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Archive for the ‘trans history’ Category

After a hiatus of more than three years – and a computer crash that eliminated most of my research notes – I’d like to continue where I left off, exploring the first community that Elsa Gidlow illuminates for us.

Last time we looked at the women in her circle, the small community she created around herself and around Roswell George Mills of LGB people and sympathetic heterosexuals. I’d like now to turn to the men.

Lucien Lacouture and Henri Lamy

At some point in the 1910s, Gidlow ran into Mills and coming out of a priest’s home on Dorchester Street. The priest was one of Mills’ lovers. As he was leaving, two friends of Mills’ – Henri Lacouture and Henri Lamy were coming to visit the priest, whom Gidlow never names. According to Mills:

…these two young men, and others were welcomed visitors. The priests offered themselves as lovers, treated the young men royally, serving the gifts brought in by their devout parishioners. They, of course, were sworn to poverty and had no money of their own to buy such luxuries.

Mills also related how on a police raid, the officers had found the priests with some very young lovers all dressed as women. This fascinated Gidlow, who wondered why. Mills answered, “Did you ever stop to consider that priests, monks, the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy, spend their life in drag?”

It had been through the church that Lacouture had discovered he was gay. He had been a seminary student, and quite devout. He had always believed he was going to become a priest. But he became tormented when he fell in love with another seminary student, a boy named Jean, who was in Gidlow’s words, “filling his mind and heart to the exclusion of meditation on God and the saints” and who “appeared more beautiful (heresy!) than any saint with his intense eyes and merry mouth.”

Lacouture went, tortured by his feelings, to confession. He cried, confessed it all, and waited for his punishment. He expected excommunication, or at least to be excluded from his vocation in the priesthood. Instead, the priest – a Father Francis – told him to meet him at the parish house, for what would be Lacouture’s first sexual experience.

He left his career in the church after that.

Lacouture became very much a part of Mills’ circle, and a friend of Gidlow’s. According to Gidlow, after he gave up on the religious life, Lacouture became (appropriately given his name) a fashion designer. He had a plan to live in New York for two years to learn his art, and then return to Montreal. After his return, said Gidlow, he designed clothes for wealthy women.

A dictionary of Quebec fashion flushes out a few details, mentioning “The little we know about this designer permits us to know that he was noteworthy in the Montreal of the 1920s and 1930s.” Lacouture was born in 1895. When Gidlow was in New York, he was making regular trips there to purchase fabrics he couldn’t get in Montreal.

And Gidlow was very right that he was a designer to the rich. His clients included Saidye Bronfman, the matriarch of the Bronfman liquor empire and one of the wealthiest families in Canada.

He died astonishingly young in 1934 of a brain tumour. He was not yet forty. His apprentice, a woman named Hernance Ferland was taken up by Marie-Paule Nolin, founder of what would become Canada’s greatest fashion house of the 1950s and 1960s. Ferland’s talents – and the clients of Lacouture’s she brought with her – help make Nolin’s empire what it was.

Lacouture stayed with Henri Lamy whenever Lacouture was in New York. Lamy was also an expatriate Montreal. He and Lacouture had been lovers, and remained close friends throughout their lives.

Lamy was not as close to Gidlow, and left fewer records to trace. Gidlow said he had gone to New York to get training as a singer. According to Gidlow, “Teachers had promised him that his rich tenor voice could qualify him for grand opera if he would overcome his laziness and work.” He moved onto West 44th Street, where his apartment became the kind of base of operations for expatriate Montrealers.

He does not appear to have ever made it. I’ve never found his name in connection with the opera. When Gidlow made return trips to Montreal to visit friends and family, he was there again.

Harcourt Farmer

Harcourt Farmer was a stage actor and a writer. Gidlow does not appear to have been fan of either his work or him personally. She was jealous by her own admission, and she “hated him” for his sexual relationship with Estelle Cox, with whom Gidlow herself was in love. Her description of him – the only one we have – should be taken in that context:

Harcourt had a dark, slightly sullen, dissipated face, the plastic face of an actor, handsome at times, and a thin, nervous body he handled gracefully. The few times I had been alone with him he had appeared lonely and had not hesitated to let me know he would have liked to make love with me. My lack of interest and response let our relationship settle into a pleasantly casual friendship.

Farmer was interested in both men and women. While he an Gidlow were often rivals for the same woman, he also had for a lover a young war veteran named Charles McDonnell – who we’ll return to in a moment. His philosophy on love seemed to have been – as Gidlow quotes him – “A lover in bed is worth two in the offing.”

Farmer is one of the few of Gidlow’s circle I have been able to find in primary sources. His school of elocution – undoubtedly how he made a living as a struggling actor – was on McGill College Street.

His writing show up from time to time as well. He wrote frequently for journals on culture in and outside Canada. He produced one piece for The Canadian Bookman (April 1919), asking if Canada would ever develop its own theatre tradition. He was doubtful it would. In June of 1920 he penned an article predicting the death of jazz in Musical America. “But every fad has its day,” he wrote, “and ‘Jazz music’ is no exception to the rule.”

(One wonders what he might have made of the Montreal Jazz Festival. The world’s largest jazz fesitval, now nearly a hundred after he’d predicted its end, is centred a few blocks from Roswell George Mills home!)

As an actor, he does not seem to have ever made the transition to film. He performed Shakespeare at Stevenson Hall in 1919, to a mixed review in The Gazette. After 1920, he fell entirely off the radar. Entirely. He does not appear in the phone book, he writes no articles, and does not perform onstage. Elsa never mentions him again, and I’ve found no frther mention of him anywhere.

About his love life, Elsa is rarely specific, and details mostly his relationships with women, particularly with Estelle. She does mention that he’d been the lover of a Charles McDonnell, a soldier in the war.

Charles McDonnell

Most of the gay and bisexual men who met at Roswell Mills’ home in Montreal seem to have made a life for themselves, in spite of the challenges facing LGB individuals in the 1910s and 1920s. Charles McDonnell was the one true tragedy.

That tragedy was in great part due to the war. McDonnell had been deeply traumatized by his experiences on the front line. He did not find anyone particularly sympathetic. He was lovers with Harcourt Farmer for a time, but though he was “young, good looking, passionate, [and] loved and wrote poetry,” Farmer dumped him saying “I can’t keep coddling him…He’s always in the bloody dumps reciting Housman [a gay poet who wrote very often about death], talking about corpses.”

McDonnell followed Gidlow and Mills to New York. He tried to get some of his poetry published by the magazine Gidlow worked for, but she rejected it – too “sentimental [and] derivative of Housman.” He became involved with Roswell George Mills, but Mills couldn’t handle his constant talk of the horrors of war.

Gidlow quotes McDonnell:

You haven’t seen them. Ten million corpses. Ten million of them! They were young like us. They ate. They drank. They were even merry. I loved them. I made love with one of them. There in the trenches where he became a corpse.

The military was uninterested in helping him, and no one in his circle of friends was equipped to. It was before post-traumatic stress disorder even had a name. Mills dropped him, and McDonnell committed suicide soon after.

I’ve tried to add to McDonnell’s story.  I’ve been able to locate two Charles McDonnells from Montreal who served overseas, plus a Francis Charles McDonnell from Montreal, and a fourth I’ve been able to find nothing about at all.  One, an  English-born printer who lived on Milton Street, seems a little older than Gidlow’s description.  Another was married, and also seems a little old.  She described McDonnell as very young, and both would have been older than her and in their 30s when McDonnell died.

That leaves Francis Charles McDonnell, who lived on Saint-Antoine Street likely not far from Roswell, and would have been just 20 when he enlisted in 1916.   He lived with his mother Catherine and was a clerk.  His physical description mentions him as thin, five-foot-two, blond-haired, blue-eyed, and of clear complexion, which of all of them seems to match Gidlow’s description of “that beautiful young man” by the standards of the age.

This McDonnell sailed to England with 199th Battalion Duchess of Connaught’s Own Irish Rangers.  They trained there, and it seems as though they were sent to the front line as reinforcements for units that had lost infantry.  Since he survived the war, his service record is sealed, and I have not been able to find anything else about him to match him to Gidlow’s description.

Phyllis Gidlow

Gidlow devotes even less time to exploring the situation of her sibling, Phyllis. Phyllis Gidlow, she tells us was “mad,” and she documents Phyllis’s slow deterioration over the years. Her sibling refused to eat, and was “raving in tongues,” before the family decided to institutionalize her. Conditions were poor in the institution, Gidlow writes, and Phyllis died.

Gidlow adds one curious detail in her description of Phyllis: “She insisted on wearing boys’ clothes and said she was a boy.”

Gidlow gives us very little to go on. Given her dismissiveness toward other trans people – she was downright mocking when describing trans folk she met in Germany at Magnus Hirschfeld’s institute – it’s safe to assume she’s giving us a very skewed picture of Phyllis Gidlow. And given what we know of the ways in which a transphobic culture causes or worsens psychological problems for trans people, it’s not unreasonable at all to suggest a whole alternative narrative.

What is Phyllis Gidlow was actually trans? And her psychological problems stemmed from being in a culture – and a family – whose most bohemian members had no compassion whatsoever for her situation?

It’s only a theory, and given what little Gidlow gives us to go on, simply speculation. But if Gidlow’s sibling is trans, he would be the first trans person in Canada we can put a name to.

Sadly, I’ve been able to find nothing about Phyllis Gidlow, except a date of death (May 6, 1930). Gidlow mentions that Phyllis was committed to the Protestant Verdun Insane Asylum, which is now the Douglas Hospital in Verdun. Their brother Eric was also there. If those records are kept anywhere, I would not be able to access them.

Gidlow’s Circle

Else Gidlow’s circle – the one that coalesced around her and Roswell Mills – gives us something that rarely see in any country, and which is even more lacking in the Canadian context: an intimate portrait of the LGBT community before the liberation movement. It’s the first such view we have. Every other glimpse of that community has been through the eyes of authorities – through the police, and medical authorities, journalists, and official records.

The rare times there’s been a hint of the voice of the people themselves, it’s been muffled and vague: a bit of poetry, or a line of testimony in someone else’s record. With Gidlow, we finally see how LGBT people of the time lived, loved, and saw themselves.

Of course, there had to be countless other stories, lost to us – there were communities in all the larger cities, and circles of friends who knew each other in other places. Also, there was the war that had so destroyed Charles McDonnell, and defined the end of one era and the beginning of another for Western history generally. It had no small impact on the course of LGB history in the course of the 20th century, and in a strange way forged LGB communities of its own.

It’s to the War to End All Wars that we turn next.

Sources: My primary source, as for the last few entries, has been Elsa: I Come With My Songs by Elsa Gidlow. There was very little to flush it out with, though over my years of hiatus I researched everything from old phone books to dictionaries, to biographical materials.

For Lucien Lacouture’s life, I only had Dicomode: dictionnaire de la mode au Québec de 1900 à nos jours by Gérald Baril available to flesh out what Gidlow tells us. I searched several works on Quebec Opera for Lamy, and found nothing.

Harcourt Farmer does turn up from time to time. The phone book provides the address of his “school for elocution,” over the course of several years. Most of the pieces I’ve cited in the text above, while the mixed review in The Gazette comes from the May 28, 1919 issue. His unusual name should make him easy to trace, but he vanishes rather suddenly in the 1920s, with no clue from Gidlow where he might have gone. Given how eager he was to take centre-stage and how happy he was to have a public forum for his opinions, his disappearance is rather odd.

Charles McDonnell’s records, what little I was able to find, are from the Library and Archives Canada’s online research pages.  It has six entries for that name, three of them from Montreal and one unknown.  Two of them are older – one married, and one from England with bad teeth.  It seems unlikely either is Gidlow’s “beautiful, young man” from Montreal.  His regiment number was 919021.  I’m continuing research into the subject.

Phyllis Gidlow’s records, if any exist, will be sealed at the Douglas Hospital. As far as I know, there’s no way for a member of the public to access them, so the story of Elsa Gidlow’s sibling will have to remain incomplete. It’s unclear whether the doctors of the time would have understood what it meant to be trans, and it’s entirely possible they’d have come to the same conclusions Elsa Gidlow did. Gender identity at a concept in psychology had only been studied by those doctors on the cutting edge of psychology, such as those whose research interested Magnus Hirschfeld. It was only later the year that Phyllis Gidlow died that the first publicized sex-reassignment surgery was performed, and the reality of trans people brought to wider public attention. Thus, the truth of Phyllis Gidlow’s indentity is likely lost to us.

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As I mentioned previously, Gidlow’s is the first portrait by an insider of the lesbian gay community in Canada. Because of this, I’d like to take the time to present in some detail the individuals she who had been part of that community – to put a more human face on what might otherwise be an abstraction.

We’ll begin with the women Gidlow met who were part of the bohemian subculture who had gathered around her friend Roswell George Mills.

The Women at Mills’ Parties

When Gidlow found “her people” in Mills’ small social circle, she was somewhat disappointed. There were only two among the frequent guests at Mills’ home – Marguerite Desmarais and Estelle Cox. Neither was exactly available.

But love must not be explained. One loves. That’s all.
— Marguerite Desmarais

Marguerite Desmarais was a pianist, described by Gidlow as a woman “of great charm.” Mills described her as “the most female creature I have ever met.” Gidlow depicted her similarly: “entirely Woman – strong, with the power of water, yet in no way dependent.” Desmarais arrived at Mills’ for a party one night on the arm of a music teacher named Adelard Brunet, and quickly worked her way into Gidlow’s life.

Mills encouraged Gidlow to go after her, though Gidlow was more focused on a woman named Estelle Cox. She didn’t even see Desmarais as a romantic possibility, believing her to be heterosexual. So no one was more surprised than she was when Desmarais made the first move.

They spent a weekend at a cabin in the Laurentian mountains – arranged by Mills – and Gidlow was often at the mansion Desmarais shared with an elderly mother in a state of advanced dementia. Her home was a shrine to great painters and great composers. It made quite an impression on Gidlow – “every object in the room,” she said, “seemed a projection of her – sharp, shining, alive.” Caring for her mother put a great strain on Desmarais – she devoted herself to art and beauty as a means of preventing her life’s difficulties from, as she put it, “corroding her heart.”

Desmarais was happy to be with Gidlow, though she was primarily focused on men. The possibility of a relationship with a woman did not seem to occur to her. Gidlow once said to her, “But you will not cease to love men. I could no more keep you for my own than hold an armful of moonlight.” To this, Desmarais said, “We cannot hold moonlight because it does not need to be held. We have it now. Isn’t that enough?”

For Gidlow it wasn’t enough, though. Soon Desmarais began to see an older man, but still wanted to be with her. She asked if the boyfriend wouldn’t have a problem with that. Desmarais said that he knew, and, “He finds it amusing.” He didn’t take their relationship seriously enough to feel threatened. Gidlow wondered if all she was for Desmarais was an amusement. She never went back to Desmarais’s home.

Gidlow had lost her heart anyway to a woman named Estelle Cox – almost love at first sight, cemented when Cox gave her a surprise kiss in Mills’ bedroom the night they met. She “felt stabbed” when she discovered Cox was married. Cox’s husband was a lithographer – likely Edwin Cox, whose engraving work was quite famous in book circles in Montreal.

It was not a happy marriage. According to Gidlow’s account, he was sexually demanding of her, and very jealous though he had a mistress of his own. She writes that Cox hated him, but didn’t feel that she could separate from him because she didn’t want to leave her 13-year-old daughter in his care. She called their home “The Morgue.”

Cox and Gidlow kissed a few more times, but Cox was afraid to go further. Gidlow wondered whether she was just terrified of her husband, or not really interested in women. She decided it was the latter when she walked in Cox and another friend, Harcourt Farmer. Yet Cox continued to flirt with her.

With Desmarais, she had the physical, but no possibility of love. With Cox, she only had platonic desire. Neither option pleased her. Her situation was made worse by the knowledge that there had been other lesbians in Mills’ circle, and she’d missed them – they had all left the city.

The first of these had been Muriel Symington. Symington had been born in Canada. She moved to New York in her late twenties or early thirties and took care of her mother and little sister in a house in Greenwich Village. Gidlow described her first impression of her as “a tall, slim, fair woman of thirty or so wearing a tailored tweed suit, silk blouse, and low-heeled oxfords of well-polished leather.”

Symington’s life focused on art, poetry, and music. She had wanted to be a violinist, but had had to give up that dream in order to support her family. She wrote copy for an advertising agency instead. At home she preferred to speak French – she reserved English only for practical things. She was fiercely proud of her Irish heritage, and so she had learnt Gaelic also.

