As The Daily Mail launches a new era of ‘suffragettes’ campaigning to repress trans rights, what can we in the history community do?
Yesterday the front page of the UK’s Daily Mail announced ‘the most significant female movement since the suffragettes’; The unification of groups, Women Uniting, Sex Matters and Women’s Rights Network, to create political campaign – ‘respect my sex, if you want my x’.The self-described ethos behind the campaign is this: ‘Just over 100 years ago, women got the vote. Our hard-fought rights are now being turned against us. Every rule and policy that says something is for women, is being changed, so that it’s now for people who ‘self-identify’ as women, whatever their sex.’ Campaigners are urged to call on their local MPs to join their fight in disallowing trans women from accessing the same rights and services offered to those gendered biologically female at birth – for those MPs that don’t, campaigners have pledged to boycott them in local elections. All of this is wrapped up in suffrage paraphernalia, from the colours used to the messaging – this is history in action. The legacies of Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst. Of course, this use of suffrage is nothing new. Today suffrage has gone beyond the history books and become an easily accessible marketing ploy. Want to peddle female empowerment without any danger or copyright issues – stick a suffragette in it. Who can forgot Meryl Streep sporting the tone deaf ‘I’d rather be a rebel than slave’ tee to promote 2015 film, Suffragette or the plethora of ‘girl boss’ infused suffrage merch that littered stores to mark the centenary of some women getting the vote in 2018. This kind of tactic isn’t even new for anti-trans feminism, who frequently flourish their tweets and instas with three distinctly coloured little hearts
This is the unknowing legacy of the WSPU, beyond their militancy it’s their savvy use of self-image that’s stood the test of time to the extent that there’s almost a whole sub section of suffrage academia dedicated to their masterful marketing of a movement. From colour usage to easily accessible self-branding and even a political board game – Don Draper could never. And it’s these same slogans, posters and buttons that keep being picked up across the generations to serve different feminist campaigns or clothing brands looking to make a quick buck. Suffrage sells universally. There’s a reason that in 2018 so many brands jumped aboard the ‘celebrate the centenary’ express. It wasn’t because everyone just really wanted to celebrate the vote. Suffrage offers an incredible market share – female empowerment for any age. Which is probably why, not many historians batted an eye when we saw the ‘Respect my sex’ Daily Mail backed campaign launch. This isn’t new. Admittedly the use of suffrage as a Trojan horse for anti-trans hate is abhorrent if for no other moral reason than for the simple fact that the suffrage campaign had its roots in the 1864 campaign against the Contagious Diseases Act, which fought for bodily autonomy and against forcible genital examination – irony, thy name is TERF. Yet, this latest step by campaigners goes beyond annoyance and historic factual fallacies. Using the front page of a national newspaper to announce an anti-trans campaign as modern-day suffrage is a big deal. Even if that newspaper is ironically the same one that popularised the term suffragette, as its own anti-suffrage campaign.
Politically these ‘modern day suffragettes’ are powerful. The same day as their campaign launched, Boris Johnson announced a U-turn in the banning of conversion therapy; banning it for gay people, but not for trans people. This move comes off the back of systematic pressure put onto MPs by campaigners, a pressure which looks set to only intensify in the coming weeks as we approach May’s local elections. In fact, the lighter side of this pressure was splashed across the Daily Mail to support the campaign launch – ‘look how many MPs look silly when they try to say if it’s possible for a woman to have a penis’; it’s conceivably childish, until you see the clear threat. More important than MPs giving in to fear is the government’s sudden change of heart in banning conversion therapy. In a US paper used by the government in their own public findings on UK conversion therapy, it’s cited that those that undergo conversion therapy are 88% more likely to attempt suicide, with multiple other research papers showing that these figures are frequently higher for trans youths. This goes beyond hiding behind a suffrage facade – lives will be lost. That is not a likelihood, but a fact.
In addition to standing alongside charities like Stonewall, there is something else that we as a history community can do. History stands as a bastion of information, that can help dispel the falsehoods of these campaigners. We can’t stop them using the Pankhurst’s as puppets, but we can share our knowledge. There are hundreds of years – thousands really – of trans history. It’s our job to tell those stories. No matter what area of history you work in, you’ve almost certainly come across a historic person who was likely trans. Their lives are vital in dispelling the myths being spread; that this is new, that it’s men stealing rights or angling to commit assaults. The historic evidence stands against that – this is not scary or dangerous – this is human. Trans lives are part of all of our shared history, its people being people; who they were born to be. It’s up to us to share that knowledge, not as a one off, but as part of our overall history work and research. Inclusion is everything. No matter how big or small you think your voice is, whether its in a book or a lecture hall, a letter to your MP or a tweet and WhatsApp message to your mate; as long as we’re talking. Because silence is no longer an option.
Because in the clusterfuck we find ourselves in today, there is one shining hope for the history lessons of tomorrow.
Dear future history teachers, I can only apologise. After all, we’re living in the kind of hellscape that will be impossible to break down into hour long chunks that teenagers can understand (I’m living in this mess and I can barely keep up!)
The UK is dancing an unending hokey kokey with Europe, America’s President is possibly Voldemort with a spray tan, the poorest of us have never been worse off and even the Royal Family are unable to keep their shit together. Oh, and that’s not even starting on the countless elections, riots and this tiny little thing called global warming. Future history teachers, I can only wish you good luck and god speed; those lesson plans will need a miracle.
BUT there is one great thing that has come out of this whole mess.One thing that will make the history classes of fifty years from now not only bearable, but the best damn lesson ever.
