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Nineteenth-Century Cross-Dressers Resisted Norms

Nineteenth-century cross-dressers were not the first to wear clothing designated to the opposite gender. Men and women have worn each other’s clothing throughout recorded history for a multitude of reasons including safety, opportunity and entertainment. Some people quite simply felt more natural when cross-dressing.

The term cross-dressing is an act or behavior without any specific motive ascribed to it. Drag is defined by transequality.org, as “a type of entertainment where “people dress up and perform, often in highly stylized ways. The term originated as British theater slang in the 19th century and was used to describe women’s clothing worn by men.”

Many historians believe that the word refers to the long gowns worn by nineteenth-century male cross-dressers that dragged across the floor.

According to Author and Professor of Politics and History Dr. Catherine Armstrong of the Loughborough University in England, these terms have evolved considerably in the last few decades. Although this terminology would not have been recognized during much of the 1800s, many people understood the concepts.

“In fact, the concept of the fixity of gender emerges in its most rigid form in the late Victorian era and it is then that anxiety comes to the fore around ‘passing’ concerning gender and race.”

“We now appreciate that the gender to which you were assigned at birth might be entirely different from your gender identity, which is different again to your gender expression.”

Countless female trailblazers around the world cross-dressed throughout the 1800s. We’ll cover them in separate posts. The photographs and cartes de visite in this post celebrate the resistance and unflinching individuality of just a few nineteenth-century cross-dressers who blazed trails for all that followed.

San Francisco Laws Criminalized Nineteenth-Century Cross-Dressers

While San Francisco is now a bastion of LGBTQ rights, cross-dressing was criminalized for more than 100 years according to Clare Sears, Associate Professor of Sociology and Sexuality Studies at San Francisco State University. In her book, “Arresting Dress: Cross-Dressing, Law, and Fascination in Nineteenth-Century San Francisco,” Sears explores inspirational stories of several nineteenth-century cross-dressers who were affected by a San Francisco law established in 1863 that criminalized their lifestyle.

One of these people was Oscar Johnson who was arrested on Kearny Street in San Francisco in December 1890. According to newspaper reports Johnson, who went by the name Bettie Portel, was arrested for being dressed in “a complete woman’s outfit”.

Johnson was given the maximum sentence of six months in jail. Although Johnson would be accepted as a transgender woman today, we can never take any of our freedoms and rights for granted.

Sears writes:

Between 1848 and 1900 thirty-four cities in twenty-one states passed prohibitions against cross-dressing, as did eleven more cities before WWI. Most of these cities including San Francisco passed laws that specifically targeted a person ‘wearing a dress not belonging to his or her sex’ or ‘wearing the apparel of the other sex’ as part of broader prohibitions against public indecency. Other cities such as Los Angeles and New Orleans passed laws prohibiting ‘indecent dress’ or wearing ‘disguises’ that did not mention gender or sex but encompassed cross-dressing when they were enforced.”

These laws had remained in place and were enforced until well into the 1970s. They were passed in America’s growing frontier towns that were trying to cultivate respectable images to attract middle-class families.

According to Sears, while cities were trying to contain prostitution, it was not uncommon for nineteenth-century cross-dressers to go out on the town for the night dressed as women. In many cases they would not be prosecuted.

Cross-Dressing Wasn’t All Satin And Lace In 1870

Frederick Park (Fanny) and Ernest Boulton (Stella) came from upstanding middle-class families. Both in their twenties, they held respectable office jobs by day. By night, they performed drag as part of a theatrical troupe that toured the South East of England. Men dressed as women had a long history on the British stage. But these nineteenth-century cross-dressers often wore their costumes around town as well. Sometimes they mixed it up, wearing men’s clothing with full female make-up.

Park and Boulton became well known in the party scene of central London, as men and as women. At one point Boulton entered a relationship with English aristocrat Lord Arthur Pelham Clinton. Because of their private lives offstage they became the subjects of a year-long surveillance by local police in 1870.

After attending a theater performance, they were arrested for impersonating women. By itself this was a minor issue. But after a search of their apartment they were charged with sodomy, then a crime punishable by imprisonment.

Their trial began in May of 1871. After a sensational six-day ordeal the jury found them not guilty after deliberating for 53 minutes. Newspapers covered the trial in minute detail.

The Reynold’s Newspaper wrote that:

“.. the trial was greeted with interest and excitement. The court was densely crowded, and throughout the day the approaches to the court were thronged.’

Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday 21 May 1871, 8 wrote:

‘There can be no doubt that with regard to two of the defendants they have been in the habit of presenting themselves in public sometimes in the character or disguise of women, and at other times in the own habiliments in the dress of men, but still under circumstances which produced a public scandal by their assuming the gait, and manners, and carriage, and the appearance of women, with painted and powdered faces, so as to produce a general impression, though in male attire, that they were of the opposite sex.’

The Lloyd’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sunday May 21 1871, p.8 wrote that:

‘Boulton fainted upon the verdict being returned, and upon his recovery the prisoners left the court with their friends’.

The trial ended well for Fanny and Stella, but it also triggered important legal changes.

According to Mollie Clarke writing for the National Archives:

“While for Fanny and Stella their trial ended in the best possible way, their ‘not guilty’ verdict is believed to have inspired a damning change to the law in 1885 called the ‘Labouchere Amendment’. Infamously convicting both Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, the Labouchere Amendment ensured that in instances in which ‘sodomy’ could not be proven, an individual could still be charged with gross indecency.”

Depositions and transcripts from the trial can be read at the National Archives.

Original newspapers can be researched at the British Newspaper Archive.

The First Known Person To Identify As A Queen Of Drag

William Dorsey Swann, a former slave, became known as ‘The Queen’ of a secret world of drag balls in Washington, D.C., in the 1880s. He was also the leader of possibly the world’s earliest-known gay liberation organization.

According to Channing Gerard Joseph, author of the upcoming book House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens, Swann inspired a rebellious group of black butlers, coachmen and cooks to organize a secret world of balls for men in drag in Washington, D.C.

During Swann’s thirtieth birthday celebration on April 12, 1888 the police raided the cross-dressing ball at a house on L. Street. According to Joseph, The Washington Post, wrote that Swann was arrested for “being a suspicious character”. The headline read, “Negro Dive Raided,” and, “Thirteen Black Men Surprised at Supper and Arrested.” According to the article, “a big negro named Dorsey” was “arrayed in a gorgeous dress of cream-colored satin”.

A 2019 Creative Fiction Grantee, Joseph writes in House of Swann: Where Slaves Became Queens:

“When the police burst through the door of the two-story residence in northwest Washington, D.C., just half a mile from the White House, they discovered dozens of black men dancing together there, wearing silk and satin dresses made “according to the latest fashions” of 1888.  Most of them were former slaves or the children of slaves.

As soon as the partygoers saw the officers, the dancing stopped. The attendees looked on in shock for a brief moment before scurrying to make their getaway. Many of them, the newspapers later reported, struggled to strip off their garments, their ribbons, and their “wigs of long, wavy hair.” Others raced immediately to the back doors or leapt out of second-floor windows and onto the roofs of nearby buildings. The sound of shattering glass awakened the neighbors as one unfortunate guest crashed through a skylight.”

Swann, however, resisted arrest. Sentenced to ten months in prison, he requested a pardon from then president Grover Cleveland. This made Swann one of the first Americans on record to seek legal action to defend the right of nineteenth-Century cross-dressers to gather.

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