Symington became Gidlow’s first girlfriend soon after they met in New York. Gidlow described their time together, saying that with her, “The most ordinary details of life were haloed. Food tasted divine. I was not merely eating, but savouring nuances of complementary or contrasting flavours.”

They met at Symington’s house. They were able to keep their relationship secret from Symington’s mother – lesbianism was so far out of her experience that the two women could spend hours alone in their room without raising suspicion.

Symington was much more conservative in her politics than Gidlow was. When Gidlow went to work for a left-wing magazine, Symington worried she’d be at risk from anti-communist sentiment. Their relationship came to an end when Gidlow moved in with Mills. They’d had to tell the landlord the unlikely lie that they were married. That made Symington – whose last girlfriend had left her for a respectable life of marriage – very uncomfortable.

Symington vanished for decades. She is likely the same Muriel Symington who emerges in the 1950s as a minor player in a Red Scare drama. Her close friend Elizabeth Gurley Flynn was arrested for violating the Smith Act, the anti-communist act. Symington wrote letters in Flynn’s defence, and tried to get fellow communist Helen Keller to send Flynn a letter of support. By this point, Symington’s politics seemed to have become much more radical. She argued for equal rights for black Americans, and wrote left-wing, anti-Catholic satires for the early underground political newspaper, The Realist.

There is no way of knowing how she experienced this political conversion, if indeed they are the same peron. But Elizabeth Gurley Flynn lived years with Marie Equi, a lesbian, and is generally believed to have been lesbian herself. They were part of that community. And Symington told Helen Keller that she and Flynn were close. She’d even helped prepare Flynn’s autobiography for print.

Tommy

Vincit qui patitur – They conquer, who endure
— inscription on Tomy’s wedding ring to Elsa

Gidlow’s next girlfriend was more conventional. Violet Winifred Leslie Henry-Anderson – known to her friends as “Tommy” – did have a small measure of fame herself, but that was entirely in the world of amateur sports.

Henry-Anderson was born in Scotland, 1884. She was one of the early women golfers. She had been involved in golfing in her native country before she’d come to Canada.

Women’s professional golf was relatively new in the 1910s. It had existed here since the founding of the Canadian Ladies’ Golf Union at Montreal in 1893. Men resisted it, and men’s golfing organisations tried repeatedly to get the women’s associations under their control.

Not surprisingly, more than a few traditionalists were quick to complain that women golfers weren’t very feminine. Journalists described them as “muscle molls” – “moll” being a slang term for a prostitute or a gangster’s girlfriend. Polite Edwardian and Georgian society women saw such women as unfeminine and degenerate.

Some even accused these women of being secretly intersexed, a possibility inevitably portrayed as being deceitful and unfair to the women who weren’t. In 1935, Czechoslovakian Olympic athlete Zdenek Koubkov announced that he was intersexed, and now identified as male – in spite of having competed as a woman. He had surgery so that his outer reality better reflected his inner one.

This shocked one Canadian journalist named Alexandrine Gibb. Gibb was among the first to call for sex testing in sports. Worse, she raised the spectre of intersexed and trans folk competing in women’s sports. She portrayed intersexuality and gender variance as a kind of cheating, arguing such people could take advantage of some unfair superiority over the Canadian “dainty girl runners.”

Oddly, in all this obsession over gender and sports, lesbianism was not on the radar – that came later. A historian of women’s sports in Canada named Margaret Ann Hall suggests that it started to emerge in the 1930s:

Not once, during this period, have I found a single reference connecting athleticism and lesbianism. Susan Cahn argues that the stereotype of the lesbian athlete did not emerge ‘full blown’ until after World War II, although certainly by the 1930s, ‘female athletic mannishness began to connote heterosexual failure,’ usually couched in terms of unattractiveness to men, but also suggesting the possible absence of heterosexual interest.

The stereotype might have developed later, but as Henry-Anderson explained to Gidlow the reality had been established long before the straight world had noticed. She was well enmeshed in that world. She had come from an affluent family in Edinburgh, and had had the leisure time to devote to sports. She had even been a runner-up in a round of women’s amateur golf championships in Britain.

Then her father abandoned the family and took his fortune with him, and she and her siblings were suddenly thrown out into the world to earn their livings alone. The family broke up and settled in different cities. Henry-Anderson and two of her brothers decided to try Canada, though her money wouldn’t take her any further than Montreal. She likely lived with a brother, an E.R.A Henry-Anderson, who sold movie film, cameras, and projectors for a company called Pathescope. She could knit, and made and sold knitted ties that were then popular with upper-class men. The knitting put her through secretarial school.

She soon found a job much more suited to her education, working as a legal secretary. Gidlow tells us how “In our day she would have become a lawyer” but “At the beginning of the century, such a step was unheard of.”

Henry-Anderson had been a part of lesbian circles in Edinburgh from a very early age. Gidlow writes that she and her first girlfriend had been lovers “as girls.” And she provided Gidlow (and us) with a small window onto the Scottish lesbian community at the dawn of the 20th century:

Tommy was able to tell me more than I had ever suspected of women’s passionate, romantic involvement with one another. In Edinburgh upper classes and among her golfing associates, there were many such liaisons, she said.

‘Did they make love?’

‘Of course – those who did not get married, and even those who did for economic or family reasons. An heir was needed. Or they did not like being “old maids.” Once married, they were freer anyway. The men went off to posts in India, Africa, or the Colonies.’

