Is it just me or were Victorians not as conservative and prudish as they appeared to be? Well, they were. However, they always managed to get their way and trick the norms. Take for instance the Pre-Raphaelite painter Simeon Solomon, who subtly depicted homosexual relationships in his paintings. Every day new studies reveal "secret stories of the Victorians you didn't know" that prove that, no matter how repressed and tight a determined society is, it's in our nature to rebel against it. And that's precisely what gender fluid Victorians did in their time. Get comfy, and prepare to see images you didn't think were possible at that time, showing how bold people can be when it comes to defending who they are.
When it comes to talking about Victorian Gender Fluid individuals, there’s a man who will always be mentioned, Ernest Boulton, also known as Stella. Basically, she became famous for dressing in women's clothes and going out in public. Together with Fanny, another cross-dressed man, they became the ultimate tabloid scandal of the time. Stella Clinton and Fanny Winifred Park performed in a theatrical show where the main act was that they dressed in female clothes. However, the act soon left the stage and started presenting at public events and gatherings. Unfortunately, their free lifestyle didn’t last for long, and in April 1870, the were arrested under the charges of sodomy. Both were under the spotlight during a trial that had many expectant at the sentence. However, the case was weak and there was no important evidence of sodomy, besides the fact that they were dressed in women’s clothes. Ernest, or better said, Stella, adopted her female self, and moved to the United States, where she continued performing.
Fanny and Stella are an example of boldness and firm belief. But think about all the cases of people exploring and/or trying to hide their identity out of fear of being judged, socially and literally, by their peers.
The history of gender fluidity has been changed and adapted according to the beliefs and norms of the period. A lot has been said about what we consider nowadays as homosexual practices in ancient Greece and Rome. But what really shocks about these practices during the nineteenth century is the disapproving and judgemental way gender identity was perceived.
While many terms we use now, such as transgender or transvestite, weren’t really in use at the time, there were many forms of sexuality being explored by people who didn't agree with the parameters of heterosexuality or the implied negativity in the term "homosexual". These people were perceived as deviant and perverted just because they didn’t fit the gender standards of the time, and in a way, we've inherited these complexes.
Yes, the story of Fanny and Stella is very well-known, yet there were many men who wore dresses for other reasons. From men who were discontent with the gender they had been "assigned" at birth to proto-drag queens, and other many forms of gender fluidity, the audacious way they rebelled against the gender norms proves that gender identity has always been a matter of importance. Moreover, as Neil Bartlett (playwriter, author of Stella) states, there are as many identities as people in the world, and labeling them is one of the most damaging things society can do. Looking at these images is a great exercise to understand the complexity of gender fluidity and stop thinking in binary terms such as "us" and "them."