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  • Two Women Walk into a Theatre BathroomThe Fanny and Stella Trials as Trans Narrative

Two well-dressed women are taken into custody shortly after one of them uses the restroom in a theatre, and both are charged with disturbing the peace. Taken to the police station in the company of a male companion who offers to vouch for them, they are stripped as a way of proving police suspicions that both women were assigned male at birth. They are subjected to an invasive medical examination and as a result have felony accusations of solicitation to commit sodomy added to the original misdemeanour charge. Men come forward, including one who claims to have been tricked about their gender and admits to trying to publicly expose them. The police find letters in which the defendants refer to themselves by female pronouns and to each other as sisters; there is evidence that one may have considered herself as married to a man. The mother of one of the defendants asserts that she has presented as female since the age of six; she and the other defendant’s father have each bought dresses for their children, who identify themselves professionally as actresses. One major newspaper uses feminine pronouns throughout its trial coverage. Medical experts for the defence dispute the prosecution claim of physical evidence of sodomy, and, in less than an hour, the jury finds them innocent of the felony counts and guilty only of the original misdemeanour.

Exceptional details aside, this is a story that we might read in our newspapers today. Many of its components feel familiar: an arrest made on the basis that a visit to the bathroom constituted a violation of a private, gendered space; an attempt at public exposure by a man who felt deceived about the anatomy of a companion and acted out in a transphobic rage; an assumption that a trans woman in public must be a sex worker soliciting clients; a supportive network of friends and relatives who affirmed the women’s gender identities through appropriate pronoun use and gifts of clothing, recognizing a process of social transition that had begun in childhood. Some readers might recognize a legal decision that is unsympathetic to prosecutorial overreach and more apt to see gender presentation as a matter of private concern than one requiring legal policing. It would certainly be heartening to see a newspaper make an unequivocal statement that it would use the gender pronouns with which a criminal defendant referred to herself. Overall, the case could be seen as a qualified victory for transgender rights. But it happened in Victorian Britain. [End Page 83]

It is the case of Fanny and Stella, who were arrested at the Strand Theatre in London in April 1870, charged under the birth names William Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, respectively, and acquitted of felony charges the following May. Despite its many progressive elements, the trial pitted two narratives against each other, viewing Fanny and Stella either as theatrical female impersonators or as gay men—but clearly, either way, as men. Little modern writing on the case puts much stock in the first of these, which proved to be the winning argument in court.1 It is far more common, and thus rather disturbing, to find commentators who essentially side with the prosecution by situating Fanny and Stella in the history of Victorian homosexuality as the missing link between the mollie-house culture of the Regency period and the forms of modern male homosexuality that we have come to see as emerging around the Oscar Wilde trial in 1895.2 It is fitting, then, that the majority of the critics and historians that I am about to summarize directly link Fanny and Stella to Wilde, viewing their prosecution as in many ways a trial run for his. Wilde’s sentence—based on the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885—thus comes to seem like the penalty paid for the apparent laxity of the law as it stood in 1871.

A recent history of male homosexuality in the nineteenth century, H.G. Cocks’s Nameless Offences (2010), suggests that the interpretation of Fanny and Stella “has gone through distinct phases,” but I want to suggest one way that it has been entirely consistent over the past thirty-five years (105). In 1981, Jeffrey Weeks termed them “two ‘men in women’s clothes’” and their offence as “indecent behaviour (for cross-dressing in public)” (116). Seven years later, in his groundbreaking study of Wilde and Victorian gay culture, Neil Bartlett wrote, “It became clear in the course of their trial that they were not simply drag queens. They could not be dismissed as theatrical creations, men in private, women in public, alternately visible and invisible. As the time of their arrest they were engaged in what seems to have been their favourite joke: that of dressing and passing (with, apparently, complete success) as ladies” (Who 134). In 1994, in his important book The Wilde Century, Alan Sinfield referred to them as “two lads” who had “from childhood liked to play female parts in semi-professional theatricals” (6). William A. Cohen opened a 1996 chapter on the case with “two young men who were arrested in 1870 for dressing as women” (73–74). In 2000, Charles Upchurch gave weight to the other part of the prosecution case, assuming that they were also prostitutes: for him, the peculiarities of the trial can be attributed to a need to obscure the connections that it threatened to expose “between cross-dressing, same-sex desire, and male prostitution” (137). This is also the tack of a sensationalistic 2013 biography of the pair by Neil McKenna, who imaginatively creates for us Fanny and Stella’s exploits as rent boys in drag, while seeming to restore the distinction that Bartlett tried to erase by using male pronouns for the private selves and female ones for the selves on public sale or display. In this essay, I will set out the evidence for why [End Page 84] the story of Fanny and Stella makes more sense—both in its own historical terms and now—when read as a trans narrative, before focusing on the more interesting question: why does it matter to retroactively position the story in this way, with all of its attendant dangers of applying an anachronistic terminology to an earlier historical period?3 This question has been asked especially by Bartlett, who returned to the story in 2016—almost three decades after he first wrote about it—in the play Stella. The timing of its premiere, as attention focused on North Carolina’s HB-2 law, meant that reviewers and audiences repeatedly connected Bartlett’s play with contemporary debates about transgender rights in public spaces, a connection that seems to have troubled the playwright himself. “Nowadays, of course, we’d all want to know if Stella was ‘really’ trans rather than drag,” he wrote in the Huffington Post; “we, in our way, are just as keen to categorise anyone who strays outside of their allotted gender role as the Victorians were.” When Stella’s mother told of her “school-age” child’s love of dressing as a chambermaid (Mrs. Boulton actually dated this activity to a much earlier age, as we shall see), the Victorians “took that as evidence of high spirits, rather than any nascent teenage gender dysphoria,” Bartlett notes, and it is not immediately clear which of these possibilities he himself favours (“Let’s Ditch”). Elsewhere, tellingly, he has commented about the play that “the real question” it asks “is not what category you fit into, but how brave you are” (“Gender”).

