Fanny and Stella, the ‘Funny He-She Ladies’

3 01 2014

Fanny and Stella Victorian Photography IDrag 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.

Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park leave Bow Street Magistrates' CourtImagine 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 Fanny and Stellamany 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.

Fanny and Stella IVDr 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 Fanny and Stella IIIsalacious 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 Fanny and Stella VIIIalways 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 Fanny and Stella IXher 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.

Fanny and Stella VIII 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:

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Mapping American Social Attitudes

28 03 2012

I’ve found maps fascinating ever since I was a wee lad. I remember getting a globe for my birthday in 1986 and an atlas for Christmas in 1991, and getting new maps and globes over the years to watch the changes in national boundaries. I was shitty at math but adored maps. Maps say so much in pictures  about people, politics, migratory patterns, industry, the environment, natural resources, social attitudes, and loads of other hot, steamy, bloggable stuff. Looking at different maps of the United States, we can see a stark divide in political and social attitudes about race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Here I want you to take a look at some maps of the U.S. to see where different attitudes are concentrated. It’s amazing to see the clear patterning of regional differences, which in turn shows us where we have our work cut out for us in terms of achieving social equity.

We can start this work by looking at the political attitudes, which frequently overlap with social ones. Consider the following maps of the 2008 U.S. presidential election. The first map shows states with red, Republican majorities, and those with blue, Democratic majorities; the second one shows this same information, but with a focus on population density.

As we can see, Republican voters were clustered in the south, the Great Plains, and the interior west, while Democratic voters were clustered in the northeast, Great Lakes, and west coast. As it so happens, the red areas also generally reflect sparsely populated areas, and the blue areas, more densely populated areas, revealing a correlation between cities and Democratic values.

But does the Republican-Democrat divide reflect something more than just urban versus rural? If we look at the following Gallup maps from 2011 and 2010, respectively, we get a better idea how conservatives and liberals are distributed across the country.

Not only are the northeast and northwest regions predominantly Democratic and urban, but they are also decidedly more liberal than the south and the midland. (The midland tends to be a grey area, as we shall see.) The ideological divide along geographical lines begins to deepen. Urbanity, Democratic politics, and liberalism begin to characterize the northeast and west coast while rurality, Republican politics, and conservatism begin to characterize the hinterland.

The regional difference comes into even sharper focus when we look at education and religiosity in America. Below is a 2009 Gallup map showing the most religious and most secular states in the country as well as a 2000 Census Bureau map showing educational attainment.

As the first map suggests, the south is much more religious than average, while Cascadia and New England are much more secular than average. The second map shows the inverse for education: the more secular areas tend to have better-educated people, and the more religious areas tend to have less-educated people, especially when we compare Washington state and Massachusetts with Mississippi. What this seems to show is that religiosity and lower educational attainment pattern together in the south, while secularism and higher educational attainment pattern together in New England and Cascadia (anchored by the cultural and educational centers of Boston and Seattle, respectively).

This ideological divide becomes particularly important when we look at the history of black civil rights in the United States. Consider these maps on slavery and anti-miscegenation laws:

It’s probably no surprise that the south consisted almost entirely of slave states, and the north and west almost entirely of free states and territories. Nor is it surprising that the map of anti-miscegenation laws so closely follows this pattern, with the south resisting the repeal of racist marriage laws until 1967, over one hundred years after slavery was abolished. The south wasn’t always overwhelmingly Republican, though: the region was full of “Dixiecrats” when the liberal Democrat and conservative Republican binary was not as stark as it is today.

But this general pattern of a blue, liberal region wrapping around a red, conservative hinterland doesn’t end with race; it also shows up in opinions about women, women’s rights, and sex differences, as illustrated in the following maps of women’s suffrage laws and attitudes about abortion.

In the suffrage laws map, the divide between a conservative south and a liberal north and west is slightly blurred. Large parts of the northeast joined with the south in resistance to suffrage, but vast parts of the west and northwest remained progressive on this issue, in stark contrast with the south. The north-south binary reappears, however, in the 2006 abortion map, which shows a northeast and west coast far friendlier toward reproductive rights than the south.

The south’s apparent concern for unborn babies seems incompatible with its poor record on child welfare. We see another stark regional difference looking at maps of state-by-state child poverty rates and overall child welfare across the United States.

On the 2008 child welfare map, children are better off in the lighter-shaded areas, which include Washington state, Utah, the Upper Midwest, and New England, but they are worse off in the south–the same part of the country where women’s rights, black civil rights, and post-secondary educational attainment tend to lag behind, and where religiosity tends to flourish. A very similar pattern holds for child poverty rates, with a dark band of impoverished children in the south and a lighter strip of well-off children in the west, north, and northeast.

No discussion of American social attitudes would be complete without mention of gay rights, which seems to be the social justice zeitgeist of our time. It’s everywhere in the news, at least in the United States, where everything is controversial. Once again, the general pattern we have been seeing holds true when we look at the maps below showing the advance of gay rights in the United States.

The first map shows the northeast, Midwest, and west coast taking the lead in knocking down old laws banning sodomy between consenting adults in the privacy of their own homes. Most of the south (as well as Mormon country) had to be forced by a 2003 Supreme Court ruling to catch up with the rest of the country. And, in typical fashion, the northeast, Midwest (Iowa), and northwest (Washington state) shine bright blue as the beacons in the gay marriage movement, while the south and Great Plains are steeped in a mostly dark blood red. We must take care not to lump the entire south into the category of “retrogressive”, however: one former slave state–Maryland–is now a gay marriage state. Now, that’s a remarkable transformation. How many states can say that they used to have slaves, but they will soon have legally married gay couples if all goes according to plan?

Certainly, looking at a few maps gives only a rough depiction of social attitudes in America, and much more investigation is required to yield a truly refined and nuanced portrait of the issue, but we can still get a general idea where American attitudes lie with respect to the rights of women, minorities, children, poor people, etc., by looking at maps. Cascadia and New England generally represent more liberal, educated, healthy people while the south generally represents the opposite. We can use this kind of knowledge to focus our efforts on helping those who have been targeted for oppression. It isn’t about judging ignorant rubes–it’s about demonstrating compassion for the underprivileged. With further research, and with the facts in mind, we can reach out to disenfranchised minorities, abused children, poor people who don’t have money for rent, young pregnant women with no access to reproductive health-care, bullied gay youth with nowhere to go, and the lonely, ostracised atheist or Muslim, with the goal of creating equity for all. This is the purpose of looking at social attitudes in America.