I am of course, talking about Ru Pauls Drag Race.
Ok, this might seem a little unorthodox, but don’t forget this:
There is no way that in 50 years LGBT+ history won’t be taught with the same respect that civil rights are taught in todays schools.
LGBT+ history will become part of the curriculum. That’s just fact. It’s already starting to happen. In America several states require it to be taught and countless schools across the world eagerly embrace LGBT History Month. This is just the beginning. Pretty soon LGBT history won’t just be something you squeeze into lessons where possible, it will be a key part of what kids learn.
That’s because queer culture isn’t just a societal side piece. It’s part of who we are as a whole. It’s taken us centuries, but we’re starting to wake up to that fact. Just as with civil rights, LGBT rights aren’t ‘a nice to have’ or something only those in that community need to worry about, they effect everyone.
Which brings me back to Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s irrefutable that Drag Race has helped bring queer culture to the mainstream (no matter what you think on it’s representation of drag). It’s introduced millions of people to not only drag, but also major LGBT issues, with episodes frequently including debate and discussion of rights. Viewers have turned into allies, advocates and campaigners. Don’t get me wrong, Drag Race is not perfect by any means, but it’s contribution is HUGE.
Oh and to the argument that Drag Race isn’t high art enough to be remembered, take a seat. MASS ENTERTAINMENT IS HISTORY. Just ask William Shakespeare.
Audiences to Shakespeare’s plays were anyone and everyone. The insanely rich bought pricey seats and dressed to see and be seen. Then there with those that paid a penny and flitted between watching the show to hawking merch to make some extra cash.
Oh and that’s not even getting into the language! Just like those sonnets of yore, slang rooted from within queer culture is part of everyday language. Who knows, maybe one day teens will be forced to both read aloud from Macbeth and Drag Race.
Then there’s the action off screen. The queens that are making history right now.
Drag Race will be a leaping off point, a place to start before delving into centuries of struggle and prejudice.
The introduction to the brave heroes who fought back and were all too often forgotten. A rhinestoned beacon of hope, so needed when your traversing for the seemingly endless mires of bleakness, that yes, it does get better.
It may sound like just another dull law from history, but The Buggery Act wrought international persecution of the LGBTQ+ community for centuries!
OK I know what you’re thinking. Why is the 1533 Buggery Act such a big deal! After all, it’s a piece of Tudor law:
A) that sounds dry AF
B) has nothing to do with me!
Well, if you care about LGBTQ+ rights (or let’s be blunt, basic human rights) than this is a piece of Tudor law that you have to know about!
The 1533 Buggery Act wove a tangled web that stretches throughout history. Beyond those who were caught up in its immediate wake, It’s threads lead us to Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment, Alan Turing’s conviction and the abysmal pit where fundamental rights should be, that the LGBTQ+ community and their allies are still fighting against.
So if that still sounds dry AF, then strap in Donald, because you’re about to get your mind blown.
But lets take it back to pre-Henry for a second. Prior to 1533 there were no set laws to persecute homosexuality in England. That’s not to say it wasn’t. In the 13th century two legal codes called for men caught having same sex relationships to be buried alive or burnt, which is horrific!
However, these were suggestions, not actual laws and there is no evidence that these punishments were ever carried out. For the most part, the then frowned upon act was dealt with in the ecclesiastic courts (so basically it was left with god and his earthly servants to deal with either after death or in the realm of the church)
As such, the sudden decision to make homosexuality criminal was a big deal. In fact it was such a big deal that this sharp turn to criminalisation actually had to be addressed in the original statues outlining the 1533 act. Which says that the law was in part created to make homosexuality clearly punishable, saying:
“For as moche as there is not yet sufficient & condigne punishment appointed & limitted by the due course of the lawes of this realme for the detestable & abominable vice of buggeri committed with mankind or beest.”
It goes on to explain the possible punishments for those caught committing ‘buggery’:
“And that the offenders being herof convict by verdicte, confession, or outlaurie, shall suffer suche peynes of dethe, and losses, and penalties of their goodes, cattals, dettes, londes, tenements, and heredytamentes, as felons benne accustomed to do accordynge to the order of the common lawes of this realme. And that no person offendynge in any suche offence, shalbe admitted to his clergye”
Obviously the clear biggy here is ‘pain of death’, but right at the bottom of this portion of transcript there’s the sentence:
‘And that no person offending in such offence shall be admitted to his clergy’ – that right there is the crux of this whole piece of legislation.
Because why create The Buggery Act and criminalise same sex relationships at this particular moment in time?
To persecute the Catholic Church of course!
If you’re thinking , ‘that makes little to no sense’, gold star! It doesn’t… well at least until you break down what was going down in 1533.
You see, until the 1530’s England had been part of the Catholic Church. But, Henry VIII was desperate to break away from the church as it wouldn’t grant him a divorce so he could marry his side chick, Anne Boleyn. So Henry decided to create a new church for England, one that he’d be the head of (and wouldn’t you know it, the head of this new church just happened to be A-ok with divorce).
Sadly creating your own church doesn’t magically erase your countries already existing, centuries old religion overnight. So Henry worked with his right hand man, Thomas Cromwell, to loosen the tight hold Catholicism had on England and for a double win, also siphon it’s money to Henry.
The 1533 Buggery Act was just part of this plan. It was solely designed to take away a little bit of the power away from The Catholic Church, not to actually persecute homosexuality.
And yet this law was about to take its first victim.
