Toronto
2 min

Harmless flouncing

Jury flouted law & acquitted crossdressers

MEDICAL EVIDENCE. The anal exam was ruled inadmissable. Credit: Mark Bogdanovic

A century ago, the very British Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park – widely known as Fanny and Stella – were arrested for the felony of soliciting gay sex. But they were let off in part because the jury saw their penchant for cross-dressing as a harmless sign of high spirits.



“They were both middle class and well known for flouncing around London’s theatres and markets in women’s clothes,” says Morris Kaplan, a State University Of New York professor of philosophy.



“Finally, in 1870, they upset cultural mores enough to end up in court for the misdemeanour of cross-dressing.”



After an extended hearing in the Bow Street Magistrates’ court (which attracted a crowd of on-lookers), they were also charged with the felony of “conspiring to commit sodomy.”



“This was much more serious stuff,” says Kaplan. “Until 1862 sodomy was a capital offence in England and, at the time, it was still punishable by a hefty prison sentence.”



A police surgeon conducted intrusive physical exams to prove the men had engaged in anal sex. “The idea was that repeated acts of sodomy would leave physical marks,” says Kaplan. This premise was so contested that in the end, the medical evidence was ruled inadmissible.



The police searched Boulton and Park’s rooms and confiscated a large quantity of lady’s clothing, jewellery, cosmetics and personal letters. Ironically, the fact that they had always cross-dressed was used in their defence.



“They described parties we would simply see as gay, drag balls as evidence that cross-dressing was a harmless activity and there was no sexual impropriety involved.



“Boulton’s mother testified that he had always delighted in wearing women’s clothes. She told the story of Boulton’s grandmother coming to the house when he was a boy and Boulton answering the door dressed as a maid. The grandmother supposedly said: ‘Are you sure you want such a saucy young maid around your son?'”



The gender-bending extended beyond clothing. Boulton lived with Lord Arthur Clinton, a young member of Parliament (known to many as Lady Arthur Clinton or Lady Stella Clinton; Lord Clinton himself died before the case came to trial, though it’s unclear whether this was due to a physical collapse brought on by the stress of the scandal or a suicide).



“Many people who saw Boulton and Park mistook them for attractive female prostitutes,” says Kaplan, “but their gender presentation was even more complicated than that. They would sometimes dress in men’s clothes, but wear powder and cosmetics. Some people were convinced that they were women disguised as men!”



The case captured the public imagination. “The first time they were brought to the courtroom they were in women’s clothes, but the second time they were dressed as men. The papers reported that the crowd booed and hissed, because they wouldn’t get to see the drag show.”



When they were acquitted of all but the least serious charge (the misdemeanour of cross-dressing), the crowd cheered in approval and Fanny Park fainted.



The trial is one of the gay sex scandals that Kaplan explores in a book he’s writing on male desire in late Victorian England called Sodom On Thames: Love, Lust And Scandal In Wilde Times.



“I started researching this before [ex US president Bill Clinton’s fling with intern] Monica Lewinsky hit the news, but already the parallel to our times was clear,” says Kaplan.



“The end of the 19th century, like the end of the 20th, was characterized by visible lesbian, gay and queer cultures coupled with a rightwing, anti feminist, homophobic backlash. [In this environment] well-publicized sex scandals serve to crystallize the public’s fears of moral decay and camouflage more serious issues.”