For those who aren’t history buffs, the name of the Polish General Casimir Pulaski likely doesn’t ring any bells, but without his contributions during the American Revolutionary War, there’s a high chance George Washington would never have lived to serve as president. For almost 200 years after his death, the remains of the father of the American cavalry, as Pulaski was known, sat undisturbed in a Savannah, Georgia, monument until some structural damage caused them to be disinterred. At first glance, the pelvis found among the war hero’s remains was observed to be buried by mistake; it was female. That theory held until researchers came to the conclusion that there was another option: Pulaski was intersex.
A discovery that took years of research to confirm, the Smithsonian Channel’s show “America’s Hidden Stories” will shed new light on Pulaski’s life and follow the scientists who made the breakthrough. The episode titled “The General Was Female?” will air April 8 at 8 p.m. and features insight from intersex activist and author of “Born Both: An Intersex Life” Hida Viloria. BTL spoke with Viloria in advance of the episode’s release to get he/r thoughts on intersex historical figures and the benefits of thinking outside the gender binary and the implications of discovering an intersex war hero in today’s political climate.
Had you known about General Casimir Pulaski before you were approached to be in the show?
I had a vague recollection of the father of the American cavalry being the term that an early American war hero was given, but I did not know his real name and really knew nothing about Casimir Pulaski’s life.
In the show, you’re given a uniform to try on that Pulaski likely would have worn onto the field of battle. Was it powerful to literally put yourself into his shoes like that?
I think it was incredible and really powerful to think about the different possibilities for people who are intersex over time and throughout history. Because I’d already thought about the fact that if I had lived in a prior time period I may have chosen to live as a man because I think that the roles that were reserved for women might have been limiting to me. I think that I’m lucky that in today’s society people who are raised female have a lot more leeway in terms of how they’re able to behave and dress and I’ve made the most of that (laughs). But if I were living back then, I wouldn’t have had that freedom unless I would have gone all the way into a male role.
Though we live in a very binary world, statistics show that intersex people are about as common as one in 2,000. Why is being an activist for the intersex community important to you?
I think that all humans are suffering under this very exclusively binary notion and model of sex which impacts our model of gender. And I know that this is true because I have so many people who have reached out to me who are not even a part of the LGBTQIA community in any way, they’re gender-conforming males or females who feel like men or women respectively to tell me that they have felt freed up to embrace parts of themselves after finding out that intersex people exist and after watching the way in which I embrace all aspects of my masculinity, my femininity and androgynousness. Given this as well as given all the anti-trans efforts right now from the U.S. administration and across the world as well as anti-intersex practices, it’s essential that we realize that sex itself is not exclusively binary.
Were your happy to learn the Pulaski is intersex?
Yes! I’m so happy that not only have we discovered a historical figure who was intersex because sadly we lack that history as a community because being intersex has been a private and hidden experience in most cases and we don’t know who our ancestors were. But now we do know one of them, Pulaski. What’s really amazing and very, very significant to note about Casimir Pulaski being intersex is that if the medical practices and social attitudes that inform the medical practices today existed at the time that Pulaski were alive, we literally would have lost the father of the American Cavalry.
How do you feel this discovery ties into the transgender military ban?
Females at that time were not even allowed in the military and so it has very, very strong correlations with the trans ban. Honestly, the trans ban is all about prejudice, it’s just built on that, there’s not really even a sound logical argument for it. If you read parts of language around the trans ban they’ll say that everyone’s sex and gender should be determined by their sex traits at birth as either male or female and they’re trying to write intersex people out of existence in order to strengthen their arguments against trans people. Because they know that if you admit that humans are running a gamut in terms of how we are born on the spectrum and that someone’s biology may not match how they end up being perceived and living in the world, if people really know that, if people start to educate about that, then obviously trans people are OK. Once you embrace that intersex people exist, you put a huge dent in transphobia and homophobia as well.
There have been studies that have examined the “throw like a girl” myth that have shown that women who were encouraged to be athletic threw just as well as their male counterparts which seems to underline that point.
Right? That’s amazing. I hadn’t heard about it, but it makes perfect sense, though. We can’t even imagine how much humans could be allowed to achieve if we were really allowed to express all aspects of ourselves.