Monday, 2 March 2015

Gender Transgressor

From the National Portrait Gallery's description of the above painting by by Thomas Stewart (previously mistakenly held to be a portrait of an unknown woman, before being cleaned and revealing the unmistakable five o'clock shadow):
A soldier, diplomat and transvestite, the Chevalier d'Éon was one of the most colourful and celebrated characters in eighteenth-century Britain. Although born in France, he lived in London from 1762-1777 as a man, and from 1786-1810 as a woman. During both these periods he was a noted figure in international politics, high society and popular culture.

d'Éon first came to London in 1762 as part of the French Embassy and helped negotiate the Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War. Despite being awarded the Croix de St Louis, he refused to return to France when recalled. Instead, d'Éon published secret correspondence that revealed French ministerial corruption and blackmailed the French King by threatening to disclose secret information about French invasion plans. To silence him, Louis XVI offered him an official pension in 1775 but made the unprecedented condition that d'Éon should henceforth dress as a woman. This command was probably due to rumours, encouraged by d'Éon himself, that he was a woman. He reputedly attended cross-dressing balls during a previous diplomatic mission to Russia and bought corsets for himself while living as a man in London.

d'Éon’s new identity as a woman brought him even greater fame. He returned to Britain in 1785 and forged a new career performing fencing demonstrations. Popular prints show him fencing in a black dress like the one in this portrait, and, as here, he wore his Croix de St Louis during these fights. In England there was constant speculation and wagering about his sex. It was even the subject of a court trial that declared d'Éon to be a woman. Because the stereotype of a woman dressing as a man to join the army, often in pursuit of her sweetheart was widely recognised, the idea of d'Éon as a woman was accepted. Despite his lack of feminine ‘delicacy’, he was upheld by pioneering feminists such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as a shining example of ‘female fortitude’ to which British women might aspire.

The Stewart portrait is a copy of one painted by Jean-Laurent Mosnier in 1791. It shows d'Éon at the height of his fame, wearing the full cockade of a supporter of the French Revolution. In 1792, the year of this copy, d'Éon wrote to the new French National Assembly, offering to lead an army of ‘Amazon’ women against France’s enemies. This letter was widely reported in the British press and d'Éon was praised for his courage and patriotism. His sympathy for the new regime in France ended, however, with the execution of the French royal family.

d'Éon’s celebrity status was in itself a considerable achievement. He was the first openly-transvestite man in British history and no transvestite or transsexual, until the late twentieth century, has enjoyed such public recognition. The Annual Register wrote of him, "It must indeed be acknowledged that she is the most extraordinary person of the age ... we have seen no one who has united so many military, political, and literary talents."

And so it was that I attended last Friday - as another part of the fantabulosa Camden & Islington LGBT History Month series of events - a special evening dedicated to this extraordinary creature (at St Pancras Hospital, itself host to the annual LGBT art show "Loudest Whispers", and immediately adjacent to the churchyard where the Chevalier was eventually interred). One of the speakers at the event - Chevalier d'Éon: Gender Transgressor - was artist and transman Simon Croft, whose own artwork The d'Éon Gambit is a centrepiece of the exhibition.

From Diva magazine:
Croft has carefully crafted a chess board - 'The d'Éon Gambit' (named after the sacrifice of a piece or pieces in order to gain advantage in the game overall - particularly relevant to the Chevalier's life, one might say) - where each playing piece represents a different aspect of the Chevalier's life: d'Éon is both the King and Queen symbolising his/her dual gender presentation and close relationship with the French King; the Knight is represented by the Croix de St Louis; the Rook by a sword hilt; the Bishop by St Pelagius, symbolising d'Éon's strong religious beliefs and the many references in his/her autobiography to such gender transgressing religious figures as precedents for his/her own situation; and the Pawns are represented by the Burdett-Coutts memorial in St. Pancras Old Church churchyard, where the Chevalier's name can be seen second from the top on one of the sides.

Despite using 3D printing techniques, Croft's playing pieces have remained, almost contradictorily, relatively 2D. They look both fragile and delicate hanging above a shattered board. Croft often works with this distinction between 2D and 3D, between concrete identity and variable viewpoints. A 3D object, squashed flat and restricted to one angle, may then, when hung, as these pieces are, cast literal shadows of doubt over their superficial appearance.

d'Éon left behind an autobiography, which remained unpublished until 2001. Written in French, and very much for a contemporary public, d'Éon self-refers with a mixture of masculine and feminine terms. Much of the content can be independently verified, but it is clear that some stories were invented or altered to suit the self-presentation s/he sought at different times.