The question of categories is crucial, I would suggest, for a number of reasons. The problem of anachronism is unavoidable however we position people like Fanny and Stella, with a term like “cross-dresser” no less alien to their period than “transgender.”4 Part of what guides my own thinking is the question of which explanatory framework makes the most sense of the story as it comes to us through archival records rather than filtered through gatekeeping works of historical recovery. In this, I am following a practice that J. Jack Halberstam terms “perverse presentism,” in which we view the past not from an explicitly superior vantage point in the present but by constructing an open-ended dialogue across historical time: an application, for Halberstam, “of what we do not know in the present to what we cannot know about the past” that presumably works both ways to help clarify our understanding of the present as well as the past (Female 53). Fanny and Stella’s story is studded with moments of recognition and also with aspects that are barely comprehensible today, and I want to argue that those points of apparent incommensurability with current thinking are just as valuable in helping us understand transgender people as having a history, albeit one that is sometimes fractured and non-linear. Retracing that history, I will suggest, can help to unsettle and reconfigure the current idea of an LGBT+ alliance that has come to feel increasingly fragile and under-theorized and also to indicate a future trajectory for a period-bound discipline such as Victorian studies. [End Page 85]

the case for she

During the course of the trial, it emerged that Fanny and Stella had been under police surveillance for over a year, a fact that raises the question of why they were arrested when they were. Charles Upchurch constructs an elaborate answer involving the state’s initial desire to make an example of them, using “the modest publicity generated by newspaper coverage to inform other mollies and mary-annes of a firm limit on their own use of public space” and then delaying the trial for a year when this intent backfired (128). There is no evidence that could document these motives, and the record instead suggests that the decisive factor was their use of the women’s restroom that night, especially given the circumstances of their arrest on exiting the theatre. It is clear, for instance, that the prosecution, having tracked down the attendant on duty in the cloakroom, sought to emphasize these circumstances when the case came to trial. The attendant’s evidence, though, did not seem to provide the anticipated sensationalistic details: on being asked whether Fanny was “dressed as a woman,” she replied, “Dressed as a lady,” before proceeding to give a prosaic account of how Fanny and Stella followed her to the “retiring room” and then back to their seats; the cross-examination tried to ascertain just what happened in between, with questions about whether the room contained a looking glass and a brush for fixing makeup, before the presiding prosecutor cut to the chase by asking if it was “for the purpose of using the convenience for which they went?”—which the attendant confirmed.5

This evidence did little substantive to document the charge of disturbing the peace for which Fanny and Stella were originally arraigned and for which they accepted a form of plea bargain to exhibit “good behaviour” for the next two years (“Judges’ Chambers”). As their defence counsel made clear, it also said nothing about the most serious felony of which they were acquitted, that of conspiracy to incite others to commit sodomy. In his closing remarks, Fanny’s lawyer asked the rhetorical question “does a man go into a Ladies Retiring Room for the purpose of committing the detestable crime charged here,” while Stella’s counsel sensibly observed that the prosecution had failed to prove “that any lady was inconvenienced by [Boulton’s] going—he went in and he went out and in the dress he were in it is difficult to suggest where else he would have gone, whatever his motive was” (DPP 4: 145; 3: 265–66). In the present climate of debates over bathroom usage and “papers to pee,” these arguments sound eerily familiar, as does the sheer length to which the prosecution went to try to prove a largely irrelevant point. Even though the period lacked a concept of the transgender individual, it feels at times as if the court was anticipating the very terms and issues around which subsequent legal debates have turned.

