I’m in the last few weeks of my phd atm, so there’s not a lot that makes me raise my head above the parapet, but ‘Fanny and Stella, the pioneer transvestites who fought Victorian anti-gay laws‘ out on the Guardian yesterday was, apparently, enough.
The article opens with ‘In prudish Victorian England’ and a collective sigh from every 19thC and/or sex historian was heard across the internet. The Victorians, especially those of the 1870s, were not prudes. This is the time of Annie Besant and her publication of a sex and contraceptive guide for the masses, sexologist Richard Kraft von Ebbing (who is to blame for far more problems than he should be celebrated for) coined the term sadism, and sex manuals and guides were published throughout the century – give my 9 Books That Will Change Your 19thC Sex Life a go, if you want more examples.
But all of my problems with the Guardian article can be summed up by the following paragraph:
Long before the word transvestite had been coined, and almost 25 years before Oscar Wilde was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to hard labour as a result, two men who dressed as women were in the criminal dock at the Court of Queen’s Bench in London for a trial that they believed would start things moving towards eventual legal reform of the vicious anti-gay laws of the times.
The story of Fanny and Stella, middle-class clerks Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton respectively, is being brought back to the capital in a stage play that its author hopes will revive interest in the two men he believes should be remembered as ranking among the country’s earliest activists for gay rights.
So where to start? The first text to distinguish ‘trans’ individuals as a form of gender or sexual expression came in 1910, with the publication of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Die Transvestiten. But it has a long and varied history, like all forms of sexuality – we’ve never been purely heterosexual binary beings, and medievalist Lucy Allen has done a good blog post on historic transculture here. She’s also talked about why historical images of men (and women) can suffer from misidentification – the modern viewer reading a sexual subtext that may not have been there. A Photographic History of Bromance over at BrainPickings.com is a good example of how confusing 19thC photographs can be for reading sexual relationships (and it has some great pictures). This can be something that 20th and 21stC viewers struggle to comprehend: intimacy, whether physical or emotional, did not always appear to carry a sexual connotation for our historical ancestors.
But what does this have to do with Fanny and Stella? The trial of number of young men in 1870, arrested together after what appears to be a year-long police investigation, brought a suddenly scandalous story to the breakfast tables of late Victorian society. Full of aristocrats, love letters, and a chest ‘…containing no less than 16 silk dresses, 20 chignons, boots and shoes of different colours…’ the case was reported across the country. At it’s heart, was the relationship between Lord Arthur Clinton and his ‘wife’, Ernest Boulton, who was known to many as ‘Stella’. Stella often lodged and was seen about town with her friend Fanny, who, when dressed as a man, was better known as Frederick Park.
This picture shows the three men as society expected them to appear: Fanny standing, Clinton in the chair, and Stella at his feet. They were known in Edinburgh, London, and in many places across the country, not only in their male personalities, but also, in the case of Fanny and Stella, as women. For much of 1869, the police seem to have had Fanny and Stella, who frequented theatres and music halls and appearing occasionally on the stage themselves, under surveillance. By 1870 enough evidence is collected against them and they were arrested, alongside Clinton and a number of other men, for ‘conspiring and inciting persons to commit an unnatural offence’. Clinton was reported to have died shortly before the trial began, supposedly of scarlet fever, although rumour suggested suicide.
The phrase ‘he-she ladies’ is, according to Tracey McVeigh of the Guardian, the term newspapers used to describe Bolton and Park (although a quick trawl of BNA returns zero results to support this statement…) and most surface investigation into the pair seems to conclude that they were seen as rather silly, unimportant, members of London nightlife. The Boulton and Park case, or ‘The Men Who Dress as Women’ as it was more commonly referred to by the contemporary press, seems to have thrown a spotlight on the sex lives of Victorians in an unsettling way, even for those responsible for bringing it to court. Who were these men who chose to live as women, and why? Was this damaging to the moral fabric of society? Was there a point to argue in law? It was very clear from the start that there was no case of fraud to answer to, as all those involved where aware – at some point – that the persons involved were, biologically, male. And going about ‘in drag‘ as one witness termed it, was not against the law in Victorian England. But it was acknowledged that there was something more to the men than stage persona’s:
‘These disguises were not assumed to be mere larks; but appeared to have been the object of their lives…’ Sheffield Independent 13th May, 1871.
Was Victorian society shocked to discover cross-dressing men in the midst of it’s well connected families? what immoral acts would this lead too? Which brings me to the second problem I have with this article. The belief in the ‘vicious anti-gay laws of the time’. Actually, the criminalisation of homosexual relationships doesn’t happen until after the Boulton and Park trial. In 1885, the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which – on the one hand raised the age of consent to 16 and enforced protections for women and children from sex trafficking and prostitution – criminalised any sexual or overtly intimate relationship between men: holding hands in the park for example, was now a threat to public morals. In reality, the earlier time of the Boulton and Park case could be seen as one where there is a slow but increasing trend towards tolerance for homosexuality. While I disagree that Fanny and Stella were overt ‘early gay right’s activists’, try almost 100 years early – Jeremy Bentham and his 1785 text Offences Against One’s Self argued that sodomy should be decriminalised and homosexuality accepted by the wider society.
Hitherto we have found no reason for punishing it at all: much less for punishing it with the degree of severity with which it has been commonly punished.
Moving into the 19thC and James Pratt and John Smith became the last two men to be hung for sodomy in 1835, and following this the death penalty for buggery was abolished in 1861 – important to note, I think, that these offences could be committed against both men and women, and were not straight forward antigay legislation. So it’s not until 1885 that we have clear antigay laws that deemed any aspect of a gay relationship, not just its sexual side, as illegal. Fanny and Stella were not facing the horrors of their ancestors, or those faced by the men who came after them.
The problem that I have with this form of backwards moral projection, by both historians and journalists, is that it just doesn’t work. The desperation to find the first gay activists of the Victorian period is totally understandable, we want to believe that someone before the last century knew that the horrifying discrimination faced by people we know, love and care for, was wrong. But putting words into the mouths of our historical ancestors doesn’t make things better, in many ways it reduces the importance of the people who did take up that fight, out in the open and in the face of vicious attacks. Little from the Boulton and Park case supports the idea of an active crusade to change society. They, and the other men tried with them, are the victims of a universal inability to comprehend the human condition.