Trans on Stage

The Art and Politics of Cross-Gender Performance

It’s one of the staples of trans fiction: boy gets enlisted into playing girl in school play, discovers he likes it, and has his life transformed.

This convention, however, has a much longer and more colourful history than just a figment of some trans person’s imagination. Gender transgression and the theatre are intimately linked throughout human history and have served to illuminate and transform issues of transgenderism, same sex love, and the role of women in society. The appearance of crossdressed characters on stage offers to the audience gender alternatives to the limited possibilities in real life while simultaneously regulating the taboos against transgenderism and homosexuality.

Edward Kynaston was likely the last and the best of the English boy actors playing female roles. His last role as a woman was in 1661. The transition to women playing women’s parts was fictionalized in the 2004 film “Stage Beauty”, with Billy Crudup playing Kynaston. Although Hollywood makeup made Crudup into a reasonable facsimile of a woman, his chiseled jawline precluded the possibility he’d be regarded, as English diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of Kynaston, “the prettiest woman in the whole house”.

The tradition of males playing female roles on stage originated in part from the male obsession with female modesty. The attempt to control female sexuality by barring women from the stage had numerous consequences. It gave queer folk a venue for a small degree of self-expression; it put the theatre into the paradoxical position of being both popular culture and disreputable entertainment; and it created theatrical conventions that politicized gender roles in theatre.

In many non-western cultures, however, it was more or less accepted that homosexuality and transgenderism were a part of theatrical performance and religious ritual. (Drama and dance are cultural forms whose roots are religious.)

The first performing gender transgressors were the shamans. Shamanism by definition is the art of transformation. Their power comes from a dramatic invocation of the spirits. Although the spirituality behind shamanistic gender changing varies among different cultures, fundamentally the shaman will become possessed, for various reasons, of the spirit of the opposite sex. The shaman, who can be either male or female, enters a trance like state and uses various dramatic talents – impersonation, ventriloquy, dialogue, pantomime, and magical tricks – to create a powerful performance that has a therapeutic effect on the witnesses. Non-believers might think the performance is faked, but the shaman’s audience has complete faith in its effectiveness.

This kind of inexplicable spirituality and gender changing lost its prestige and was demonized after the cultures in which it was practiced were colonized, mostly by European powers whose citizens advocated Christianity and rationalism. Nevertheless, as Laurence Senelick points out in his book The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, gender variant performers have a long history and are taken for granted in many areas of the world. From the ancient Greeks to Brazil to numerous cultures in Polynesia, the breadth and variety of transgender performance appears limitless.

There are, however, two primary and separate components to transgenderism on stage: the performer and the gender politics that are played out by the performance.

Any social convention created by men that attempts to demarcate women’s place in society is inherently about gender politics. In the first few centuries of Christianity, women itinerant entertainers were common. As the Church assumed control of performances and attempted to present religious stories, it became improper for women to exhibit themselves. Although women participated in some religious plays, their role was to represent purity and virginity. To avoid the danger of inciting lust, their role was strictly allegorical. Men would play comic and shrewish women, while boys normally assumed other female parts.

It is ironic that in attempting to control female sexuality, the male arbiters of morality were risking unleashing the devils of homosexuality and transgenderism. As early as the 16th century, a university don named John Rainoldes worried that prolonged exposure to the female role may convince the boy actor that he rather likes the part and is willing to stay in it long after the performance has finished. Since Senelick believes that the theatrical conventions of the time may have attracted gay and transgendered folk, perhaps this concern was not without foundation.

Victorian critics of Shakespearean theatre had difficulty in reconciling Shakespeare’s greatness with the possibility of pederasty, They rationalized the convention of boys playing women by concluding that the boys on stage were simply masquerading, but this analysis ignored the rigorous training boy actors undertook to perform female roles. The truth is that in using transgenderism as a theatrical convention, the theatre offered a safe place to play out the social tensions between effeminacy, courtly love and the taboo against sodomy. While the dalliance with these issues gave theatre a dubious reputation, as long as cross-gendered entertainers remained on stage the public was willing, indeed happy, to tolerate them. When they moved offstage, however, the public was not so forgiving.

Ernest Boulton (right) and Lord Arthur Pelham. Pelham, who was a Member of Parliament and had been suspected of being Boulton’s lover, died the day after being served with a subpoena. Cause of death was listed as ‘exhaustion resulting from scarlet fever, but suicide was the more likely diagnosis. (Photo: Oliver Sarony, Scarborough.)

