Queer American History: Albert Cashier

When we discuss LGBTQ+ rights and contributions to American history, everything generally starts with the Stonewall Riots of 1969, as if it were the beginning of queerness in the United States. Although the riots and the ՚60s in general were an important step in the long road towards LGBTQ+ rights, we all too often ignore the individuals and movements — however small — before that revolutionary decade. Considering we recently passed Transgender Awareness Week, this is the perfect opportunity to talk about one of the unique individuals who contributed to the collage that is US history. 

Born Jennie Irene Hodgers, Albert Cashier’s family moved from Ireland to Illinois sometime in the 1840s. Living in extreme poverty for most of his early life, Cashier transitioned to living as a man and promptly enlisted in the Union Army in 1862, after President Lincoln called upon three hundred thousand soldiers to fight in the Civil War. Being assigned to the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment, Cashier would see some of the fiercest fighting of the Civil War, taking part in over forty battles before the war’s end in 1865. Cashier would distinguish himself on the battlefield, once climbing a tree under heavy fire to raise the Union flag and escaping capture at the Siege of Vicksburg by seizing a guard’s rifle and knocking him out. Astonishingly, Cashier managed to survive the war without serious injury — allowing him to protect his identity — and was honorably discharged with a full pension. 

After the war, Cashier lived life as a man for the next forty years, completely abandoning the identity of Jennie Hodgers. During this time, he voted, marched every year with the rest of his unit in full uniform on Decoration Day, which was a precursor to Memorial Day, and worked all manner of traditionally masculine jobs. Cashier was able to maintain his identity until 1911, when, while working a job as a farm hand, he got in an accident with one of the machines and shattered his leg. During the medical procedure, Cashier’s assigned sex was discovered by the doctor, who informed Cashier’s boss. Cashier pleaded with the doctor and his boss to keep it a secret, which they both agreed to do. 

Unfortunately, Cashier’s age and injury made it impossible for him to work, and he was eventually admitted to the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Home in Quincy, Illinois. For about a year he was able to live there, but eventually the truth of his assigned gender was discovered, and they transferred him to an asylum in 1913, believing he was delusional for thinking he was a Union veteran. Cashier’s pension was revoked and he was forced to stay in the women’s ward of the hospital, where he was made to wear a dress and grow his hair out. He tried his best to use safety pins to button the dress into trousers, but was stopped by the asylum’s nurses. 

Soon after his admission into the mental hospital, the Illinois Veterans’ Pension Bureau was alerted of this strange and unique case by none other than Cashier’s fellow soldiers, who found it an inconceivable injustice that Cashier’s pension would be revoked. The bureau reviewed Cashier’s case and concluded that Jennie Hodgers and Albert Cashier were one and the same. Cashier’s pension was restored, as well as his status as a veteran, making this probably the first transgender rights case in American history. However, he was still forced to spend the remainder of his life in the women’s ward of a mental hospital. Two years later, in 1915, Albert Cashier would die in the asylum, most likely from complications with dementia. He was buried with full military honors and surrounded by his former comrades, who said in interviews that they viewed Cashier as a man of bravery, honor, and integrity. 

The story of Albert Cashier dispels the idea that being transgender has only been “around” since Stonewall and has really only gained “popularity” in the 21st century. Who can know how many other Cashiers existed throughout history and the contributions they could have made to society as a whole? The compassion shown to him by his fellow soldiers proves that understanding and respect can transcend culture and the period of time in which you were born. The support shown by his fellow soldiers in the waning years of his life is truly inspiring to see. So next time you’re reading about the Stonewall Riots or any other major event in LGBTQ+ history, remember the devout efforts of Albert Cashier and the 95th Illinois Infantry Regiment.

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