Fanny and Stella were arrested in the company of Alexander Mundell, a would-be suitor who chivalrously protested their innocence and spent the night in the Bow Street police cells for his troubles. Mundell became the [End Page 86] lead witness against them, but, again, it is not clear in hindsight what charge he was supposed to be substantiating. To support a charge of solicitation to encourage others to commit sodomy, Mundell had to be presented as a victim of deception (believing himself to have been solicited by prostitutes) or to have knowingly anticipated sex with a man, which meant his perception of Fanny and Stella’s gender was crucial to his testimony. He was only the first witness, however, to give contradictory and sometimes incoherent answers. He had been with them at various times while they were dressed in conventionally male and female clothing, but according to his deposition, even after they told him in a letter “that they were men,” he remained unconvinced. “I told them I did not believe it; they then said it is quite true, we are men. I believed that they had written the letter in a joke, and I believed they were women.” His conviction persisted even when Mundell saw them in typically male attire and decided they were “two women in men’s clothes,” telling them that to be more convincing “when they walked they had better swing their arms about a little more” (KB 1: 10–12). Other witnesses drew similar inferences, often reaching conclusions from Fanny and Stella’s use of makeup, to the extent that we might even be justified in viewing them anachronistically as bigendered or genderqueer avant la lettre, consciously mixing up conventionally “male” and “female” signifiers of the period; indeed, the prosecuting Attorney General suggested something similar in his opening remarks, making the remarkable assertion that their “adoption of female dress, and I may make the same observation with regard to male dress, was of such a character as to lead to the supposition that they were women” (DPP 1: 10–11).

Mundell’s gender confusion intensified when he described making advances toward Stella that he insists were resisted: “I asked him,” he recalled, “when I could come and see him, but addressing him as if she was a female, believing her to be a female” (KB 1: 16). For all his difficulties explaining himself, Mundell at least owned his confusion, ending his testimony by admitting that “it was my own fault,” even if what he was admitting was the entirely understandable perception that Fanny and Stella were women (DPP 1: 176). The other prosecution witness to their supposed deception and incitement, a businessman named Frances Kegan Cox, took the opposite tactic and placed the blame on Stella. Unlike Mundell’s, Cox’s first encounter with Stella was when she was dressed in typically masculine clothes, a fact that raises the question of why (as he maintained in his deposition) he treated her “as a fascinating woman” and proceeded to take advantage of a moment alone with her: “Boulton went on in a flirting manner with me,” he recalled, “and I kissed him, she or it, at the time believing that he was a woman” (KB 3: 89). On cross-examination, Cox explained that he had reached his conclusions “from the manner Boulton’s hair was done, and from the smallness of his hands and feet,” one of a series of assessments that were rooted in physiology. When he found out from others [End Page 87] about Stella’s assigned sex at birth, he responded with a form of trans panic, a condition that—by comparison to the “gay panic” defences offered by homophobes—seeks to blame the victims for their own suffering. In Cox’s case, he intruded on a public lunch that Stella was having with friends and shouted, “You damned set of infirnal [sic] cowards, you ought to be kicked out of this place.” He clarified in his deposition that he meant to out Stella by this action, stating, “When I learned that Boulton was a man, I spoke about it to my friends” (KB 3: 91–93).

Cox’s “him, she or it” is a clear indication of his transphobic rage, but it also echoes the pronoun confusion expressed by Mundell (“addressing him as if she was a female”) and other witnesses. At moments, the legal record approaches a state of incomprehensibility, as when a landlady is asked what caused her to suspect that Stella was a woman, to which she replies, “It was because she appeared so feminine” (DPP 4/2: 171). Reading the handwritten legal transcripts, it is not easy to know if such a sentence was recorded as spoken or if the confusion originated with the court stenographer. There are telling instances of self-correction, such as when a coach driver describes taking Fanny out for a drive: “when I got there,” the transcript records, “the prisoner Parkes [sic] came out of the house dressed as a lady, and she said, ‘my sister’s not ready,’ and he told me to drive to a Restaurant in Newcastle Street.” The initial “she” (with the first letter crossed through) seems consistent with the appearance “as a lady” but is then amended for consistency with the male pronoun that follows (KB 2: 30). A parallel moment appears in the testimony of another landlady, who presumably gestured at one of the defendants as she stated, “that is the one [Stella] that I have seen there dressed as a woman. I examined Lord Arthur’s drawers, as I saw him go on his toes to let that person out, he apprised me that that person was a woman” (KB 5: 129). In each instance, a reference to female clothing seems to have led the stenographers, who were presumably in court and could see the prisoners in typically masculine clothing, to correct and then re-correct themselves, in a state of confusion mirroring that felt by witnesses like Mundell.

