"All people are not heterosexual. Heterosexuality is not superior and is not the norm by which all other sexual orientation and gender identities are measured." --Burnaby, B.C. Schools Draft Policy #5.45

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Female Impersonators on the Nineteenth Century American Stage

The political opponents of transgender people often say that the transgendered are something recent, a product of post-1960s permissiveness, the misguided celebration of a "mental illness", or something that emerges from the disorder of a country or civilization in decline---but whatever the origin, something new and something contrary either to centuries of Western culture or to human nature.  The most recent example I saw of this was a piece in the Washington Examiner about an anti-discrimination bill before the Maryland Senate, which said, "Most insidious about this legislation is that by acting to redefine the humanity of us all, it is a gross violation of the trust of the governed."

This is a reference post to draw from to counter one part of this frequently-appearing idea--that transgender people are linked to the "decline of America".  This reference post focuses on the popularity of female impersonators in American theater in the second half of the nineteenth century, a time when the United States grew from a regional power to a world power.  If the argument holds true that national power and economic welfare are somehow inversely related to the presence of transgender people, based on American economic growth of that era, there should have been few transgender people.  In fact, like in all eras, there were many:                                                                                           
1. A Missouri newspaper in 1873 announces the appearance of "Harvey's Minstrels" at a local opera house.  Among many compliments regarding the personal conduct of its members, the announcement notes that one of its stars is a female impersonator named Bernardo, who has had "417 offers of marriage from the sons of gentility who have been deceived by his perfection".  (The St. Joseph Daily Gazette, November 19, 1873.)               
2. A Geneva, New York newspaper reports in 1874 that a fundraiser held for a local school so that they could buy an organ fell short of the purchase price of the organ.  One reason was the heavy rain.  Another reason was that a female impersonator ("Mr. Stanley"), who was the star of a performance troupe that was scheduled to perform, had a bad cold and couldn't sing.  The article says the troupe had performed previously in Geneva, and were so well liked they would always be welcome in the future.  (Geneva Gazette, February 27, 1874.)                                                                                                                           
3.  A Baltimore, Maryland newspaper in 1877 gives a positive review of the performance, the previous evening, of Duprez & Benedicts Minstrel's.  Among the performers was female impersonator "Mr. Frank Kent", who "rendered his character songs inimitably, and being gifted with a good falsetto voice, that and his marvellous make-up, rendered the illusion perfect". (Baltimore American and Commercial, February 23, 1877.)

4. A New York Times article from 1879 reports the death of Omar Kingsley, a female impersonator, who, under the name Ella Zoyara, performed equestrian stunts in traveling shows, from the 1850s(?) until her death.  The article's short description of her event-filled career reads like a fictional adventure story, but perhaps the most noteworthy part is that she regularly presented herself as female, offstage: "He had always appeared in female attire on steamers, on the streets, in hotels, and in the circus..."  Zoyara also appears in several other New York Times articles, one of which is an 1861 article about a lawsuit over horses.  One of the horses was given to Zoyara by the "King of Sardinia" as a "tribute to her great equestrian skill and virtue as a lady".  (New York Times, May 28, 1879 (the obituary); New York Times, November 9, 1860 (describing Zoyara's marriage to a man as "settling the question" about her sex); New York Times, November 30, 1861 (the horse lawsuit, which also reports that she eloped with a woman), New York Times, December 20, 1863 (Zoyara's legal residence at issue in a lawsuit); New York Times, February 15, 1865 (a lawsuit over salaries for employees of the Stokes Circus Company).)

5. A newspaper from Rochester, New York, from 1887 describes how "Harry LeClair", "without doubt the best female impersonator on stage", "took the house by storm".  (The Post Express, December 27, 1887.)

6. A Milwaukee newspaper announces in 1897 that a female impersonator named "Elwood" is performing in "Chutesville Vaudeville" and that "crowds are in attendance".  (The Milwaukee Journal, September 22, 1897.) 
There is an interesting discussion of female impersonation in 19th Century American theater from a book called Vaudeville, Old and New, here on Google books.

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