- 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...