If there was widespread uncertainty about which pronouns to use, clarity appeared in the unlikeliest of places, the sensationalistic London press. In an editorial that would still be surprising today, the Illustrated Police News began its coverage of the trial with the following statement: “Adopting the pronoun used regarding the prisoner during the hearing of the case, ‘she’ had a small signet ring on the little finger of the left hand, but did not wear earrings. Her hair—or rather wig—of golden colour, was fashionably dressed in the Grecian style, with plaited chignon” (“Capture” 2). What is perhaps most striking about this statement is that it is patently untrue: it makes little sense to say that “she” was the preferred pronoun when neither the prosecution, who argued that Fanny and Stella were sodomites, nor the defence, who countered that they were merely dressing up as an extension of their theatrical persona, used it. The only section of the trial in which there is a [End Page 88] consistent use of female pronouns occurs when the prosecution reads into the record a series of letters between Fanny, Stella, the latter’s lover (Lord Arthur Clinton), and two Scottish admirers (Louis Hurt and John Fiske) who were tried as co-conspirators. It is mainly from these letters that we have come to recognize the preferred names of the accused and their understanding of the relationships between them. The letters from the Scottish admirers are addressed to “My darling Ernie” (or “Erné”) and express an interesting disagreement on the issue of gender presentation: the more cautious Hurt wants Stella to stop shaving so as to have a moustache before meeting Hurt’s mother and refuses to pay her “Drag Bills,” whereas the more adventurous Fiske proclaims “What a wonderful child it is” on hearing she is now “living in ‘drag’” and describes her as a combination of classical male and female objects of adoration, as “Lais and Antinous” in one (KB Letters 65, 69).6 Meanwhile, Fanny wrote to Lord Arthur to thank him for birthday greetings, recounting that “I require no remembrance of my Sisters [sic] husband as the many kindnesses he has bestowed upon me make me remember him for many a year” and signing off, “Your affectionate Sister in law, Fanny Winifred Park.” Similarly, in a letter that the prosecution sought to use as evidence of a financial quid pro quo, signed “Stella Clinton,” Stella makes a demand that Arthur “Send me some money, wretch!” (KB Letters 76).

Historians have not known what to make of this apparent evidence of familial bonds, uncertain whether to read these expressions as an extension of Fanny’s consciously camp self-presentation or as the signs of a quasi-matrimonial relationship that would be a strong counter-argument to the prosecution’s efforts to paint Fanny and Stella as prostitutes. Lord Arthur died suddenly after receiving a summons to appear in court, but suggestions that Stella was extorting money from him were met with some incredulity because he was, in the words of her counsel, “a notorious insolvent” (KB 3: 250). The suggestion of a marriage is nonetheless one the prosecution was keen to highlight, and the defence to repudiate. Beyond the letters, there are two relevant testimonies, neither exactly irrefutable. In one, Maria Duffin, a servant at the lodging the couple sometimes shared, stated that Lord Arthur spoke to Stella “more as a lady than a man. He said ‘My dear’ some times, and I have heard him say ‘My darling.’ I have accused Boulton of being a gentleman and he would laugh, and show me his wedding ring keeper, and said he was Lord Clinton’s wife” (KB 5: 135–36). Neither Duffin’s testimony nor her related claim that even at home Stella “was always dressed as a woman and always passed as a woman” were corroborated, and a number of defence witnesses testified to the opposite; indeed, the lengths they went to discredit Duffin are a clear sign that the defence strategy was to make as sharp a distinction as possible between the public Stella and the private Ernest (DPP 2: 134). The other testimony was offered by a stationer, who testified to being asked to print monogrammed visiting cards for the unmarried Arthur and for “Lady Clinton,” featuring the name Stella “surrounded by a ‘C,’” but also [End Page 89] that he did not print them because he suspected he “should not be paid for it” (KB 5: 143). Even though it is hard to see how this testimony supported the charges, the attorney general readily connected the dots, remarking of Fanny’s “Sister in law” letter, “Here is Park writing to Lord Arthur Clinton in fact as the husband of Stella. Gentlemen, you will couple that with the wedding ring and the sleeping together” (DPP 1: 40).

interpretive consequences

The issue of Stella and Arthur’s possible marriage indicates one difficulty with reading their story retrospectively as a trans one. Forms of marriages have been one historical category through which the history of transgender people has been thought, especially through documented instances of “female husbands.”7 As I have indicated, however, neither side in the trial had much investment in showing a sustained, intimate relationship between them. The defence’s eagerness to refute Maria Duffin’s testimony indicates how far they were committed to an image of Fanny and Stella centred around their professional personae, and to this end they called co-stars and photographers and read into the record reviews of their performances from a series of theatrical tours; one of these contains another instance of pronoun confusion, speaking of the character “who Mr. Boulton personates so admirably as if she were a veritable member of the weaker sex” (KB 4/2: 80). But the purpose of such testimony was to clarify that there was no attempt to deceive audiences about the sex assigned the performers at birth, and to extend the implication to more intimate encounters with men such as Mundell and Cox. Ultimately, Fanny’s lawyer concluded, their dressing up in public spaces such as London’s theatres and shopping arcades was an extension of their onstage work, “the same genius in a different way” (KB 5: 219). This argument resonates with a tactic for dismissing transgender people that Halberstam has termed a “project of rationalization,” in which cross-gender identification “is assigned an economic motive” in order that the trans subject can be reinstalled within “the comforting and seemingly inevitable matrix of hetero-domesticity” (Queer Time 55).

If this is what the defence sought to indicate, the key witness would be Stella’s mother, a figure who has fared badly at the hands of recent commentators. Upchurch is sufficiently invested in the idea that Fanny and Stella were the prostitutes the prosecution made them out to be that he casts Mrs. Boulton as an unreliable witness through whom a tendentious appeal was made to bourgeois family values: “her status as a middle-class mother was enough to cover both her knowledge and her lack of knowledge of her son’s activities over with the gloss of moral respectability,” Upchurch writes, and what he means by her “lack of knowledge” is signalled in his suggestion that she “was never confronted with the examples that seemed to indicate her son’s acts of prostitution” (150). McKenna’s biography paraphrases Mrs. Boulton’s testimony as the source for his understanding of Stella’s childhood [End Page 90] but then echoes Upchurch’s suspicions by following it with detailed descriptions of acts of prostitution that the mother had sought to disprove by insisting that her child was economically supported. She testified, “I never allowed any cloud to fall upon my children. I always supplied them with everything they requested. Whatever troubles we have had I have always shielded them from everything,” and she acknowledged giving Stella a dress, just as “Mr. Park bought a dress for his son” (KB 4/2: 30).

The overall effect of this testimony was to endorse the economic motive (Fanny and Stella dressed up only for work) and secure the distinction between the public sphere of the theatre and the private sphere of home, where, Mrs. Boulton claimed—contrary to Maria Duffin—that Stella had “never dressed in any other way with us” than in “gentleman’s clothes” (KB 4/2: 12). One point in the mother’s testimony stands out for me as a parent of a transgender child, mainly for its irrelevance to the line of argument for which it was solicited. Stella’s counsel had stated that she “showed extreme fondness for appearing in female Dress” from “as early as some ten or eleven years of age,” but when he puts this to the mother, she insists on a correction: “I should have rather said from the age of 6; before he could well speak he was fond of dressing up” (KB 4/2: 2). The point was not taken up in the trial, but this backdating of cross-gender identification to a period significantly before puberty disrupts the picture the defence was constructing of a public cross-dressing that effectively emerged out of a love of theatrical performance; in the current language about trans kids, it points to a persistent gender identity that can be traced back to the earliest moment of self-expression (“before he could well speak”).8 That meaning gets lost, however, when critics insist on reading the case from the perspective of an emergent male homosexual identity, as with William A. Cohen’s reading of Mrs. Boulton’s testimony, which asserts that “[w]ithin twenty-five years” (in other words, the Wilde trials) “this narrative could never have been used in defense of a man up on sodomy charges, for rather than testifying to the innocence of female impersonation, it would demonstrate a nearly genetic predisposition for gay style” (121; italics in original).

Such an interpretive framework inevitably crowds out other interpretations and historical meanings. One effect of reading the trial transcripts might be instead to see moments like this as points at which a trans narrative is in formation, beneath the surface of the legal arguments and to a large extent beyond the consciousness of the actual participants; Mrs. Boulton might be as unaware of her words as Cox was about exactly why Stella enraged him, or the prosecution about why it was so crucial to call the cloakroom attendant to specify exactly what Fanny and Stella did. Recovering such fragmented details about the past lives of transgender people helps us understand how such lives might have been lived in the period before medical transition became possible. This is the sense in which Halberstam has criticized the position—most notably associated with Bernice L. Hausman’s [End Page 91] Changing Sex (1995)—that we should date modern transsexuality from the availability of gender-confirmation surgery as a form of technological determinism: speaking to and for the historical record of masculine women, Halberstam claims that it is “inadequate to simply label them pretransexual; what they were, in fact, were women who wanted to be men before the possibility of sex change existed” (Female 87). It is unclear whether Fanny and Stella simply “wanted to be” women or were engaged in a more complex play with gender expression; what does emerge from the historical record is that their lived experience is not reducible to the reductive category of “cross-dressing” that the trial imposed upon them—and that subsequent historians have reproduced.

