Twentieth-Century Trans Histories
Stories of gender-crossing have appeared in the British press since the late 19th century. Women who ‘masqueraded’ as men were generally admired in the press for their boldness and success in holding down masculine jobs. Some passed for long periods of time, and had wives or girlfriends. They were rarely condemned for being socially and sexually deviant until after the Second World War.
Male-to-female gender-crossing was less often reported by the press. From the 1920s, these cases were likely to be associated with crime and sexual deviance, although not in explicit language.
Usually it was only when arrested for general crimes that people who crossed gender were ‘discovered’ to be challenging accepted understandings of sexual or gender behaviour. In 1905 Paul Downing, a black farm labourer from Kent, was apprehended on Blackfriars Bridge in London.
He was chasing after buses shouting that he was searching for his wife. Downing was arrested, and subsequently discovered legally to be a woman named Caroline Brogden.
Downing, an African-American, had worked as a sailor and travelled extensively across the USA, France, Spain and Belgium. Deemed to be a vagrant ‘lunatic’ in September 1905 and sent to the City of London Asylum in Stone, near Dartford, Kent, Downing died within a year of being incarcerated.
Colonel Victor Barker (named Valerie Arkell-Smith at birth) lived as a man for much of the 1920s. Barker masqueraded as a war hero, former boxer, restaurateur and man of independent means. He married a younger woman, Elfrida Haward, at St Peter’s church in Brighton in 1923. Elfrida left him within a few years when he started seeing another woman.
Arrested for contempt of court in 1929 (following non-payment of debts) Barker’s female body was discovered at Brixton prison. Barker was prosecuted for making a false statement in order to contract the 1923 marriage.
Barker was convicted at the Old Bailey in April 1929 and spent time in Holloway, a women’s prison. Barker found it hard to earn a living subsequently, and in 1937 appeared in a side-show on Blackpool seafront entitled ‘Strange Honeymoon’. Barker and his ‘wife’ were shown occupying two beds and the public was invited to decide whether Barker was a man or a woman.
Gender variant people have often been associated with ‘freak shows’ (as have other people with non-normative bodies or disabilities). In this role they might be open to ridicule and seen as objects of public entertainment. Barker’s landlady at Blackpool, however, reflected a more complex range of everyday meanings about gender-nonconformity:
In interviews in the 1950s, Barker refused to align with contemporary ‘transsexual’ or homosexual identities, preferring to maintain his privacy.
Transitioning from the late 1920s
From the late 1920s, and more frequently in the 1930s, the term ‘sex change’ began to be used in the British popular press. It was used to draw attention to people who had apparently changed their sex, either spontaneously or, increasingly, with medical help. Most of these people transitioned from female to male. This encouraged the idea that medical science now had the capacity to surgically alter someone’s natal sex.
Mark Weston’s transition made headlines in 1936 when the News of the World reported ‘“Girl” Athlete’s New Life after Change of Sex.’ Weston had competed as Mary Weston in the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam. After the games, Weston reported feeling unable to continue living as a woman and consulted specialists who advised surgery.
At Charing Cross Hospital, London, Weston underwent two operations performed by Lennox Broster. Broster’s work at this time made Charing Cross a centre for gender-related medical practice.
Almost all of the stories reported in the press before the Second World War involved forms of intersexuality and situations where sex had been mis-assigned at birth.
Patients at Charing Cross and other hospitals in England were generally given a choice about which gender they wished to present as. Plastic surgery and hormone treatment, however, was limited until the 1950s.