By 1540 the Buggery Act had done its job. The Catholic Churches hold on England had been loosened, Henry had married Anne Boleyn (and then had her executed), married again (this time she’d died in childbirth) and was onto marriage number four. Thomas Cromwell had played Cupid for these nuptials, hooking Henry up with his new wife, Anne of Cleves. Sadly Henry wasn’t a fan of his new bride and this was such a big no no that it led to Thomas Cromwell’s death.
But as is probably clear by now, Henry was a petty bitch, and so he made sure that when Thomas went down, he wasn’t going alone.
On the 29 June 1540 Thomas Cromwell was beheaded for treason and his mate, Walter Hungerford, became the first person to be executed under The Buggery Act (among other allegations).
A bloody punishment, with the Buggery Act added as an extra dollop of humiliation for Hungerford and as an additional middle finger to Cromwell who’d helped create the act.*
Ok, that was A LOT to take in. So let’s pause and take a quick moment to look at where we are:
We have a law that was created to criminalise homosexuality BUT was actually used to screw over the Catholic Church
We have a first victim of the law…BUT he was most likely executed not because of the law itself but as an F U to his mate who created the law.
So, we can all agree that thus far, The Buggery Act is a very bloody farce. But that does that mean it’s done?
OF COURSE NOT!
Though the law was repealed by Henry VIII’s daughter, Queen Mary I in 1553 (who wanted power over this to go back to the Catholic Church and it’s ecclesiastic courts), once she died, her successor and sister, Queen Elizabeth I made the Buggery Act law once more.
And from there it started to truly transform into a law for persecution.
For much of the 15th and 16th centuries arrests and executions under the Buggery Act were few and far between. However, that didn’t happen stop this horrifying law from spreading.
One of the huge issues of The Buggery Act being a law, was that Britons leaving the country took it with them. Take for example those plucky puritans who set sail for the brave new world of America – alongside terrible hats and a smattering of racism, they made sure to also pack legal persecution!
And so the legal execution of people for homosexuality began in a new country. In 1624, Virginia hung Richard Cornish, a ships captain, for ‘forcible sodomy’ of his ships 29 year old cabin boy.
Two years later, Massachusetts hung William Plain on allegations of sodomy that took place in England (so before he even moved to America!).
That same year, the countries New Netherlands colony successfully managed to achieve the discrimination trifecta when they used the Buggery Act to strangle and ‘burn to ashes’, Jan Creoli, a poor black gay man.
If you thought things were bad, they are about to get even worse.
Back in Britain, a more vocal queer community was starting to appear, thanks to the underground popularity of Molly Houses (places where queer men could be free to openly show their sexuality, kind of the great great great grandfather of the small town gay bar). But this emerging light in the dark attracted the worst kind of people and they dedicated themselves to eradicating what they saw as the gay scourge.
One such group was the catchily named, The Society For The Reformation of Manners. Determined to rid London of its LGBT subculture, they worked undercover to infiltrate Molly Houses, gather evidence against its users and then together with the police, raid them.
One such raid was that of Mother Claps house in 1726. Dozens of men were rounded up and arrested, with several fined and pilloried. But that’s not the worst of it.
The Society For The Reformation of Manners successfully helped to leverage the Buggery Act to hang three of the arrested men for the crime of having sex, or as one witness spat out during the trial:
‘Making love to one another as they call’d it’
During the 1800’s the executions continued. Trials for men accused under The Buggery Act sprung up across England. Some of those found guilty had the relative luck (though the chance of survival still wasn’t great) at instead being transported to Australia, but others weren’t so lucky.
The last men executed under The Buggery Act were James Pratt and John Smith, in 1835.
A husband and father, James Pratt, met with John Smith in August 1935, at an ale house in London for a drink. The pair then got chatting with an older man, William Bonill and went back to his rooms.
William Bonill soon left to get another drink at the pub, leaving James and John alone. It was after this that Bonill’s landlord reported finding the pair having sex.
Neither James Pratt or John Smith stood a chance in court. If you are in any doubt on that front, just read the opening transcript from John Smith’s prosecutor.
‘feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, had a venereal affair with one James Pratt, and did then and there, feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and agains the order of nature, carnally know the said James Pratt, and with him the said James Pratt did then and there feloniously, wickedly, diabolically, and against the order of nature, commit and perpetrate the detestale, horrid, and abominable crime (among Christians not to be named) called buggery, to the great displeasure of Almighty God, to the great scandal of all human kind’
Charles Dickens actually attended Newgate jail, when the men were awaiting sentencing and recalled:
‘Their doom was sealed; no plea could be urged in extenuation of their crime, and they well knew that for them there was no hope in this world.’
He was, of course, right. Of seventeen others sentenced to death at the same time as John and James (for crimes including attempted murder) all had their sentences commuted to transportation to Australia. All expect John Smith and James Pratt.
A huge crowd gathered outside Newgate Jail to watch their deaths.
‘Oh God, this is horrible. This is indeed horrible.’
Though we don’t have clean cut evidence that the two were in a relationship, it’s hard to read this as anything other than love and the devastation of James knowing what his partner was about to go through.
Which I think summarises the pointlessness and brutality the Buggery Act had on all those who feel under its wake. Of it’s last two victims; two men who just wanted a private moment to be together and died because of that.
The Buggery Act remained in place in one form or another until 1861 when the Offences Against The Person Act replaced it.
The new law abolished the death sentence for ‘buggery’, instead punishing those convicted with a prison sentence of up to life. In 1967 the laws around homosexuality as an illegal act were dropped.
All of this, because in 1533 a pissed of King set up a law that he hoped would bring down a religion – the persecution of thousands if not millions, was just secondary.
If you want to read up more on this and other areas of LGBT+ history (and please do!) some great sources are below:
Rictor Norton, for a treasure trove of articles and essays on the history of LGBTQ+ history in England dating back to the medieval era.
Want to bone up on your LGBTQ+ history? It’s time to take it back to the 1700’s and discover one of histories most important safe havens
Now if you’re anything like me and you hear the term, molly house, you immediately think of The Burrow (or is that just me…) but as great as the Weasley matriarch is, molly houses are so much more important than any kind of wizarding world fantasy. They were a real word queer safe house, in a time when to be gay was one of the worst things you could possibly be.
Molly houses saw early sparks of a burgeoning queer culture, drag and even marriage. But those that went there were also hunted down, subject to horrifying persecution.
So if you want to bone up on your LGBTQ+ history, it’s time to take it way back. Past Stonewall, past the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, all the way to the 1700’s.
Welcome to the Molly House!
In the 1700’s it was illegal to be gay. In-fact it wasn’t just illegal, homosexuality was punishable by death (thanks to 1533 law passed by that world renowned nice guy, Henry VIII)
But molly houses provided a much needed beacon of light in the dark. Spread across London, in houses, taverns and inns, they were places that queer culture was celebrated. Where men would gather and live and love without judgement.
Though they were named after the demeaning slang for homosexuality -being a ‘molly’- molly houses were primarily a place for queer men to meet and enjoy their sexuality openly. In fact they are actually one of the first historic sources we have that allows us to delve into queer subculture.
Now quick caveat – I am not saying that before the molly house there was no queer subculture. There was. But it lay far far under the surface. Essentially, something you only knew about if you were in it. But molly houses allowed queer subculture to start to bubble to the surface. No longer completely underground and secret, the molly houses we’re an early step in queer culture permeating the modern western public consciousness.
That’s not to say that was a good thing for the men of the molly house. Because, they were not welcomed.
After all, these men were living in a straight patriarchal society that didn’t just see them as inherently ‘wrong’, but would have no problem seeing them strung up! Just to get an idea of how the men of the molly house were were viewed, look no further than writer Ned Ward, who in 1709 described them as:
‘A particular gang of Sodomitical Wretches’
Yeah. It wasn’t a great time to be gay. But, the Molly House men confronted this stigma head on, with both a knowing wink and a proud middle finger.
On entering a molly house you’d often find everything from stagings of faux weddings to elaborately over the top birthing scenes.
As time went on, these small recreations of lives they were not allowed to lead became so much more. No longer acted out scenes, they took on the identity of a burgeoning community, with some houses setting aside rooms as designated chapels for marriages and couples ‘consummating’ their nuptials in cramped bedrooms.
Sometimes history books refer to the Molly House weddings as ‘mock marriages’ or ‘rituals’ but I don’t think they were. I think those weddings, though entirely non legally binding, were what they’d be called for any other group, ceremonies.
There were also early elements of drag in molly houses. In her book, European Sexualities 1400-1800, Katherine Crawford says that some men took on fantastically over the top female personas. And you best believe these guys give their female counter parts some cracking names!
Kitty Cambric was a coal merchant
The Duchess of Devonshire (named after the scandalous Georgina Cavendish) was a blacksmith
And the one named wonder, Harriet, (truly the Madonna of the molly houses) was a butcher
Around the same time of the Molly Houses boom, an all together different type of community was coming together. And this one was hell bent on ridding London of what they saw as it’s homosexual scourge.
Everyone stand up and get ready to boo, because the villains of this piece are well and truly here.
Set up in the 1690’s The Society For The Reformation Of Manners dedicated itself to purging London of ill moral and corruption. This male dominated group had members from all walks of life; bankers, gentlemen, shop keepers and labourers, all working together to eradicate sex work, ‘lewdness’ and homosexuality.
They raided brothels, published ‘blacklists’ of those they decided were ‘offenders’ and whispered damning information into judges ears; with these little nuggets of info often gained through underhanded methods.
Throughout the 1720’s and 1730’s there were multiple raids on Molly Houses, undertaken by The Society For The Reformation of Manners. With those men caught, arrested and put on trial. They then faced the minimum punishment of a large fine, or the maximum, death.
It was an incredibly broad spectrum of possible punishments. And as such these trials were often a terrifying experience. Even when a lesser punishment was ordered, death was still possible. One man who was sentenced to several hours in the pillory for sodomy, was beaten so badly he died shortly after being released.
But the Society For The Reformation of Manners was undeterred, and in 1725 they undertook their most notorious work:
The raid of Mother Claps House
Run by Margaret Clap (AKA the titular Mother Clap) Mother Claps house in Holborn (an area in central London) had dozens of regular patrons. With forty or fifty men able to fit in its closely clustered rooms. There were bedrooms, a chapel, dancing and drinks – basically all the makings for a good time.
But Mother Clap’s was under close surveillance. Informants were in its ranks, whispering its secrets to the society for the reformation of manners.
This led to one Constable Samuel Stevens infiltrating Mother Claps. He pretended to be the partner of an informant and spent several Sunday nights (when the house was busiest) lurking in its corridors and corners. Noting down names, faces and matching them to illegal activity.
By February 1726, Stevens had everything he needed. He dutifully reported all he had seen back to The Society for the reformation of manners, and Mother Claps house was raided.
