Monday, 4 August 2014

Transvestites in the trenches with ball gowns in their backpacks



Esteemed author Philip Hoare, writing in today's Guardian, has uncovered some of the sleaze of Soho during the First World War, a time when decadence still prevailed despite the horrors of the slaughter:
...At the most infamous club, the Cave of the Golden Calf in Heddon Street (a back street that would later feature on David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust cover), futurist poets in goatee beards recited avant garde verse, and guests were greeted by a phallic sculpture designed by Eric Gill, to which they bowed in mock idolatry. When Wilfred Owen was on leave in London, he noted that the upper floor of the Piccadilly café in which he sipped tea contained an opium den.

Nearby, in Half Moon Street, Robbie Ross, Oscar Wilde’s first lover and his literary executor, painted his rooms gold in protest at the war. In the wake of Wilde’s conviction for gross indecency, the war itself presented a new challenge for gay men; Ronald Firbank called it “that awful persecution”. But as the first modern, industrial conflict overturned class and gender barriers, it also opened up the possibility for new sexual identities – even in the mud and mire of the western front.

By advertising in the international press after the war, asking people to send him accounts of their sexual experiences during the conflict, renowned German sexologist, Magnus Hirschfeld (who features in Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin writing) discovered there were transvestites in the trenches with ball gowns in their backpacks. In the archives of the Imperial War Museum, I discovered other personal diaries that detailed same sex behaviour between serving soldiers. Hirschfeld also found accounts of drug clubs, and nudist clubs in London, Paris and Berlin. Even in suburban Clapham, a teenage Noel Coward and Esmee Wynne, his companion/muse, wore “futurist pyjamas”, and swapped clothes to run riot, in drag, in the West End.
How camp!

A whole new perspective on what is nostalgically perceived as a grim, stolidly patriotic and puritanical era, methinks.

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