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What Happened When I Studied a Trans Civil War Solider for History Class

James van Kuilenburg headshot

I have admired history for as long as I can remember. Ever since I could read, I’ve enjoyed finding the stories of people just like me, albeit five hundred years ago. I’ve always liked how history is less like a lens, and more like a window. You can always look through it and discover something new, about others and yourself. History is powerful in that way; it shows examples of the triumphs and failures of humanity. The past empowers the present, proving we can be successful if we try hard enough.

In seventh grade, I took my first intensive history class. Instead of general world history, I learned about this history of West Virginia. While my classmates found learning about their home state boring, I thought it was interesting to learn about the Civil War conflicts that happened in our backyard.

At the same time, as I was learning the name of every Confederate, I was learning more about myself. That year, I finally began to identify what had been bothering me. See, for as long as I had loved history, I had also been distinctly aware that something was off about the way I had been raised. The dresses my mother had me wear, and the long hair that dragged me down, bothered me deeply, and in the seventh grade, I finally realized why: I was really a boy!

During that year, I found the word “transgender” online, and I tried it out a few times to see if it fit. I would write the name I preferred, James, on my class papers, stare at it, and then erase it. I would wear my dad’s hand-me-downs, rather than the tight feminine clothes my parents had bought, and it felt right. When I was finally ready to share my identity with parents, I was lucky to grow up in a very accepting family.

At school, however, I wasn’t as lucky. Spurred on by the positive reception from my parents, I came out to my friends. Instead of accepting me, they spread my identity around the school like it was a dirty secret. My teachers didn’t ask how they could support me; they started gossiping about me, and I became quickly isolated. My school’s administration didn’t offer support, but questioned the validity of my identity. I began to doubt the decision to come out. I missed weeks of school, and my grades plummeted.

While I would have felt relieved when studying history, now I felt stressed. I had never heard of anyone being transgender in the past, and I began to feel like I was part of something new, a burden I would have to carry through my life.

During the final project of my history class, I took a leap of faith. I asked my teacher if he had ever heard of a transgender person from West Virginia history. His response was no, that he had never heard of something like that, and it didn’t exist. I don’t fault him for not knowing about trans figures from history (even though he was a history teacher), but I don’t think that anyone’s identity should be told it doesn’t exist, and certainly not mine. His answer scared me, but I was desperate to find some kind of validation. I decided I would do my final project on transgender Civil War soldiers from West Virginia.  

Who I found ended up becoming a role model for me. His name was Albert D.J. Cashier, who was a trans man who enlisted in the American Civil War (if you haven’t heard about him, you should definitely look him up). His story propelled me to a place of self-confidence I didn’t know I had. He was just like me, but two hundred years ago, and he was an important part of West Virginia history. The research I did on him, and the other soldiers like him, not only made me feel valid in my identity, but garnered me first place in the Social Studies Fair in my school.

I proved my teacher wrong about transgender people in history, proved my peers wrong about the validity of trans identity, but most importantly, proved my self-doubt wrong. I often think about what would have happened if I had learned about trans people from my teacher, rather than from my own insecurity. I would have probably come out sooner and been more sure in my identity. I also probably wouldn’t have faced so much rejection from my peers, if trans identity had been normalized in the classroom.

Too often our history is edited to conform to our society’s ideals today. The colonization of Turtle Island, also known as North America, violently ripped out the stories of queer and Two-Spirit Indigenous people. LGBTQ people have existed on this continent, and all across the world, since the beginning of time, but in our history books, that is seldom reflected.

And if LGBTQ history is taught, it is often not inclusive of transgender people.  We, as students and educators, must make a concerted effort to highlight the stories of transgender people, which have often been erased from our history textbooks, especially the stories of folks with multiple marginalized identities, like trans folks of color.

The history of trans people is very important to me as a history nerd, but it’s important to every young person. History is the proof of existence, and the affirmation of identity. The benefits of teaching trans-inclusive history reach further than trans students themselves, and can alter the school climate for the better. To include trans history, affirm your students, and improve school climates, you must use trans-inclusive education materials, like those offered by GLSEN.

James van Kuilenburg is a member of GLSEN’s National Student Council.