By the raids end, forty men had been arrested
Mother Clap and two of those arrested were scentenced to time in the pillories, with one given a year in prison and several more forced into hiding. These were cruel punishments, but not as cruel as what happened to three of the men arrested, Gabriel Lawrence, Thomas Wright and William Griffin, who were put on trial for their ‘crimes’.
During these trials, Samuel Stevens recounted the illegal activity he had seen at the house, saying:
‘I found near Men Fifty there, making Love to one another as they call’d it. Sometimes they’d sit in one anothers Laps, use their Hands indecently Dance and make Curtsies and mimick the Language of Women – O Sir! – Pray Sir! – Dear Sir! Lord how can ye serve me so! – Ah ye little dear Toad! Then they’d go by Couples, into a Room on the same Floor to be marry’d as they call’d it.’
43 year old milkman, Gabriel Lawrence was charged with having had sex with two of Samuel Stevens informants. he was found guilty on one count and sentenced to death. A 32 year old molly house owner, Thomas Wright was also found guilty of sodomy, after Stevens informants claimed to have had sex with him. As was, William Griffin, a 43 year old furniture upholsterer. Both men were sentenced to death.
In May the three men were hung at London’s Tyburn. A huge crowd flocked to see the molly’s hang, with the added bonus that they were to be executed alongside a famous murderess, Catherine Hayes (who was burnt at the stake for the murder of her husband). This truly was the 1700’s version of a new box set landing on Netflix.
In fact so many people came to witness the executions that one of the stands for the viewing public collapsed, killing several spectators.
The trials of Mother Clap, Griffin, Lawrence and Wright, resulted in mass public outcry over molly houses. Which forced the molly houses to go underground.
They didn’t stop or die out, but became incredibly hard to find if you weren’t already in the know. This not only meant that many men who were just starting to explore their sexuality, lost any chance at a community, but it also had a real impact on history remembering molly houses. With them being a footnote at most until very recently.
So lets take this opportunity to raise a glass, in celebration and remembrance of the molly house and all those who went through their doors.
If you’re interested to know more on molly houses and LGBTQ+ culture in London’s history in general, I’d suggest checking out Rictor Nortons writing and research (link here) it’s fascinating stuff!
In 1865 Dr James Barry was stripped of his identity. A violation that’s still being exploited today. So who was Dr Barry and what does his story tell us about LGBTQ history?
Doctor James Barry was a well respected and hugely influential Army doctor. His work improved medical conditions for soldiers receiving medical care during warfare and his practices around cleanliness and sanitation made their way into hospitals back home too.
But that’s not why we’re talking about Dr Barry today.
Despite all his achievements, Dr Barry is mainly remembered because of rampant speculation about his gender.
After his death – despite his will and direct wishes – it was ‘exposed’ that James Barry had been assigned female at birth.
As a result of this, the good doctor has been claimed by some as a figure in women’s history. Several books about Barry include the word ‘woman’ in the title, with a new with a novel due out soon that presents Barry as a woman.
Still others argue that his identity is too complex to define… but is this the truth of it?
But before we delve into the modern politics, let’s discover who this incredible man actually was.
Born in Cork, Ireland around 1795, James was an intelligent child who grew up with the aspiration to become a doctor and work for the army. In 1808 he put that plan in motion and set off to Edinburgh University to start his medical degree, receiving his medical doctorate in 1812, after which he moved to London and trained at the prestigious Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospitals. Shortly after this he passed his qualification under the Royal College of Surgeons.
As soon as he had this under his belt James up and joined the army, kicking off an illustrious and well respected career. Barry spent ten years in Cape Town, South Africa where he improved sanitation and water systems, which reduced deaths from infections.
He also set up a leper sanctuary while he was there and improved conditions for slaves, prisoners, the lower ranked soldiers and the mentally ill. This commitment to those in lower and more vulnerable classes was unheard of at the time and it meant he ruffled a few feathers. The fact he was also a bit of a belligerent ass also meant he was disliked by many of his peers.
He then had postings in Mauritius, Jamaica, the West Indies, Malta, Corfu and even found time to help with the Crimean War effort on his own time. Dr Barry was then posted to Canada, in all his posts he continued to fight for improved sanitation practices. His blunt and stern demenour got him repremanded by superiors many times, but the quality and skill of his work made him almost untouchable!
He had a famous run in with Florence Nightingale while they were both stationed as medical staff during the Crimean War. Nightingale described James as ‘the most hardened creature I ever met.’
In 1859 James was forcibly retired from the army due to his failing health and age. He passed away a few years later in London on July 25th 1865.
Dr Barry requested in his will that no autopsy be performed, his body not inspected in any way and it was to buried as he was found. Unfortunately he did not get his wish and the maid who prepared his body for burial exposed Barry’s previous identity.
She took this information to James’ physician, Dr R. McKinnon, who had signed him as male on the death certificate. Dr McKinnon refused to pay the maid when she tried to blackmail him and she retaliated by taking this story to the press.
Since this then there has been the rhetoric that Dr James Barry was just a woman disguising himself as a man to get by.
His story became sensationalised.
This kind of erasure of LGBTQ history and identity is something that’s prevalent among historians, history fans and in historical media today.
King James I was just good mates with George Villiers, despite love letters calling George his ‘wife’ and a passageway between their rooms being discovered. People still argue Anne Lister wasn’t a lesbian, despite the fact she wrote in her diaries that she loved ‘only the fairer sex’.
Transgender identities in history receive the most debate and outright aggressive erasure of the LGBTQ community.
The excuse used for this type of erasure is that none of these identities existed ‘in those days’. But here’s the thing- Not having the language to express an identity in a way that makes it palatable today doesn’t mean Trans people didn’t exist.
Are there are examples in history of women disguising themselves as men to get ahead in another profession? Yes. But these women still identified themselves as women (see Margaret King).
James was not a woman.
In all Dr Barry’s written discourse he referred to himself as male, he did not want his body examined after death. Dr James Barry was a Transgender man.
There’s arguments for and against this statement, including the fact that Dr Barry was offered the chance to practice medicine in Venezuela, where women could practice as Doctors, but he turned it down.
Or the fact he maintained his identity as a man even when accusations of sodomy (illegal at the time) were counted against him.
The argument that Barry must have identified as a woman includes the fact that pictures of dresses were found in one of his trunks.
But all these arguments pale when we look at this one simple fact – Dr James Barry lived and died as a man. His correspondence was as a man and he wanted his identity protected after his death. Anything else is just projection.
Dr Barry is sensationalised in a heinous way that exploits and reduces trans identities down to sexual organs and ‘shock’ reveals.
Again I reiterate that he asked for his wishes to be respected after death, and he was violated in an unforgivable way.
And this violation continues today.
Dr James Barry had his identity stripped from him and we need to give it back. After years of arguments and misgendering we at least owe him that.
That was interesting, how can I find out more? Well I highly recommend the following articles by Jack Doyle and E E Ottoman for further reading.
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.
Mae West was arrested for -what else – sex. BUT not the sex you’re thinking about… Sex the play
You see, long before Mae West was lighting up Hollywood, with her trademark heavy innuendo, she was in New York, trapped in a brutal battle with the law, fighting to promote equality, freedom of speech and,of course, sex.
So let’s jump into the arrest, incarceration and surprising rebirth of, Mae West:
By the 1920s Mae West was a theatrical veteran. Now in her thirties, she’d trod boards across New York, learning her craft from burlesque acts, musicians, dramatic actors and everyone in between.
Yet, though her name was known, Mae had never actuallyhad a big break. As she delved further into the years after the big 3-0, younger models started taking what, until then, had always been Mae’s roles. It was starting to look like her dream of a big break was never going to happen.
BUT Mae West wasn’t the kind of woman that would go down without a fight. So she decided to make her own big break.
Mae started writing plays, and after knocking out a couple of practice pieces under the pseudonym, Jane Mast, she wrote what she knew would be her ticket to the big time. This being Mae West, the play was -of course- titled:
Sex follows the ups and downs of sex worker, Margy LaMont. When writing her, Mae West was adamant that Margy would be totally different to other sex workers that had previously been portrayed on stage.
Margy is funny, likeable and smart as hell; more importantly, at no point in the play does she need saving, nor does she repent; instead she pushes back against the idea that her work as a sex worker somehow makes her lesser.
Naturally, there was only one actress Mae West had in mind for this plum part: Mae West.
And so, in April 1926 (thanks to a donation by her Mum) Sex opened in New York.
Posters for the shows included strap lines like :
‘SEX WITH MAE WEST’
Because, you know, subtlety.
Sadly for Mae, Sex was not met with favourable reviews.
Not only was the shows subject seen as obscenity of the highest order, the shows star made things worse by adding race into the mix.
Mae West had insisted that Sex include what was then known as ‘black music’. This combined with the shows scandalous stance on gender and sexuality, was just too much. And sex soon proved the perfect breeding ground for a powder keg of riotous fury.
BUTnothing seemed able to stop Sex. Despite the constant bad press, audiences kept coming. In a year where New York’s other big plays included work by the likes of Noel Coward,it was Mae Wests little Sex engine that could, that outlasted them all.
Sex wasn’t the only show Mae was running. Inspired by her friends, many of whom were LGBT+ and often forced to keep their sexuality and relationships hidden, Mae wrote her next play, Drag.
Drag’s hero, Rolly Kingsbury, is a closeted man who is stuck in a loveless marriage, and has to put up with arguably the worst family in the world; his Dad is a homophobic judge and his Father in Law is a conversion therapy pioneer (I told you they were the worst family ever)
Drag looks at Rolly’s use of his wife as a ‘beard’, his secret relationships with men and his family’s horror that Rolly could ever be one of ‘them.’
Oh, and the whole thing ends in a HUGE drag ball before *spoiler* Rolly is killed, which his Dad (a judge remember) covers up as a suicide, for fear of having Rolly’s sexuality discovered and the family’s honour tainted by homosexuality.
Yeah. I think we can all agree that this play was just a tad controversial for the 1920s (*cough* understatement of the year *cough*)
But the plot wasn’t enough for Mae. You see with Drag , Mae wanted to do something never done before. She wanted to cast LGBT+ actors.
This was theatrical treason.
You see, allowing anyone on the LGBT+ spectrum to perform on stage was actually banned by the actors union at this time.
But you know by now that a little thing like that wasn’t going to stop Mae.
So she set up open auditions in a gay bar in Greenwich Village, ensuring she got the cast she wanted; casually going against every rule in the book to do so.
Drag opened out of town in January 1927, to packed out houses ….until it was shut down after 2 weeks
After Drag, The Society for the Prevention of Vice and other groups against obscenity, were out for Mae’s blood.
First a play on sex workers and freedom of sexuality AND THEN a play that promoted open homosexuality?!?!? It simply wouldn’t stand, Mae West and her corrupting plays HAD TO GO!
The axe fell in February 1927, just 1 month after Drag debuted. The police stormed Sex, carrying out a mass arrest of Mae and her company before completely shutting the play down.
