Drag queens have it rough. They primp, preen, pad, paint, and tuck until their testicles squeeze out through their eyeballs, only to walk the nightmarish obstacle course of city streets filled with drunken fraternity boys and suburban tourists before reaching their nightclub destination, where they are lucky enough to get a spray of one-dollar bills across their carefully designed bosoms, let alone a slot on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Oh, wait, that is the twenty-first century.
Imagine what it’s like being a drag queen in Victorian London, where sodomy was punishable by the death penalty until 1861, and made legal in modern England and Wales only in 1967. (Many drag queens are gay and do have anal sex.) Now you’re not so sassy, are you, sister? You want to read up on your drag queen history now, don’t you?
That’s what I’m doing. I am reading the most delightful biography about two drag queens who graced the music halls, theatres, and ‘houses of accommodation’ of Victorian London. It is called Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, by journalist Neil McKenna. The two queens, Thomas Ernest Boulton (Stella) and Frederick William Park (Fanny), got arrested by the Metropolitan Police for public lewdness after leaving a performance at The Strand Theatre in London. They were conspicuously drunk and leering at the men in the dress circle, like many patrons of today’s theatres. It was an ambush—the police had planned it for a year or so just to capture these two queens.
Interestingly, some of the greatest defenders and secret champions of Fanny and Stella were their mothers, sisters, and housemaids, and the prostitutes they consorted with, who, rather than judge them, revelled in their saucy wit and rebellious charm. For some reason, this doesn’t surprise me. Jesus would have treated them the same, wouldn’t he?
One of the more bizarre and captivating chapters I’ve read thus far describes Dr James Paul’s strange obsession with the bodies of sodomites. He was a doctor commissioned by the Metropolitan Police to examine the illnesses and injuries of the police officers as well as the criminals in his jurisdiction, and he was trained by a doctor who also had an obsession with sodomy.
Dr Paul did not neglect to go into the most explicit detail in describing his physical examination of Fanny and Stella. McKenna quotes Dr Paul’s examination of Stella: ‘I examined Boulton [Stella], and found him to be a man…. The anus was dilated, and more dilatable, and the muscles surrounding the anus easily opened’ (McKenna 50). Of Fanny, McKenna quotes Dr Paul as saying, ‘[t]he anus was very much dilated…and dilatable to a very great extent. The rectum was large, and there was some discoloration around the edge of the anus, caused probably by sores’ (50). One of Dr Paul’s own authorities on sodomy states that often, ‘the dimensions of the penis of active pederasts were excessive in one way or another’, were ‘pointed and twisted to the funnel shape of the passive anus’, and were sometimes ‘twisted’, a result of ‘the corkscrew motion required during anal sex’ (as cited in McKenna 51). This is the kind of creepy medical judgement to which Fanny and Stella’s bodies were being subjected in the dark, dank cell at the back of the courthouse on Bow Street after their first trial appearance, the day after they were arrested.
But the book isn’t just about the salacious and scandalous; it also deals with the way Victorians would have navigated relationships when it is discovered that a loved one is engaged in ‘unnatural’ and ‘abominable’ sexual practices, or even just cross-dressing (which wasn’t illegal, but which was greatly frowned upon). While Stella’s mother, Mrs Mary Ann Boulton, did not wholly approve of her son’s aspirations, she was probably more liberal for her time in accepting it:
I was always rather opposed to his acting…. But I did not forbid it. I would rather he would have done anything else, but he always had such a penchant for it that I was almost compelled to give my sanction. (61)
Mary Ann loved her son, and loved him happy above all else. It was always an awkward acceptance. If I try hard enough, I can almost pretend to be her, sitting small and prim by the window in her front room, sipping a cup of Earl Grey, eyes drifting away into the past.
The relationship between drag queens and prostitutes in Victorian London is also interesting since it marks the intersection of two underclasses. At times, they had a special bond. With regard to Fanny’s relationship with prostitutes, McKenna writes,
…the whores were, by and large nice to her [Fanny]. They would call her ‘Deary’ or ‘Margery’ or ‘Mary Ann’ or ‘Miss Nancy’, and most of the time it was not in a nasty way. Sometimes she would talk to them, and she found—to her surprise—that she was drawn to them and liked them more than she thought she would. They did not judge her like the others. They did not look down upon her. They would curse and cuss her in a friendly way, and then she would answer back with a haughty toss of her head and they would laugh uproariously. (72)
Prostitutes and drag queens had an equal foe to contend with—patriarchy—although they probably would never have recognised such a concept. Patriarchy is a very modern, academic concept, and we are talking about pragmatic street urchins in the nineteenth century here. That said, it is no wonder Fanny and Stella should warm up to women who were considered lewd and unladylike. They were in a similar, slatternly league.
I hope that whets your appetite. So far, Fanny and Stella has proved to be an eye-opening exposé of the Victorian criminal justice system, police abuse of power, sexual exploitation, and Victorian medical knowledge, especially as these relate to sexual minorities and prostitutes. (Fanny and Stella were gay and did have sexual relations with other men.) If you thought it was hard walking down the street in drag and getting cat-calls and bottles thrown at you, just imagine going out in full paint, a petticoat, a crinoline, a corset, a bodice, full jewellery, a chignon and various other hairpieces and accessories, getting drunk at the saloon, and then having the police arrest you and throw you into a dank cell overnight before being sent to court the morning after only to be probed by a creepy doctor who loves anuses. I am at Chapter Nine, but I will be providing a full review of the book when I finish it.
And with that, I feel the need to play this unabashedly lustful, flesh-hungry track by the Spanish dance-pop duo Baccara: