Mon, May

When Victorian Newspapers Put Gender-Bending on Trial


TRANS HISTORY - In 1870, Ernest Fanny Boulton and Frederick Stella Park were arrested in London. Their crime? Presenting as women outside their theatrical act.

Fanny and Stella had appeared in newspapers before, known for their colorful personas as entertainers, sometimes praised and sometimes criticized for their performances. Boulton was revered for being the “best amateur performer off the boards,” while Park had a talent for interpreting matrons, dowagers, and old women in pantomimes. As long as their gender-bending impersonating talents were put to the good use of gentlemanly entertainment, there was nothing wrong with their behavior.

But this time, they were written up because the police had decided that their performance had gone too far: they carried their feminine personas from the stage onto the street. Fanny and Stella were arrested with a “potential suitor,” a young wealthy man seemingly unaware of the identities of the two. They were wearing their finest attire—Stella, a cerise satin dress with an open square body and a silk scarf wrapped around her neck; Fanny, a green embroidered gown paired with golden-plaited hair in Greek style (as reported by the arresting officer)—when they were charged with public indecency for luring wealthy men under false pretenses.

Boulton and Park were neither the first nor the last crossdressers in Victorian Britain. At the time, it was not unusual to see men playing women on stage. The word “drag” was invented as an acronym back in the 16th century to describe the phenomenon of men “Dressed Resembling A Girl” to interpret female theatrical roles on stage, as women were not allowed to be actors during this period.

But Fanny and Stella weren’t mere cross-dressing actors: they also lived public lives as women as often as they did as men. Sometimes, they attended society outings as Frederick and Ernest, but other times they showed up in satin dresses and white gloves, kept their plaited wigs on and behaved with all the mannerisms of upper-class women of their time.

Today, politicized digital media and viral videos subject trans and non-binary individuals to unwarranted, sensationalized scrutiny—sometimes putting their lives at risk. While the technology to carry out systematic scrutiny and online verbal attacks is relatively new, the public appetite towards making trans-focused stories a matter of public safety has been there since the Boulton and Park trial in the 19th century, if not before.

Boulton and Park’s trial aimed to establish exactly what type of danger the pair posed—whether the unspeakable act of sodomy (homosexuality as a concept we know today still was in its infancy) or maybe theft and deception, the latter a fear stemmed from a common type of highway robbery in which carriage drivers stopped to help a damsel in distress only to be robbed at gunpoint by thieves in disguise.

First, a medical professional was called in to prove sodomy, subjecting Boulton and Park to an invasive physical procedure. When that was inconclusive, they turned to a lengthy trial to determine whether the pair’s double identity could constitute a crime.

Side by side the courtroom trial was an equally relentless trial by media. The legal proceedings only took on their full significance as newspapers and tabloids turned Fanny and Stella into a spectacle, emphasizing the oddity of the two “women personators”—as they referred to them—to sell copies. Thanks to the reach of print media at the time, the pictures and sensational details from the trial were broadcast up to the remotest corners of the nation. While Victorians may not have had television, let alone TikTok, to keep up with trending videos, trial illustrations circulated so rapidly that people could feel they were present at the tribunal, watching as the events unfolded live.

By transforming an otherwise trivial case into a public sensation, the media outlets gave people ammunition with which to judge and execute fellow citizens who didn’t conform to the societal standards of gender and appearance.

Early in the trial, cartoonists drew Fanny and Stella with feminine features, indistinguishable from other women. In the sketch showing their arrest on Bow Street, they were graceful figures whose appearance suggested nothing unusual or wrong. Without prior knowledge of the context, one might assume they were ladies of respectable society. But as the trial proceeded, and a public appetite for news of Fanny and Stella grew, the media’s depiction of the women shifted significantly. Increasingly, Fanny and Stella were depicted as grotesque, their masculine features emphasized and their faces frowning, mugshot-like.

The press coverage also fueled harassment of others. A remark by the unforgiving press about Fanny and Stella wearing long-haired wigs while in the privacy of their homes, for instance, quickly was printed in the tabloids. In the days following, readers across the nation heckled and harassed those who they suspected were wearing a wig. Meanwhile, columns in the daily press such as Dundee Courier and Newry Reporter reported a craze of normal citizens in “eccentric clothing” being harassed on the streets.

By transforming an otherwise trivial case into a public sensation, the media outlets gave people ammunition with which to judge and execute fellow citizens who didn’t conform to the societal standards of gender and appearance. From London to Edinburgh, and metropolitan Liverpool to rural Cornwall, Fanny and Stella, in their visible queerness, become a new symbol of what to fear. The relentless debate fueled by the media cost Fanny and Stella—along with countless others—their freedom.

Today, Fanny and Stella’s trial is being replayed repeatedly in regard to restrooms, drag story hours, and participation in sports. Trans people don’t need to be thrust into a court of law to face incessant judgement, misgendering, and abuse. Simply existing is grounds to be dragged, unwillingly, into the public eye.

Whenever the conversation sparks, be it on a right-wing or left-leaning outlet, the media and the public draw connections between trans women’s gender identity and their intrinsic danger. As a result, trans women are at risk of attack, as was the case for Lauren Jackson, who was beaten up while walking toward the female restrooms at a state beach in Oregon by an attacker who was emboldened and (mis)informed by extreme right-wing outlets.

In the blink of an eye, new examples of how we are failing genderqueer and trans people come up: most recently, the death of non-binary student Nex Benedict brought the news flow to a halt, forcing the media to grapple with the connection between hatred, online and offline, and how it disproportionately affects queer and non-binary people.

In Fanny and Stella’s case, one cartoon unexpectedly changed the destiny of the trial and turned it into farce. In the sketch, officers are depicted searching through the two ladies’ dressing rooms, garment by garment, looking for incriminating evidence to establish whether their attire could be considered theatrical props (which would make the defendants innocent) or proper ladies’ frocks (rendering them guilty). Presented with this surreal scene, public opinion shifted. Rather than treating it as a criminal case involving sodomy at the very least and possibly treason, they recognized the trivial hair-splitting nature of the case, and the rage subsided toward Fanny and Stella and their alleged criminal capabilities. When the next paper installment came out, and politicians moved on to other campaign-winning topics, they had already moved on.

It is time people face today’s similar absurdity, and acknowledge that marathon losers (trans athletes receiving a disproportionate attention, considering they constitute the 0.0003%), as well as bathroom users, are simply people just going about their daily lives. By debating private lives as topics of public concern, we jeopardize the already precarious safety and existence of those involved. By elevating everyday instances to priority politics, we play a risky game and obscure the real issues politicians should spend their time on, instead of focusing on what’s inside people’s knickers.

When we allow gender affirmation to be presented as an issue of protecting public safety, we allow trans people to be scapegoated across all areas of public life, from public spaces to sports and education. The absurdity is worthy of mockery, but the dangers are infinite.

(RORY BUCCHERI is a U.K.-based journalist and art historian who writes about affirmative queer stories in the media and empowering gender non-conforming folks to travel fearlessly outside of the binary. This article was first featured in zocalopublicsquare.org.)

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