It was not just Scotland. She found British Columbia to be similarly open:

Tommy had not had trouble as a lesbian, even in western Canada. Friends in Vancouver all knew that she and Mona were together and had lived so for years. The couple did not conceal their affection or commitment. If Tommy arrived alone at a gathering or sports event, Sir George Bury, an executive on the Canadian Pacific Railway, would unfailingly ask in railroad language, ‘Where’s the second section?’ Everyone would laugh. It was all done in a friendly, jocular way like one referring to the member of a married couple.

However, a story appeared in the Vancouver newspaper about an individual presumed to be a man, but who was found to be a woman working at a man’s job, with a ‘wife.’ Discovery had come when she had a heart attack and died in the hospital. Vancouver was scandalized and indignant. Tommy remarked, ‘If she hadn’t died I suppose she could have been put in prison. According to the news report, many people knew she was a woman masquerading as a man, but as long as there was no publicity they didn’t care.

Henry-Anderson eventually found her way to Roswell George Mills’ circle, and met a young actress named Mona Shelley. They became lovers. Shortly before Gidlow found Mills, Henry-Anderson and Shelley picked up and moved to Vancouver. Gidlow regretted having missed them. “They were a legend by then,” she writes, “lingering in my thoughts wistfully as the only living lesbians anyone I knew had known.”

In Vancouver, Henry-Anderson resumed her golfing career. In 1922, she took second place in the Pacific Northwest amateur championships, losing to a former English champion named Vera Hutchings who now lived in Winnipeg.

Shelley still wanted to be an actress, though, and in the 1920s she couldn’t imagine making a career in Vancouver. She decamped for New York, where Mills and Gidlow had already set down roots. Henry-Anderson followed her

It soon became clear that the couple was about to break up. Shelley had fallen in love with a teacher whom Gidlow only refers to as “Miss Jonas.” Jonas was apparently in love with Shelley, but uncomfortable with the idea of sex. For that, Shelley stayed with Henry-Anderson. Henry-Anderson was willing to share her girlfriend’s body with another woman – their relationship was open that way – but not her heart. The divorce was inevitable.

After that, Henry-Anderson and Gidlow became close. Then one day, she slipped a ring onto Gidlow’s finger, and said, “Marry me for tonight.” They became lovers, and wives in every way but legally. For thirteen years they were only apart when Gidlow visited family, and during her tour of Europe. They travelled together, moved together to San Francisco, and stayed with each other until, as Gidlow puts it, “death did us part.”

Gidlow’s Tommy died in a San Francisco hospital in 1935, of lung cancer. She had been a lifelong smoker in an age when the dangers were only just beginning to be studied, and smoking had become a symbol of independence and rebellion for women. It is likely that she died without ever knowing the seriousness of her condition. It was not common for doctors to inform patients then that they were dying – it was believed that the shock could kill the patient instantly. Gidlow knew, but was sworn to secrecy.

She was at her wife’s bedside every evening after work until her death. She described the loss as “like an amputation of a part of myself.”

As for Mona Shelley, my best efforts so far have turned up virtually nothing beyond Gidlow’s brief description:

She was a cuddly, puppy-like young thing, maybe a few years older than me, outgoing and physically energetic. Except for her good voice, I could not see her as an actress. She was convinced there were parts she could take and was haunting managers, producers, and casting agents. Roswell and Mona went to plays together, and she was frequently at the studio.

Shelley falls out of Gidlow’s story after she and Henry-Anderson break up. I’ve been looking for evidence that she made it onto the New York stage. So far there are hints that she had parts in some minor productions, but I have no firm proof as of yet. It’s also unlikely she made a break into film.

It is of course possible that she used a pseudonym or that Mona Shelley was a pseudonym – the practice of actors taking one was very common at that time. If so, the rest of Shelley’s story might be lost to us for good.

In my next instalment, I’m going to continue with this series of profiles the people in Gidlow’s and Mills’ social circle in Montreal, moving on to the gay and bi men who were part of that community in the 1910s.

Sources: By far my main source was Elsa Gidlow’s autobiography, Elsa: I Come With My Songs. I was able to find Edwin Cox’s name in Lowell’s Directory of Montreal, which also supplied me with details of Henry-Anderson’s brother. Although I cannot be certain he was her brother, his unusual name appears at the same moment she and her brothers arrive in Canada. I believe that she lived with him because she herself does not have an entry in this rather exhaustive directory, and women living alone were listed under their own names. Her golf tournament in BC is mentioned in Golf Illustrated, the July 1922 issue. I am almost certain that Muriel Symington the communist is the same as Elsa Gidlow’s Muriel Symington. It seems unlikely that that there were two women of that age, by that name, in lesbian circles in New York at that time. On the other hand, there seems to have been at least a half-dozen Mona Shelleys, which was my one main barrier to researching her. I read a fair bit on the history of golf for this article, but the only useful source was The Girl and the Game by Margaret Ann Hall. An excellent study of the subject, and highly recommended. Symington’s satires can be found in The Realist, available online – for example her “Conference in the Hereafter” is in the April 1959 edition of that underground paper. Her letter to Helen Keller is also widely reproduced online. Henry-Anderson’s close friend Sir George Bury is a famous figure in his own right, in part for his life on the railroad, and for his much-read, first-person account of the Russian Revolution of 1917. Mount Bury on the northern tip of Vancouver Island is named for him

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I’ve already written about the European reaction upon learning that the First Peoples of North America did not share their neurotic prejudice against homosexuality and gender variance.

The Jesuits and the French explorers brought back stories of Two-Spirit men “given to sodomy” and “Hunting Women” with wives. Later, British explorers brought back similar accounts. George Catlin said that the Two-Spirit tradition must “be extinguished before it can be more fully recorded.” Sadly, that’s exactly what happened in many places.