The infamous case of Boulton and Park demonstrates clearly this tension between real life and the theatre. In 1871 Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park were arrested in London for wearing women’s clothing in public and soliciting. They were arraigned for conspiracy to commit the catchall crime of “buggery”. Their defence rested its case on the lack of evidence to prove the commission of sodomy and that the defendants frequently wore women’s clothes for theatrical purposes.

This last defence was a thorough one indeed. Even the prosecution allowed, in its opening remarks, that the wearing of women’s clothes in a theatrical performance was no offence. Boulton and Park’s attorneys brought forth a string of witnesses, including Boulton’s mother, who confirmed that he performed in a wide range of amateur theatricals as a woman. The numerous photos of Boulton in female attire were explained as being simply made for distribution to his adoring public and that he wore these “costumes” on the street in mischief, to see if he could get away with it. This view was buttressed by testimony from a young man named Amos Gibbings, who explained that he wore his feminine clothes at a ball as an extension of his large repertory of female stage roles. Boulton’s performances as a woman were cheered, one journal suggesting he was a “really charming girl” even as it assured its readers that there was nothing “of the ‘social monster’ business connected with him”. In the end, Boulton and Park were acquitted of all charges, to loud cheers of “bravo” from the peanut gallery.

As Laurence Senelick points out, however, in this jaded age it’s pretty clear Boulton and Park were guilty. Boulton clearly spent a lot of time in public in feminine clothes. Senelick observes that gay and trans performers like Boulton performed another function also:

By transferring taboo behaviour to the stage, such gay deceivers did more than find sanctuary for it. They offered surrogate gender alternatives to the general public and exercised a potent effect on members of the audience with cross-dressing tendencies. In one of Havelock Ellis’ case-histories of what he called ‘Eonism’, his Edwardian informant tells him of going to see female impersonators in vaudeville or army concert parties to ‘await their entrance with a kind of tremor, sit and admire them, long enviously to be doing the same’. This individual was put off by vulgarity or comic dames, as well as the destruction of the illusion when the terminal de-wigging raised a cheap laugh. ‘But although the performance would leave me sad with a hungry desire and envy, yet I could never resist going.”

The therapeutic effect of these kinds of performances is still evident today. So starved are trans people for trans entertainment that we’ll endure the worst movies to see it.

There is an undesirable side effect to this freedom trans performers have on stage, and that is that trans people are often not taken seriously. This space between the theatre and the public has permitted some crossdressed individuals to play the fools of the modern age, capable of uttering the harshest truths with impunity.

The most stunning example of this occurred in South Africa during the apartheid era. Playwright Pieter-Dirck Uys was considered one of South Africa’s most dynamic young playwrights during the 1970s but often ran afoul of the authorities for the frank nature of his plays. Undaunted, he created the personality of Evita Bexuidenhout and began writing columns for the South African Sunday Express. As the fictional wife of a South African Member of Parliament, Evita satirized the existing regime by expressing the most outlandish views. When she said that “democracy is too good to share with everyone”, the censors became somehow too dense to understand the irony. They continued to let Evita talk.

Having attained this foothold, Uys pushed further and began making public appearances as Evita, (an especially dangerous move since public transvestism was illegal) and then created her entire family, who occasionally made appearances with her. These included her husband, who sported a Hitler moustache, and her ‘strong and mysterious’ son who belonged to a nationalist group. Uys’ performance engendered numerous death threats and was described as “dancing a tango in front of a firing squad”.

In 1993, Evita took her show to Germany, where she observed that South Africans owed a great debt to that country: “In fact, you have set us Afrikaners a very high standard; it will take us a long time before we’ve killed six million blacks.” Having avoided prison and death in apartheid Africa, Uys continues to skewer post apartheid politicians for unkept promises.

Recently, Enza Anderson performed a similar if lesser role when she took a run at the leadership of the Canadian Alliance party. The party, not known for its friendly attitude toward queer folk, was an easy target for Ms. Anderson; and while her schtick was entertaining and her barbs well placed, no one took her too seriously.