re-charting lgbt+ history

Starting from this story, we might construct a genealogy of trans women in Victorian Britain that draws together other case histories that might otherwise remain obscure or misidentified. One line of connection extends forward to the 1890s but not to Wilde. In Matt Cook’s survey of London crime records and newspaper accounts of gross indecency charges, for instance, two examples stand out as speaking more to Fanny and Stella’s experience than to Wilde’s. One case that he highlights because it is almost exactly coincident with coverage of Wilde’s trials is that of Wilhelm Julius. Reynolds’s Newspaper reported in April 1895 that Julius “is a very effeminate individual, and his voice is also feminine.” As with the coverage of Fanny and Stella, the report details items of clothing at length: “smart black hat, trimmed with black feathers and yellow flowers, a black skirt, and velvet cape … a perfectly-fitting wig of auburn hair done up in fashionable style,” so that “altogether his appearance was calculated to deceive the casual observer” (“In Women’s Clothes,” 21 Apr. 1895). If a quarter century earlier this might have launched a long and unsuccessful felony prosecution, however, what’s notable about the Julius case is the absence of outrage or legal overreach: Reynolds’s prosaic follow-up a week later merely records that Julius “was seen in Regent-street dressed as a woman” and was consequently “ordered to find two sureties to keep the peace for three months, or in default to undergo one month’s imprisonment” (“In Women’s Clothes,” 28 Apr. 1895). Even more striking was the case a year earlier of Arthur Marley and John Severs, who like Fanny and Stella were brought to court along with a set of male admirers, for whom they had been encouraged to dress in female clothes for a private party: Marley was termed a “female impersonator” by the St. James’s Gazette, which recorded Severs pleading innocent, having “pulled up his dress and exclaimed ‘You can see I am not in female attire; I have got a pair of trousers on.’” There is the same fixation on items found at the scene, including “a hare’s foot with rouge and powder upon it, a powder puff, a pair of curling tongs, box of powder, and a necklet and pendant” (“Raid,” 14 Aug. 1894). As with Julius, Marley and Severs were required to keep the peace [End Page 92] for three months, having been found “only guilty of disorder in appearing in the street in female attire” (“Raid,” 21 Aug. 1894).

One implication of reading these stories through the Fanny and Stella trial is to recognize how the judicial handling of such cases changed. As opposed to the overcharging of 1870, violations like these a quarter century later amounted to minor infractions that—in spite of the suggestion that Julius “calculated to deceive”—feel like victimless crimes: after all, there is no Mundell or Cox to testify to any actual deception, and the majority of the men arrested along with Marley and Severs, who might have been positioned as possible objects of solicitation in the earlier narrative, were released because “there seemed to be nothing to hold them for.”9 Because these later trials produced so little coverage, it is hard to know how far to push their echoes of Fanny and Stella, but it is surely a mistake to consider them (as Cook does) merely as evidence of how the relative class positioning of “urban ‘rent,’ like the telegraph boys and soldiers” influenced the varied patterns of judicial treatment of homosexual men at the time of the Wilde trials (Cook 60). Ironically, we have a rich archive about Fanny and Stella only because they were overcharged with felony offences that required hearings to be held in open court. As Cocks points out, the trade-off for such a proceeding, which was supposed to enable a defendant to benefit from being tried by “men of his own station,” was that “court documents would have to be reproduced, the expenses of which were often paid by the parties” (120).

Later cases such as the Julius or Marley and Severs trials suggest the possibilities of a genealogical trans history becoming imaginable once we loosen the presumed connection between figures like Fanny and Stella and the larger narratives of gay male historiography. Further evidence comes from working backwards via the team of medical experts that were charged with diagnosing Fanny and Stella. Scenes of medical exposure and invasive physical examination are common in the histories of trans people, of course, but in this instance the original purpose seems to have been to both humiliate the pair and test a prevalent sexological theory about sodomy. The police surgeon James Paul turned out to be a hopelessly unreliable witness whose testimony was repeatedly challenged and ultimately dismissed. He gave contradictory statements about whether he performed the initial examination on his own initiative or at the request of his superiors and whether he already knew about the genitalia he was purporting to discover by stripping them. One explanation suggests that he wanted to test the argument he encountered in the work of French criminologist Auguste Ambroise Tardieu that the practice of sodomy left identifiable marks on the genitals and anus of its proponents.10 This helps us to understand why Paul subjected Fanny and Stella to an examination that was so invasive that (in his words) he could “see right through to the rectum” (KB 3: 79). The trial cast considerable doubt on the wisdom of taking French sources as authoritative and was typically couched in narrowly nationalistic reflexes to denigrate European [End Page 93] works even while acknowledging their superior sexological understanding, but Paul also offered up another inspiration in an earlier work of forensic medicine by one of the expert witnesses, Dr. Alfred Taylor. The reference was to Taylor’s first-hand knowledge of what the transcripts term the “notorious case” of Eliza Edwards in 1833. In the second volume of his Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence (1873), Taylor made reference to the Fanny and Stella trial and to Edwards in a chapter titled “Unnatural Practices,” differentiating between the former case, in which he noted “no direct evidence that unnatural offences had been committed” and the latter, in which “there was strong evidence that [Edwards] had been for many years addicted to unnatural habits.” Otherwise, it is easy to see why the cases were linked in both Taylor’s and Paul’s minds: Edwards “was found after death to be a man, although he had passed himself off in dress and habits during life as a woman,” including what sounds like a form of genital tucking in which “[t]he male organs had been drawn up and secured by a bandage bound round the lower part of the abdomen” (Taylor 473).11