In the early days of British rule, British traders and explorers were still dependent on the First Nations for trade and survival, and generally did not interfere directly in their traditions. But they wrote with amused horror at what they called the “berdache,” for their British and colonial audience, describing the religious ceremonies, traditions, and identities around the gender-variant/homosexual/bisexual people among the peoples who were here first.

Alexander Henry gives this account of a man named Ozawwendib, or Yellow Head. He was the son of an Ojibwe chief at what’s now Leech Lake in Minnesota, but was then British territory as part of the Hudson Bay Company:

Berdash, a son of Sucrie [Sucre, Sweet, or Wiscoup] arrived from the Assiniboine, where he had been with a young man to carry tobacco concerning the war. This person is a curious compound of man and woman. He is a man both as to his members and his courage, but pretends to be womanish, and dresses as such. His walk and mode of sitting, his manners, occupations, and language are those of a woman.

Henry goes on to praise the “Sodomite’s” courage and speed, but also portrays him as wild and drunk.

Another explorer – the Northwest Company’s David Thompson – described a Two-Spirit person he encountered in what’s now Washington State, but whom he had met previously in British Columbia. He described this person, Kaúxuma Núpika, as:

…apparently a young man, well dressed in leather, carrying a Bow and Arrows, with his Wife, a young woman in good clothing, [who] came to my door and requested me to give them my protection; somewhat at a loss what answer to give, on looking at them, in the Man I recognised the Woman who three years ago was the wife of Boiverd, a Canadian and my servant; her conduct then was so loose that I had requested her to send him away to her friends, but the Kootenaes were also displeased with her; she left them, and found her way from Tribe to Tribe to the Sea. She became a prophetess, declared her sex changed, that she was now a Man, dressed and armed herself as such, and also took a young woman to Wife, of whom she pretended to be very jealous: when with the Chinooks, as a prophetess, she predicted diseases to them, which made some of them threaten her life, and she found it necessary to endeavour to return to her own country at the head of this river.

In the early 1800s, these kind of descriptions were common from Europeans who lived among First Nations people in western Canada. Another Northwest Company official — Charles Mackenzie — wrote that the men of the Crow Nation were “much addicted to an abominable crime, the crime of sodomy.” James Mackenzie said that that the Naskapi Innu people of what’s now northern Quebec and Labrador “are libidinous and accused of sodomy.”

Dictionary-makers dutifully recorded translations for “Berdash” and “Sodomy,” along with other mundane words in common use. For example, Edward F. Wilson’s dictionary of “Ojebway” for missionaries helpfully tells us that the word for “Sodomy” is poodjedeyáwin, should the ministers need to use this word in any sermon.

These descriptions began to fade in the second half of the 1800s, at least in Canada. By the end of the 1800s, the Two-Spirit tradition had disappeared completely from white view, to the point where the missionary Adrien Morice claimed that he thought it was strange that the Dakelh people of what’s now central British Columbia had a myth about sodomy, as “They know the crime in neither name nor deed.” Such a claim would not have been any First Nations a hundred years before.

Morice was very excited about this story, in which a man mutilates and then murders another man (actually a woodpecker in a man’s shape) who tries to have sex with him. When he returns with his victim’s head, his country and home burn until the head is returned to his cousin. Although it is the murderer and not the victim who is punished with fire, Morice sees the story as a slightly-mangled version of the Sodom and Gomorrah story. With a little too much enthusiasm, he tells us,

Can sodomy be more graphically described or its punishment better assimilated to that of the ungodly inhabitants of the plain cities?
The husband here, no less than the God-fearing Lot of the Bible, escapes free ; while the cause of the conflagration, the voluptuous young man, in common with the majority of the population, pays with his life for his unnatural crime.

The Dakelh with their supposed Sodom story were an exception, however – by the 1890s, there was no mention of “sodomy” in any missionary journals or ethnographies that I’ve found in Canada, even as a denial.

This was quite a change. Missionary and explorer accounts in the early 19th-century and before had described homosexuality and gender-variance in peoples as diverse as the Naskapi in the east and the Ktunaxa in the west – and especially the Ojibwe in the middle. Homosexuality and gender-conformity had once been part of the popular narrative that treated First Nations as dangerously “uncivilized,” and white culture as superior.

The Disappearance of the Ceremonies

There’s no dispute that these Two-Spirit identities and traditions existed. The “dance of the Berdache” among the Sauk peoples, the view of Two-Spirits as sacred among the Ojibwe, the various third- and fourth-gender practices on the plains and elsewhere – these things are well-documented in both oral histories and the written histories of explorers. There’s also no disputing that at some point these practices disappeared – destroyed, all agree, by the colonizing culture.

But the precise path that destruction took is very hard to track. In the months this blog has been on hiatus, I’ve been poring over penitentiary records and the reports of the North-West Mounted Police to parliament, and debates in parliament, as well as books written by and about Two-Spirit people in the modern day.

A description of the destruction of the Two-Spirit traditions might exist in oral histories of some nations, but I have no access to these. But no such stories have been mentioned in the books and pamphlets put out by Two-Spirit organizations, which makes me suspect that these histories, too, must’ve wiped out.

Still, we can build up a working theory from the evidence we do have.

First of all, the 19th-century Canadian justice system meticulously recorded the races of its prisoners, and there are very few “red indians” charged with sodomy, buggery, or gross indecency. The police had no qualms about arresting First Nations folk for other crimes, even minor ones, as the records the North-West Mounted Police were sending back to the government after 1873 show.