BUT those that thought arresting Mae West on obscenity charges and the threat of prison time would put an end to her, were about to be proved veeeery wrong.
Mae decided that rather than her demise, her arrest was going to be her making.
So she rocked up to court in the most amazing outfits, gave every interview going, wrote articles, signed autographs and made sure everything she said and did in court got headlines.
At one point the judge point blank asked Mae: ‘Miss West, are you trying to show contempt for this court?’ To which she innocently responded: ‘On the contrary, your Honor, I was doin’ my best to conceal it.’
After successfully turning her arrest and subsequent trial into one long press call, Mae was sentenced to 10 days in prison. So naturally Mae transformed what had been a press call into a press tour.
She arrived at New York’s Welfare Island (now Roosevelt island) in a limo, wearing a spectacular outfit.
Once inside and behind bars, Mae made herself comfy. She befriended the other inmates, as well as the staff, even dining with the Warden and his wife.
Of course she leaked all of this to the press, including the little tidbit that she ensured that under her prison uniform was the finest silk underwear.
Mae also took the opportunity to highlight how shitty the treatment of New York’s women prisoners were. Keen to make it clear that though she was dining with the warden, everyone else was treated like dirt. She then put money where her mouth was, donating to actually help make things better inside.
Throughout, Mae continued to hustle. Transforming what should have been her downfall into her long sought after big break; seriously I cannot understate how much she was smashing this! Bitch was taking busted up lemons and turning them into champagne!
By the time Mae West walked out of those prison gates she was an American Icon.
Pretty much as soon as her days in the jail house were over, Mae was back at work, creating a new play.
The Pleasure Man was essentially a re-do of Drag. However in an effort to prevent another shut down, Mae turned the shows lead into a straight guy… though she made sure that the shows epic drag ball remained.
The play had its Broadway debut on 1 October 1928. As soon as the curtain fell, the entire cast was arrested.
Despite the arrest of the entire cast, a matinee performance was allowed the next day.
Once more the police flooded the theatre; one of the drag queens performing managing to squeeze in a speech on police oppression, before the arrests started up again.
As the cast were dragged away, the police were met with a wave of boos from a crowd that had formed outside the theatre.
At The Pleasure Man trial, Mae and her cast were accused of:
‘unlawfully, wickedly and scandalously, for lucre and gain, produce, present and exhibit and display the said exhibition, show and entertainment to the sight and view of divers and many people, all to the great offence of public decency’
Mae West defended her work to the end; eventually seeing the charges dropped. However the fight had cost Mae $60,000 (that’s just under $1million today!)
By 1930, the trials were over and Mae West had turned to Hollywood. Thanks to her constant work, she was now one of the most in demand actors in the world.
Mae West would become one of cinemas longest standing icons, known for her heavily innuendo laced jokes, as much as she was her business smarts; even becoming one of America’s highest earning individuals.
But Mae’s fight for equality, for alternative lifestyles to be explored and celebrated and for taboos to be dropped, has been forgotten. And that’s a damn shame, because as Mae West would say:
‘Those who are easily shocked should be shocked more often’
This was interesting where can I find out more?You should definitely read Mae’s plays! Sex, Drag and The Pleasure Man are all in print (link here) and as the plays are still performed, you might even be able to find a performance near you (let us know if you do!!!)
Chavela (born Isabela Vargas Lizano) was a famed Costa Rican singer, she was a HUGE influence on Latin American music from the 1950s onwards.
She was known for her soulful & INTENSE gravelly voice, her ability to hold her drink, her reputation with women and her incredible artistic output.
Seriously… HOW HAWT IS SHE?!?!?! 😍
She was born in Costa Rica in 1919 and never really knew her parents, being raised by relatives in the countryside. Chavela wanted more, she bided her time until she could move to a big city. So as soon as she hit her teens she packed up all her shiz and moved to Mexico!
The Ranchera Queen
Now Chavela knew she was a talented singer so she started off busking and singing in the streets before going professional when she hit 30.
She was known in Mexico for singing ranchera style, which was typically male dominated and focused on songs about love and loss. So she dressed as a man, carried a pistol and sang traditional songs WITHOUT CHANGING THE LYRICS – SO SHE WAS SINGING LOVE SONGS TO AND ABOUT WOMEN!
Get it grrrl! 🙌🏽
She was a darling of the arts scene in Mexico and was obviously a HUGE hit with the ladies. Vargas slept with a lot of women, openly having a string of affairs. In fact, it was rumoured she bedded Hollywood starlet Ava Gardener after singing at Liz Taylor’s wedding!!!
In 1961 Chavela recorded her first album, Noche de Bohemia (Bohemian Night) and just kept on rolling. She recorded over 80 albums (that’s right 80!) in her lifetime! Always keeping it traditional and staying true to her ranchera roots with a mariachi band sound.
In the 70’s Chavela retired from music after a decades long battle with battling alcoholism. She was taken in by a Native American family (who btw had no idea who she was, they were just super nice) and they nursed her back to health.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
Chavela’s music had a resurgence in the 1990’s thanks to famed filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who was a massive fan and put her and her music in load of his films.
Most notably she appeared in his 2002 film Frida, based on the life of artist Frida Kahlo, who incidentally Chavela had an affair with (we told you she had a lot of lovers!)
Chavela described Pedro as her artistic soulmate and she credited him with making her more accepted in Mexico, where she had struggled with opposition to her homosexuality.
Though it was considered common knowledge Chavela liked the ladies, she only officially came out at the grand old age of 81!!! Her fans all reacted with a ‘Yeah, we know, and we love you!’