Indeed, historically if cross-gender performers wanted to be taken seriously (or wanted their performance to be considered wholesome), they took great pains to ensure that people considered them “normal” off stage. When the famous Chinese cross-gender performer Mei Lanfang arrived in the United States in the 1920s, his performances were lauded for their distance from the “eccentricity” and “perversity” of the female impersonation of vaudeville or the Japanese theatre. (Eccentricity and perversity were common code words for queerness) Reporters covering his tour never failed to mention the presence of his wife and child, thus reassuring an anxious public that Mei was not “one of those”.

Julian Eltinge, the celebrated female impersonator of the early 20th century, may not have been quite so manly as he made himself out to be.

But while Mei may have been one of the “normal” folk, it seems a number of performers who took great pains to appear so, were not quite so normal as they pretended.
Julian Eltinge, the celebrated female impersonator of the early 20th century, flourished in his profession when many other impersonators did not largely because his publicity material relentlessly emphasized his virility. Coming from the respected tradition of college amateur theatricals, Eltinge maintained that he really didn’t enjoy dressing as a woman, but that he was in it for the money. This message went over well with journalists; who described Eltinge as a “typical college man, big, brawny, polished, vigorous and forcible” and a “quiet, sturdy young American dressed in neat tweeds.” This manly man seems, however, to have had no love life. Despite hints that he would share his Hollywood mansion with a wife, there was no wife forthcoming. He explained at the time that his career got in the way of matrimony, but recent information suggests that he had an intimate and longstanding relationship with a sportswriter that nearly erupted into scandal.,

Danny La Rue, the most famous British female impersonator of the 1950s and 60s, came from the Armed Forces tradition of cross-gender performers. His overblown glamorous appearance was designed to distance himself from any suggestion that he might actually be enjoying himself. Laurence Senelick described his performance as “a man impersonating a man impersonating a woman” and his jokes always “referred back to his primary gender”. La Rue himself said that he always let the audience know he was male, for which he claimed they were “relieved”. For years, La Rue performed when anti-gay sentiment was common and homosexuality was illegal, so perhaps it’s understandable that his act rejected any hint of homosexuality. But La Rue continued to deny his gayness even after the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, a pose Senelick finds contemptible.

…he scorns the drag artistes he first worked with as dishing mercenary queens. He claims to have proposed to a (nameless) girl who conveniently died in a plane crash, and he announced to the papers his imminent marriage to a rich Australian woman, though that was suddenly cancelled. He points out that he’s just a nice Irish boy who loved his mother, longs for children, and is at heart one of the fellas’. Yet his best friends have always been such professional androgynes as Liberace and Wayne Newton, and everyone in British show business is familiar with his sexual predilections.

Danny La Rue with Liberace at the Coventry Theatre, 8th April 1978

There is something sad about someone incapable of admitting to their true nature long after the horses have fled the barn. Yet even Senelick admits that so long as stage transvestism is regarded as play acting, and can be written off as something between “club house ritual and locker room exuberance”, it is safe and sanctioned. Indeed, as sex change surgery became more common and trans entertainers had surgery to become women, their respective reputations suffered. Senelick observes that the “public no longer saw drag as high-spirited masquerading, but associated it irredeemably with sexual perversion.”

In short, at least Danny La Rue had an excuse. Perhaps he knew better than anyone the hypocrisy of a society that can only address its own gender hang ups through the theatre. For if nothing else, a tour through the history of cross-gender performance on stage lays bare male insecurities with female sexuality and roles, and society’s simultaneous fascination and fear for same sex love and transgenderism. This kind of hypocrisy, denial and compartmentalized thinking marginalizes queer people’s existence because it removes cross-gender behaviour from the realm of the normal, where it might be explored honestly, and dumps it in the realm of performance, where it remains at a comfortable distance.

A marvelous example of this inability to accept the fascination people have with transgender behaviour occurred at A. L. Brown High School in Kannapolis, North Carolina. To pump up school spirit for a big game, the school held a Girls Dress as Boys, Boys Dress as Girls Day in November 1993. Everyone thought it would be great fun until an announcement over the intercom referred to it as Transvestite Day. Then all hell broke loose. Dressing up is a cute prank, but transvestites are perverts.

While stage crossdressing may keep touchy gender issues at a distance, it is nevertheless riddled with controversy and ambiguity. How could it not be? A theatrical convention that explores and reflects the sexual and political territory between the sexes cannot help but be controversial.


Suggested Reading

The Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre, by Laurence Senelick
Crossing the Stage: Controversies on Cross-Dressing, edited by Lesley Ferris