Furthermore, the colonial government had begun plans to assimilate the First Nations population as early as 1857. Throughout the late 1800s – and especially after the 1876 Indian Act – numerous laws were passed to control different aspects of the cultures of the First Nations. But the ceremonies surrounding Two-Spirits are never mentioned. Surely they would’ve been a target, if they were still around.

Lastly, the reports of traders, explorers, and missionaries before 1850 commonly mention Two-Spirit traditions and individuals, while later reports don’t mention it at all. By the late nineteenth century, Two-Spirits have completely vanished from the Canadian record – although not from the American one, which continues to record Two-Spirit people among the A:shiwi (Zuni), Diné Bikéyah (Navajo), and Absaroka (Crow) nations into the 1890s.

These three things make me suspect that the ceremonies and identities around Two-Spirits were destroyed in Canada early in the nineteenth century. And because of the time frame – before the government had the means or legal apparatus to prosecute First Nations people for any crimes in their own territory – I suspect it was conversion, and not the law courts, that did the damage. While it’s only a guess at this point given the lack of evidence, it seems probable that missionaries rather than the police who forced the shift.

This would fit with the growing body of essays and other works by Two-Spirit writers, who point out that the missionaries’ attempts to introduce homophobia along with Christianity worked all too well, and they now face serious discrimination in communities whose ancestors once honoured them.

Judging by the disappearance of Two-Spirit people from the missionary and explorer records by halfway through the 1800s, I’m guessing that the ceremonies honouring Two-Spirit folk were already gone in Canada by the second half of the 19th century.

It’s possible some of it continued in disguised form in different ceremonies after that, but as the government clamped down on these ceremonies as well starting in the late 19th century, any vestige of the older ways would’ve been broken.

Lately, the First Nations in Canada have been experiencing a resurgence of their numbers, and a renaissance of their culture and traditions. In the early 1990s, this renaissance sparked a renewed interest in the Two-Spirit traditions. The term “Two-Spirit” was coined in English at a conference at Winnipeg in 1990, an exact translation of the traditional Ojibwe term niizh manidoowag. The phrase has since been adopted by Two-Spirits in the US as well.

But these new developments will have to wait for later entry. For now, though, we turn toward the emerging voice in the late 19th and early 20th century, of the earliest lesbian and gay writers and poets.


Sources: The Catlin quote comes from his book Letters and notes on the manners, customs, and condition of the North American Indians from 1844. Alexander Henry gives his account of Ozawwendib in his published journals with David Thompson from 1799-1814. He never uses the name Ozawwendib, which is supplied by another trader, John Tanner. The description of female-bodied Two-Spirit can be found in David Thompson’s narrative of his explorations in Western America, 1784-1812 the Charles Mackenzie quote comes from Les Bourgeois de la Compagnie du Nord-Ouest, which was published by the North-West trading company. The James Mackenzie quote comes from the same book. Edward F. Wilson’s 1874 dictionary is titled The Ojebway Language. Missionary Adrien Morice’s bizarre reading of the Dakelh story comes from his book Three Carrier Myths, published in 1895. For information on crime and punishment by the North-West Mounted Police, I looked over the reports they sent to parliament in the Sessional Papers for the late 19th century. Those are a gold mine of information, and have probably supplied about half of my information for the 19th century on any topic — I still haven’t finished examining the penal records, though, so there may be more in there. For the other point of view, I went to some of the recently-published works and studies, including Becoming two-spirit : gay identity and social acceptance in Indian country by Brian Joseph Gilley, and Two-spirit people : Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality by various authors, edited by Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas, and Sabine Lang, and Two spirit people : American Indian, lesbian women and gay men by Lester B. Brown. All of them had little on Two-Spirit history, most of that American, and most of it from the same explorers’ and missionaries’ stories I’ve been using. There was nothing whatsoever on the disappearance of the traditions, except to say that they indeed disappeared. I’ve rounded this out with information from Two-Spirit websites and pamphlets, and Wikipedia’s article. None of the e-mails I’d sent in enquiry to Two-Spirit organizations when I did my original article on this ever received a reply – understandable, but still disappointing.

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Seen from the point of view of the “sodomites,” the Conquest of Quebec was a mixture of good and bad. On the positive side, the Quebec Act of 1774 effectively legalized lesbian sex – England did not define female homosexuality as “sodomy.” It also brought in the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” and introduced the jury system.

However, the Conquest also meant that New France passed from the hands of a country that was gradually becoming kinder to sodomites to one that was beginning to become more brutal. France had hit the peak of its executions in the 1600s, and would legalize homosexuality in just a few decades, while Britain – after centuries of denying that homosexuality even existed on its shores – had begun the with-hunt in earnest in the 1690s. It would continue to get worse until the early 1800s.

A gambler would be tempted to bet that things would actually become much worse in the future Canada, because of the 40,000 refugees pouring over the border after the American War for Independence – refugees from what had once been the most violently homophobic portion of the English-speaking world, probably even of European civilization. Puritanism had weakened somewhat, but the Puritans’ extreme homophobia seemed to have put a deep stamp on the American psyche that kept anti-sodomy laws on the books into the 21st century.

Canadian Silences

In spite of this mix of very volatile threads, the French-Canadian tradition of tolerance and the Loyalist Tory tradition of not-fixing-what-wasn’t-broken seem to have encouraged to look the other way. Just as England had done until the 1690s, Canadians seemed eager to keep up the pretence that homosexuality just did not happen within their borders.

Thus, when a Halifax newspaper printed a story of a British lord attempting to rape another man, it seems to be under the impression that its readers didn’t know what homosexuality was. Thus, even lawyers were confused about what the term “sodomy” meant. Thus, “sodomy” trials were rarely talked about in the press.