In the book, d'Éon presents the life of a female-to-male transvestite (claiming to have been born a girl and raised a boy), whereas the truth seems instead to be that s/he was born and raised a boy, later choosing to live as a woman (thus, a male-to-female transgendered life). What is apparent is that d'Éon's life blurred gender binaries and we can only guess at his/her true sense of gender identity and what that might have meant at the time.
The discussion itself - chaired by art critic and writer Anna McNay, and featuring Simon Croft in conversation with LGBT sociologist Natacha Kennedy - was utterly compelling.

Mr Croft talked at length about how perceptions of gender identity shape his work and that of many other artists, ancient and modern. In particular he is keen to direct artists' attention away from the traditional "gender-bending" or "androgynous" attitudes to portraying the transgendered body, and instead to encourage more examples of abstract or unconventional representation of trans experiences and attitudes in their art.

Ms Kennedy took the discussion into another direction altogether, drawing upon the eternal paradigms of "nature vs nurture", societal attitudes, psychosexual theories (the term "Eonism" was used by Havelock Ellis to describe trans people in the nineteenth century), contrasts between cultures, and the perception of "self" in the West since the Enlightenment to draw a parallel between the conundrums in the story of the Chevalier and the difficulties faced by trans people even in today's supposedly "tolerant" times.

The audience discussion (it was very well attended for an event of its type, especially on a Friday evening) was particularly stimulating and, I felt, contributed a lot to what might otherwise have been perceived as a very "niche" topic of interest.

Having been fascinated by the fabled Chevalier d'Éon for many, many years, I was pleased to have been a participant in such an important event.

Further reading:
  • The Beaumont Society, a long standing organisation for transgender people, is named after the Chevalier d'Éon.
  • Remarkably, some of the best-kept papers left by the Chevalier are held at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

All sweat and sway

"All sweat and sway of so many people dancing in a small space, that was part of the excitement. It was the electric atmosphere created by a lot of lusty women that made the club so special, not the surroundings." - Maggi Hambling, artist

Hearing the magnificent Jill Gardiner reading fascinating "oral history" accounts from lesbian women in the murky mid-20th century at Polari on Monday has prompted me to do a bit more reading about the notorious Gateways club, the subject of her book From the Closet to the Screen.

From the utterly marvellous London history blog Nickel in the Machine:
The Gateways had been in existence at 239 Kings Road on the corner of Bramerton Street in Chelsea since the thirties. It became more or less exclusively lesbian during the war when a huge number of women came to London to work or were stationed nearby and needed somewhere to go they could call their own.

A man called Ted Ware took over the club during the war, purportedly winning it in a poker game (“I raise you my lesbian members-only club…”). He married an actress called Gina Cerrato in 1953 and she soon took over the running of the club, joined, after a few years, by an American woman called Smithy who originally came to England as a member of the American Airforce. After an arranged marriage in the early sixties Smithy stayed in London for the rest of her life.

The membership fee during the sixties was just ten shillings (50p) and no guests were admitted after ten o’clock to discourage people who had spent their money elsewhere. Maureen Duffy explained that ‘rowdies or troublemakers’ were often banned immediately. Being excluded in those days was more than just embarrassing, it was unbelievably inconvenient – the nearest alternative lesbian club would have been in Brighton. Dining out with a girlfriend was often too expensive for a lot of women and even into the sixties women wearing trousers were actually banned from most restaurants. Pubs were still unpleasant places for women especially if unaccompanied by a man. In 1969 the London Spy guide book’s main advice for women looking for a drink was, essentially, to avoid pubs if they were alone, saying: "You may be thirsty, but nobody, nobody will believe you."

So for many lesbians the Gateways Club was the only relaxing and affordable place they had to go.

Between 9th and 16th June in 1968 The Gateways club became internationally famous when it appeared as a backdrop to many scenes filmed for The Killing Of Sister George, a movie starring Beryl Reid, Coral Browne and Susannah York. In 1960, York, a starlet at the beginning of her acting career and newly married, lived in a house at World’s End in Chelsea just a few hundred yards from the Gateways. Although it’s reasonably safe to say that York wasn’t a regular.
From Lost Womyn's Space:
During the 1970s, as many gay and lesbian people became more politically motivated, members of the Gay Liberation Front staged a protest at the bar. This action did not make Gina happy.

Though supportive of social acceptance for lesbians, and keen to create a lively venue where they could enjoy themselves, Ware was never involved in political campaigning. When her club was the target of direct action by the Gay Liberation Front in 1971, who pulled the plug on the jukebox and urged the horrified Gateways women to come out of the closet, Ware called the police, and had the demonstrators thrown out.

Many of the GLF members were arrested and charged with obstruction. Not surprisingly, the Gateways wasn't popular with many radical feminists either, because they believed it wasn't political enough. Political activists were tolerated at the Gateways, though, "as long as their politics were left at the door on the way in."
The club wasn't to last the test of time, however. From the Brighton OurStory blog:
Over the years lesbian and gay clubs have arrived and vanished with the sidereal rapidity of waves landing on Brighton beach. That this would happen to The Gateways Club, the most famous Chelsea cellar in the lesbian litany, had been inconceivable. But it did. On September 24th 1985 the final strains from the vinyl whirring on the DJ’s turntable died away and the lights went out on a chapter of lesbian history which had, amazingly, endured for forty historic years.
RIP The Gateways.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Saturday, 21 February 2015

The Oomph Girl

"They nicknamed me "The Oomph Girl", and I loathe that nickname! Just being known by a nickname indicates that you're not thought of as a true actress... It's just crap! If you call an actress by her looks or a reaction, then that's all she'll ever be thought of as."

"'Oomph' is what a fat man says when he leans over to tie his shoelace in a telephone booth."

"Some people have such interesting things happen to them during the knock-down, drag-out try for a career. Others it just seems to drag along, and mine sounds so boring. If something exciting had happened I could understand, but it was just hard work, that's all."

[On the "Golden Age" of Hollywood:] "There was a certain kind of fantasy, a certain imagination that is not accepted now. The world is too small. Those were glamorous days."

Indeed they were - and today is the centenary of the birth of one of the most glamorous stars of that "Golden Age", Miss Ann Sheridan. She acted with Cary Grant, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Bette Davis, yet was overlooked for starring roles. Admittedly she made mistakes - she famously turned down Mildred Pierce, which was snapped up by La Crawford - and by the 50s, embittered, she had turned her back on cinema in favour of television roles.

But who knew she sang? From Thank Your Lucky Stars, here she is with Love Isn't Born, It's Made:

Ann Sheridan (born Clara Lou Sheridan, 21st February 1915 – 21st January 1967)

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Fantastic Mrs Fox

And so, farewell the flirtatious and utterly camp "Mrs Fox" - inspiration for many a drag act - aka Patricia Cundell (15th January 1920 - 14th February 2015).

Now there's only two original cast members from Dad's Army left (Pike and the Reverend)...

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

I won't remember which dress you wore

As part of Camden & Islington LGBT History Month, on Sunday we went to see the incomparable Miss Tiffaney Wells ("the Jewish Princess") - a drag artiste with possibly the biggest and best array of costumes in the business - performing a selection of showtunes, in a venue that (thankfully) still retains the aura and faded glamour of "old Soho" - the fabled Phoenix Artist Club, hosted for decades by the legendary theatrical queen Maurice Huggett until his death in 2011.

Here is Miss Wells herself (filmed at the venue while we were there), giving her magnificent tonsils some exercise on two great numbers...

I Won't Send Roses:

Will you Remember Me?

Splendid stuff, you will agree. Thank heavens for old-school drag singers, I say!

Tiffaney Wells website.

Phoenix Artist Club

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Faded to Grey

"I was the freak of the village, long before Matt Lucas started doing those sketches. I was banned from school but I was a grade A student. It was ridiculous. I wasn't going to be a rugby player and I wasn't going to go down the pit, I was a creative spirit and so I ran away."

"I [became] known as the strictest door whore in London!"

"I don’t think there’s anything as pioneering now as there was in the ‘80s... [The] whole Blitz scene was incredibly pioneering. No one was doing what we were doing."

It is a very sad day for those of us who lived through that magical era that was the early 80s - dressing-up to go to the most selective of clubs, the mix of electronica and (Northern) soul dance music, the carefree toying with the notion of "style" as an antidote to punk, the outpouring of artistic creativity not seen since the rise of David Bowie and Roxy Music - for the man who did more than any other to bring us that world is dead.

Rest in peace, Mr Steve Strange. We all owe you an incredible debt of gratitude.

Steven John Harrington, aka Steve Strange (28th May 1959 - 12th February 2015)

Monday, 9 February 2015

Chica, Chica Boom Chic

"More affectionate than a kiss is a well done hug in someone that you love. Have you ever notice how I can give delicious hugs?"

"Hollywood, it has treated me so nicely, I am ready to faint! As soon as I see Hollywood, I love it."

"Look at me and tell me if I don't have Brazil in every curve of my body."

"I have never followed what people say it is 'fashionable'. I think that a woman must wear what fits her. That is why I created a style appropriated to my type and my artistical genre."

"Knock one banana off my head and I will make of you de flat pancake!"

Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, better known as Carmen Miranda (9th February 1909 – 5th August 1955)

PS In my head, that is how I enter every room...

Thursday, 29 January 2015