Guest Blogger

Black History Month – William Cathay

Filed By Guest Blogger | February 21, 2008 10:10 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Living
Tags: Black History Month, civil war, transgender, William Cathay

[Editor's note: This guest post is from Monica Helms, president of the Transgender American Veterans Association.]

Cathay Williams by John Will Davis.jpgI have found this month to be one of the most educational months in the year. All around are wonderful articles, History Channel shows and TV spots that have given me an insight to many aspects of our African American citizens and their history. Even though I am not of African decent, I would like to talk about a person in American history who helped to inspire me to work on transgender veterans’ issues. Cathay Williams was the first and only known African American woman to serve as a Buffalo Soldier in the US Army, officially serving as William Cathay.

Born as a slave in 1842 on a farm near Independence, Missouri, Cathay Williams spent most of her young life in Jefferson City, MO. Just before the Civil War broke out, her master died and then afterwards, Union soldiers took her and the other slaves to Little Rock, Arkansas. From there, she became an Army cook, traveling to various locations with the Union Army.

On November 15, 1866, in St Louis, MO, Williams, who stood five foot, nine inches, joined the 38th US Infantry, Company A, under the command of Capt. Charles E. Clark. Only a cousin and a close friend knew he was a woman. Soon after, he caught small pox and spent time in the military hospital. They didn’t find out about “her” during that time. After he recovered, they sent him to Fort Union, in the New Mexico territory to rejoin his company.

Williams remained in the Army until a doctor’s examination discovered “her” birth sex, October 14, 1868. She went back to being a cook for the Army, living in various placed in New Mexico and Colorado during the rest of her life. Her last known resident was in Trinidad, Colorado, which oddly enough, is today one of the primary destinations for transsexuals to get Sex Reassignment Surgery. No one knows for sure, but historians figured she died between 1892 and 1900 in Trinidad from complications brought on by diabetes.

One of the books I found to have covered Cathay William’s life in more detail is “Cathy Williams: From Slave to Female Buffalo Soldier,” by Phillip Thomas Tucker, which can be found on line. Also check out the web site called “Female Buffalo Soldier- With Documents."

Our early American history is full of great stories of women who served as men during the time of war. Many, like Cathay Williams, returned to their life as women after the war. But, there were many who did not. Regardless of that, we still consider them part of our diverse transgender history. This phenomenon happened over the course of the past millenniums in the various armies that roamed the world during their reigns. It will not happen today because of the required medical exams.

It is my hope that Cathay Williams, aka “William Cathay,” will receive a place of honor in the African American community as she has already received in the transgender veterans’ community.


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Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | February 21, 2008 2:57 PM

Wow, as an FtM who eschews lower surgery, I wonder how s/he avoided being found out while in the hospital?!!!

I actually remember this story from school. Of course, they didn't call her trans back then - just "patriotic" or some such. LOL

Brynn - in those days modesty was encouraged. Small pox wouldn't necessitate getting naked really - at least not in front of others... Remember - they didn't even bathe for months at a time...