This revelation came out of her autobiography And If You Want to Know about My Past.
The LEGEND who lives on through her music.
She left a helluva legacy when she passed away at 93, her last words were said to be
‘I leave with Mexico in my heart’
She showed it doesn’t matter when you come out, you can still live as your authentic self and embrace queerness at ANY age.
That was interesting, where can I find out more: Listen to her albums! Seriously, her voice is GORGEOUS. And read her autobiography, it’s fascinating and JUICY. There’s also a wonderful documentary on her by Catherine Grund & Daresha Kyi simply entitled Chavela.
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.
Christopher Isherwood was an Anglo-American writer famed for his semi-autobiographical novels The Berlin Stories that recounted his experiences living in The Wiemar Republic (aka Germany).
These novels gave birth to the most fabulous of stage shows CABARET! Made famous by the faboosh 1970’s Liza Minnelli film.
Isherwood in 1976
I’m Coming Out
Christopher was born on August 26th 1904 in the North of England on his family estate near Manchester. Now by the fact he lived on his families estate, you’ve probably ready guessed that Christopher’s family were minted. And though this meant he was lucky enough have a very privileged upbringing, it was also incredibly suffocating!
His family had his entire life planned out for him, so little Chris was packed off to boarding school and then sent to Cambridge university, to chase his mothers dreams of him becoming a university Don.
This wasn’t what Christopher wanted
And it wasn’t just his career plans that we’re different. Isherwood knew from an early age he was a homosexual and had dalliances during his boarding school and university days; worried about his families reaction, he kept his sexuality secret from his family.
Then in 1925 Christopher managed to get himself kicked out of Cambridge by writing joke answers to his exams.
A huge disappointment to his parents, he worked a series of odd jobs as a private tutor, before starting work on his first novel All the Conspirators.
In 1929 Isherwood moved to Berlin. The Weimar Republic was a hot pot of culture and sexuality, so you know that Christopher threw himself straight in and started embracing his queerness.
He finally openly pursued romantic entaglements with men and fell in love with a beautiful young man named Heinz.
He Man knows…
Isherwood’s most famous works came from this Berlin Period.
Of these, Mr Norris Changes Trainscame first in 1935, which follows a narrator’s friendship with a mysterious man who has all manner of unsavoury entanglements during their time in Berlin. The second novel Goodbye to Berlin was published in 1939.
But the most famous of his stories around this time was about a cabaret singer called, Sally Bowles.
That name sounds familiar right? Well that’s because the character of Sally Bowles was adapted for the stage, first as a play called I am a Camera (1951) and then into a musical ‘Cabaret!’ (1966), which was immortalised in the 1971 Liza Minnelli flick.
However, Isherwood distanced himself from Cabaret, claiming he recognised little of his work in it, but it opened his work to a new audience! Meaning…
Money money MONEY!
Heinz and Christopher left Berlin in 1933 and floated around Europe while Christopher kept writing.
However, their happiness was short lived as Heinz returned to Nazi ruled Germany in 1937, where he was arrested as a draft dodger.
The relationship broke up, though the pair did maintain contact after the war up until 1976.
In 1939 Christopher moved to the United States permanently, entranced by it’s promise of freedom and prosperity for all.
He was an instant hit with Californian literary circles and quickly settled into the Hollywood lifestyle.
Then on Valentine’s Day 1953 Christopher went on a trip to Santa Monica beach where he was introduced to 18-year-old artist, Don Bachardy. Christopher was 48 at the time, but he fell madly in love with Dan.
Still,there was no getting around that creepy age gap, it was weird, and people were scandalised.
Not to mention that, the relationship was tempestuous to start.
Christopher encouraged Don to explore his sexuality and his art, but was also prone to intense jealousy; meanwhile Don felt his artwork was overshadowed by his relationship with Christopher.
Yet, this turmoil created another magnificent work from Christopher; his next novel A Single Man, about a lecturer who is mourning the death of his partner.
The book follows the man around for a day noting his interactions and connections with all manner of people. The university is a multi-ethnic campus and despite the language being very dated, the book argues for a progressive multicultural society.
Thankfully after this, Christopher and Bachardy’s relationship became more stableand they both encouraged each other in all their artistic endeavours, whilst maintaing the importance of having time away to themselves.
They had a problem though – they wanted to get married and have all the legal rights that come with being a spouse.
However, it wasn’t legal. Meaning, Christopher couldn’t set up Don with his estate, to look after him when Chris inevitably died earlier (hi again age gap!)
So they got around that legal-ish by…
CHRISTOPHER ADOPTING DON!
Yup. They did that.
That’s one way to get around it…
Post adoption/marriage gate, Christopher returned to Berlin in his works one more time with Christopher and His Kind in 1976.
In it he details his time in Weimar Germany and his affair with Heinz. He considered it his contribution to gay liberation as he was SO candid and open about his sexuality.
BUT Heinz was so shocked by the book he never spoke to Christopher again!
Shortly after this last major work was published, Christopher passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1981 at aged 81.
His legacy lives on, through his novels which focus on periods of gay history that were tempestuous and full of changing attitudes.
That was Interesting. Where can I find out more? His novels are still in print and The Berlin Stories is a great place to start. It looks at a fascinating time in history. There’s also a brilliant documentary called Chris & Don: A Love Story that looks at the relationship between Isherwood and Bachardy.
Sara Westrop is passionate about making history accessible (and fun!) for everyone. A disabled, queer writer from just outside London, who loves writing about the unsung chapters of history.