Last night’s LGBT History Month event saw some actual, serious history. Juliet Jacques, best known for her “Transgender Journey” column in The Guardian gave a presentation on how gender variance was viewed in Victorian England. We had a great crowd, and Juliet was excellent.
One of the things that became very obvious during her presentation is that doing histories of trans people is very hard. Any group of people who are marginalized by society is unlikely to leave much in the way of records. Most of the material that Juliet had to work with comes in the form of court records, and the associated media coverage of the cases.
Furthermore, in Victorian times there was no concept of gender, let alone gender identity. The only reason that people of the time could conceive for a woman to dress as a man would be for economic advantage — to be able to take jobs from which women were normally excluded. The only reason that they could conceive for a man to dress as a woman would be in order to solicit sex with other men.
Given that buggery was a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison, no one arrested for “female personation” was going to admit to wanting to be a woman, or even to liking wearing women’s clothes. Anyone appearing in court would excuse his behavior by claiming that he had dressed up as a lark, or with some other creative excuse. I liked the chap who claimed he was doing an art project to do with women’s clothing, but by far the star excuse came from a Rev. Holmes, a minister from a small Scottish splinter church. He claimed to be surveying the dark underbelly of London society with a view to finding sinners and rescuing them. The judge, quite reasonably, asked him why he found it necessary to dress in women’s clothing in order to do so.
The most notorious case from the period is that of Boulton and Park, who were both found not guilty. Thanks to the tradition of double jeopardy, once acquitted they could no longer be tried again for dressing as women. Ernest Boulton went on to have a successful career as a drag artist.
The other complexity that I hope is obvious from all of this is that in Victorian times there was no effective difference between gender identity and sexual orientation. Because society assumed that any man dressed as a woman must be doing so in order to solicit sex, every man who crossed-dressed was, by definition, gay. As a consequence it is very difficult for an historian to separate the history of trans people from that of gay people. All we can do is speculate on the motives of the people who stories we discover, and it may well be that the prevailing social attitudes colored their identities.
My thanks again to Hydra Books for providing an excellent venue, to Juliet for a wonderful talk, and to everyone who attended.