Two points can be made by juxtaposing the Edwards case with the Fanny and Stella case. Most obviously, the apparent certainty with which Taylor (who had himself examined Edwards) could pronounce about her sexual history makes the doubts raised about Fanny and Stella’s all the more convincing. In the latter’s case, especially, doctors testified that the presence of a rectal fistula would have made anal penetration extraordinarily painful. In this light, it is troubling that so many commentators on the case have assumed that the prosecution had been correct and the medical experts unreliable.12 Taylor also used the Edwards case, however, in a separate chapter titled “Hermaphroditism,” in which (besides recording the condition of the genitals and anus) he detailed evidence of physical transition: Edwards’s features, he records, “had a somewhat feminine character; the hair was very long and parted in the centre; the beard had been carefully plucked out, and the remains of this under the chin had been concealed by a peculiar style of dress” (286).

This physical accounting of Edwards’s body, and, more tellingly, its placement within a chapter devoted to “hermaphrodites,” suggests one of the ways that trans people might emerge from nineteenth-century archives—not out of the known history of homosexual men so much as that of people we now call “intersex.” This insight makes sense of one of the strangest pieces of evidence from the medical examinations of Fanny and Stella. In each case, according to the testimony of the surgeon Henry James Johnson, the anus was found to be “more like that of a female than a male” (KB 5: 82). The point had an impact on the judge, who explicitly referenced it in his jury instructions, noting “an unusual contraction of the part, so much so that it appeared rather to the part of a female than a male” (KB 6: 266–67). It seems as if nineteenth-century medicine, lacking a conception of gender identity as distinct from biological sex, preferred to consider people we might now [End Page 94] differentiate as transgender or intersex under a single rubric and, in the process, imagined finding evidence of self-transitioning bodies. Such an idea may have had a longer shelf life than we imagine. In one first-hand account of the “Danish Girl,” Lili Elbe, by the surgeon Jean Boivin, who operated on Elbe’s wife and knew the couple well, even before gender-confirmation surgery, Einar Wegener’s appearance “became more and more effeminate. His waist grew smaller, and instead of his usual walk he developed an undulating glide.” Boivin identifies Einar’s “changed appearance” as “only the outward manifestation of a disturbing metamorphosis which was eventually to lead him to the operating theatre” (57–58). Drawing on such testimony and the autobiographical document credited to Lili, Sander L. Gilman identifies it as a body that “began to change without any medical intervention,” but he also casts doubt on the diagnostic value of such accounts: Einar/Lili, he notes, was “declared to be a true hermaphrodite—having ovaries as well as testicles, but only according to an external, physical examination, which could hardly establish the presence of ovaries” (279).

As I have suggested, one implication of this historical alignment between trans and intersex people might be to disrupt the linkage between a story like that of the Fanny and Stella trial and our understanding of gay history. From the present perspective of an LGBTIQ+ alliance, we can be led to think that trans and intersex people (the “T” and the “I”) have only recently been grafted onto a stable understanding of sexual preference that has sometimes struggled to incorporate a parallel conception of gender identity. On the principle of “last in, first fired,” such a view has at times led to calls to jettison supposedly new arrivals during moments of political pressure, as occurred with the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the 1990s or with the conservative pushback on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance of 2015.13 Such a view misreads the historical record, in which people like Fanny and Stella have persistently risked being misidentified on the basis of a diminished understanding of gender identity. Reopening the archive to new scrutiny might be a helpful first step in rethinking a broad LGBT+ alliance, the terms of which have been under-theorized and often poorly articulated. Politically, then, it is crucial to document precursor moments like theirs to forestall conservative objections that the legal discussion of transgender rights is entirely uncharted territory; in this sense, the simple recognition that public discussions of bathroom use or the correct gender pronouns to use in legal cases have occurred before gives weight to the idea, enshrined in a web series documenting trans people in history, that “We’ve Been Around.”14

