General in charge of Military Hospitals.

The illustrious doctor’s secret was kept intact until their death from dysentery when a charwoman, Sophia Bishop, discovered it. The British Army promptly sealed all related records for 100 years, which seemed a massive admission of guilt and embarrassment.

Portrait of Barry c.1820s (Credit: Public Domain).

3. Charley Parkhurst (1812-1879)

Parkhurst was one of the Old West’s finest stagecoach drivers. As an orphaned girl, Charley dressed as a boy so she could work in stables, where she learned how to drive a coach.

She was a feted racer, covered several mail courier routes and may have been the first woman to vote in a presidential election in California in 1868.

Only after she died was it discovered that Charley was a woman, who had even once given birth.

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4. Billy Tipton (1914-1989)

This successful American jazz musician was born Dorothy Lucille Tipton.  She started binding her breasts around the age of 19 and dressing as a man to fit in with the typical jazz band image of the time.

By 1940 she was living entirely as a man and exclusively having affairs with women.  Five women called themselves Mrs. Tipton at various times, four of them apparently having no clue that Billy was born a woman.

Billy eventually had a relationship with nightclub stripper Kitty Kelly, and they adopted three sons.  The entire family were reportedly oblivious to Tipton’s true identity until after they died, when the coroner had to explain his findings.

The Billy Tipton Trio, Billy in the centre (Credit: Digital Transgender Archive).

5. Rena Kanokogi (1935-2009)

In 1959, Konokogi found that she could not compete at judo because of her gender.

She disguised herself as a man in order to participate in a YMCA tournament, and beat off all of her competitors. After her true gender was found out, she had to return the medal she had won.

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6. Brandon Teena (1972-1993)

Brandon was considered ‘tom-boy’-ish and following sexual abuse from a male relative, she became he, moved away to be anonymous and there began consorting with ex-cons and petty criminals.

When the criminals he had been consorting with discovered his secret, they raped and murdered him. The legal and medical professions are also held to complicity in Brandon’s death.

Brandon had reported his murderers for rape but they were not held by the police and were free to kill him alongside two others in the house, leaving only a toddler alive.

Brandon’s story became the film Boys Don’t Cry, driven by the Oscar-winning performance of Hilary Swank. The story shows the horrors people go through, just for wanting to live out their own lives.

Brandon Teena (right) in 1993 (Credit: Public Domain).

Bonus: Stanisława Walasiewicz (1911-1980)

Finally, straying from our look at women posing as men, is Stella Walsh.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics will probably not be remembered for Polish-born Stella Walsh’s loss to American Helen Stephens in the 100 metres.

Walsh had won in 1932 at Los Angeles, equalling the world record three times, but never quite beating it. Even then the press speculated that she were a man in disguise.

Mindful of the athlete’s achievements and popularity, the Polish sporting committees defended Walsh until she was killed during a botched robbery in 1980.

An autopsy showed she had both an abnormal urethra and underdeveloped male genitals. Today she would probably be diagnosed as intersex, but having been assigned a female gender at birth, the coroner argued that Walsh was ‘socially, culturally and legally’ female.

Tim Weinberg