A polish general whose assistance was vital to the American War of Independence left a skeleton that appears female. We don't know what Casimir Pulaski knew of his own biology but it seems likely that if living today he would be considered intersex or identify as a trans man. Pulaski played a crucial role in founding America’s military, but Trump’s transgender ban would probably prevent him from serving in it today.
Pulaski was raised as a boy by his Polish noble family. In the rebellion against the Russian domination of Poland, he became famous for his daring and disregard of orders from more senior commanders. After the Polish uprising's defeat, he went to France before being recommended by Benjamin Franklin to aid in America’s Revolutionary War, after which he was known as the "Father of the American Cavalry". In an era where women soldiers were almost inconceivable, Pulaski's outstanding cavalry skills, which rescued Washington from likely death or capture at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777, meant no one questioned his sex.
Decades after Pulaski’s death a monument was built to him in Monterey Square, Georgia; a body speculated to have been his was buried beneath it. When the monument needed restoring in 1996 the body was dug up and examined.
The height of the skeleton and damage to the skull and hands fit descriptions of Pulaski and injuries he suffered in battle. A possible tumor under the eye even matches a discoloration in three contemporary portraits of Pulaski. However, the skeleton’s pelvis has features that would normally lead archaeologists to classify it as biologically female.
These facts were revealed more than a decade ago, but there was no family DNA to confirm the body was Pulaski's. Now, however, advances in DNA technology have enabled comparison with mitochondrial DNA from the grave of Pulaski’s grandniece; the buried body was definitely Pulaski’s.
As a Smithsonian documentary to air Monday notes, archaeologists have recently started to acknowledge the old ways of classifying corpses by sex fails to take into account human diversity in sex and gender. One theory holds that Pulaski had Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia, a form of intersex. Notes from Pulaski’s baptism suggest something unusual about him was identified from birth.
Alternatively, it is possible he was biologically female, while always identifying as a boy and man.
“I don’t think, at any time in his life, did he think he was a woman,” Merbs said. “I think he just thought he was a man, and something was wrong.” Merbs described his findings as “A political hot potato,” and has already experienced pressure to keep them quiet.
America's eventual independence was inevitable, but Pulaski’s skill and courage, including organizing and training the revolutionary cavalry, saved the nation from extra years of tyranny. Were he alive today, however, his acceptance into the military would be a matter of legal dispute, and into other aspects of society a constant battle.