For a field like Victorian studies, it is also crucial to recognize that even though the nineteenth century had no single term that could serve as an equivalent to “transgender” today, there were nonetheless historical people who affirmed themselves and what we would term their gender identity in a context not only of public and legal hostility but also of surprising [End Page 95] sympathies. As Lisa Hager suggests in her contribution to this special issue, one benefit that might accrue to Victorianists if they took on board the insights of trans studies is that it could help unsettle the ways that we have come to impose a form of the “separate spheres” idea onto the period, while insisting that we do so in the service of a critique of its dominant modes of thought; assuming demarcated codes of masculinity and femininity were present unless we focus on exceptional individuals (Wilde, for instance, or the New Woman) leaves little space to consider the sort of negotiations across the gender boundary that we find in the lives of Fanny and Stella and that might have occurred more commonly than we think.

Simon Joyce

simon joyce is a professor of English at the College of William and Mary, where he teaches nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, film and media, and LGBTQ+ studies. He is the author of Capital Offenses: Geographies of Class and Crime in Victorian London (Virginia, 2003), Victorians in the Rearview Mirror (Ohio University Press, 2007), and Modernism and Naturalism in British and Irish Fiction, 1880–1903 (Cambridge, 2015). He is currently working on a new book project entitled “LGBT Victorians.”


I would like to thank Cassius Adair, Ardel Haefele-Thomas, Lisa Hager, and Jennifer Putzi for their thoughtful readings of this essay and extremely helpful suggestions for revision.

1. The exception is theatre historian Laurence Senelick, who situates them in relation to a long history of onstage drag performers (302–06).

2. Rictor Norton situates the mollie (or molly) house as a critical aspect in the development of a gay male subculture in Britain during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. H.G. Cocks’s leading question about Fanny and Stella, concerning how they “managed to escape the full force of Victorian justice” (106), is a telling instance of the presumption of guilt that runs through the historical accounts I am citing.

3. For further discussion of anachronism and the challenges inherent in the problem of transgender history, see Susan Stryker, chapters 1 and 2, and Leslie Feinberg.

4. According to the OED, “cross-dresser” dates from around the period of World War I.

5. Legal transcripts of the Fanny and Stella trial are housed at the Public Records Office in London. In the notes that follow, KB (Kings Bench) refers to the 1870 depositions taken at Bow Street Police Station, whereas DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) refers to the transcripts of the trial itself. References are made first by day and then by page numbers in the handwritten record. The attendant’s evidence, given on the second day of the trial, can be found in DPP 2: 84–92. (The one exception is the fourth day of the DPP evidence, which takes up two volumes and is here cited as 4: 2/1 and 4: 2/2.)

6. The letters that were given in evidence are archived as an appendix to the Kings Bench depositions and referenced here as “KB Letters.”

7. See Lisa Hager’s essay in this volume for more on the trope of the “female husband.”

8. For current best practices for thinking about transgender children, see Stephanie Brill and Rachel Pepper.

9. Five of the eighteen were given fines even smaller than those handed out to Marley and Severs and told “to be of good behaviour for a month.” In this sense, we can chart a progressive diminution of sentences, in comparison to the two years of “good behaviour” expected of Fanny and Stella.

10. For more on this idea, see Vernon A. Rosario.

11. Newspaper coverage of the Edwards autopsy recorded that her “body had been four hours in the hands of the anatomists before the sex of the deceased was discovered.” A woman who had presented herself as Eliza’s sister testified in clear anticipation of the Fanny and Stella case “that she had lived with the deceased constantly for the last ten years, and always thought him to be a female; she never knew to the contrary; the deceased was a performer, and travelled about the country playing female characters; they had been in London three years, and the deceased during that time was supported by different gentlemen” (qtd. in Norton, “Extraordinary Story”).

12. Taking these defence witnesses seriously, for instance, would call into question McKenna’s imaginative construction of Stella’s life as a prostitute, which includes acts of anal penetration.

13. One ominous sign that such thinking might be returning is Mark Joseph Stern’s penultimate entry in his list of “Six Things We Must Do to Survive Trump’s America” entitled “Change the Legal Strategy.” “I would not be so presumptuous as to advise trans advocates that they should stop defending their rights in court,” Stern writes. “But I fear that the current strategy may lead to disaster” (45).

14. Billed as a “series of short films celebrating the lives of just a few transgender pioneers throughout history,” We’ve Been Around was created by Rhys Ernst and produced by Christine Beebe; episodes are available at

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