Yet, homosexuality was mentioned in the books Canadians read – mostly in travelogues and missionary accounts. There, they learnt that men married men in China, that a (black) Ugandan king’s same-sex desires led him to massacre countless innocents, and that the First Nations living on the great plains at the heart of North America celebrated rituals that respectable Europeans would find disgusting.

Homosexuality and race became linked in the public mind, and homophobia fed the Europeans’ growing sense of racial superiority – a subject I’ll return to later. The linking of race and homosexuality distanced Canadians from the reality of homosexuality in Canada. It was something that happened elsewhere, among non-Europeans.

“Sodomites” in early Canada

This belief that homosexuality was a purely foreign vice seems to have acted as a kind of protection. While many records are missing or impossible to access, the number of “sodomy” or “buggery” trials seems to have been very few, and all the ones before 1841 that I can find details of involve bestiality, same-sex rape, or paedophilia – all lumped under the same category of “buggery” as homosexuality between consenting adults. Among these, we have Thomas Clotworthy in Montreal, caught in bed with an eleven-year-old, and Jean-Baptiste Coulombe (also in Montreal) accused of raping another man who was probably named Pierre Courtois. Neither of these trials seem to have resulted in a “guilty” verdict. Even when it came to actual or statutory rape, the courts seemed willing to give a fair trial, and kept to the innocent-until-proven-guilty rule.

Moreover, when men start appearing in prisons for sex between consenting adults, it seems that the judges were lenient, that governors were willing to commute death sentences.

(This wasn’t unique to homosexuality – Canadian judges applied the death penalty less often than judges in other countries, and governors were constantly commuting sentences for a variety of crimes.)

When the penitentiary was built at Kingston, it brought with it a new paradigm – that the law didn’t exist to punish criminals, but to reform them. With that in mind, judges became less reluctant to issues sentences for sex between men, and the first consensual couples start appearing in the records.

Virtually every person I’ve found who was sentenced in Canada for gay sex throughout the nineteenth century was working class. The first couple to show up in the records were a pair of common labourers – 39-year-old English immigrant Samuel Moore and 27-year-old Irish immigrant Patrick Kelly. It would be fifteen years before a second couple – George Smith and George Hogg – arrived at the penitentiary.

As for the wealthy and the powerful, they managed to escape the full force of the law. Wealthy Scottish merchant Alexander Wood accepted quiet exile from Canada in exchange for silence – and then managed to return to the country after only a short time and re-establish himself.

Wood had been accused of abusing his power to see some soldiers naked. Though this was well known, Canadian high society chose to look the other way. Wood bought a plot of land that became knowing as a regular cruising ground – Molly Wood’s Bush – and this region later formed the heart of Toronto’s Church and Wellesley area.

George Herchmer Markland – the rising star of the colony’s elite, the Family Compact – was less lucky. His encounters with soldiers and possible attempt to buy the sexual services of a law student destroyed his career. The scandal was covered up, but Markland was still removed from the centre of power and almost completely erased from colonial high society and history.

Another powerful individual, the second-highest-ranking British medical officer in the Empire James Miranda Barry, was not even suspected during his stay in Canada, in spite of his unusual appearance. Barry – who was quite likely either intersexed or transgendered – seems to have had some difficulty “passing,” but his position as a member of the elite of colonial military officers seems to have protected him from excessive questioning. He was mostly known for his reforms that greatly improved the lives of soldiers.

While male homosexuality did occasionally become noticed by the courts or the ruling classes, female homosexuality remained completely invisible during this period. In fact, it was so invisible that the highly-conservative feminist movement of the 19th century felt safe using Sappho as an icon of female empowerment in the field of literature, without any apparent fear that it might taint them by association to “Sapphic love.”

Progress and Backlash

Given the silence, the secrecy – the simple fact that homosexuality just wasn’t on anyone’s radar – it’s probably not too surprising that in 1869, the new country quietly abolished the death penalty for “sodomy” without a second thought or any real debate.

This was part of a wave of political reform that had led to Confederation, and had swept the death penalty from the books for almost every crime – a wave that had begun in the very progressive province of Nova Scotia. Halifax had abolished the death penalty for “sodomy” as early as 1848.

After Confederation, however, things started to get much uglier. This is the time of the rise of extreme-racist “social Darwinist” movements that used immigration laws, government institutions, and propaganda to enforce their xenophobia.

Not surprisingly, this period from 1867 to the First World War also marks the first real rise in major persecutions against homosexuals and bisexuals in Canada – the first police raids, the first “education” movements, the first newspaper moral crusades, and the first public discussions about what to do with the “problem” of homosexuality.

It was also a time when the British government provided the model for a new tool with which to persecute homosexual and bisexual men – the “gross indecency” law.

Before we turn to this law, we’re going to have to look at the changing understanding of what homosexuality was, what caused it, and how to deal with the “problem” of people who had sex with people of the same sex.

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By the time Dr. James Miranda Barry reached Canada in 1858, he was already a legend in medical and military circles.

Barry had a reputation for being a genius as a surgeon. He had performed the first successful Caesarean section by a British doctor — only the sixth known successful Caesarean by a European. He also understood the importance of sanitation long before European medicine realized how infection worked. In an age when bloodletting by leeches and freezing the patient were common cures, Barry was an apostle of scientific medicine. In an era that thought that bathing, fresh air, and fresh food were harmful to the sick, he prescribed these things. The mortality rate dropped instantly in any hospital he was in charge of.

He was also considered a man of high and progressive ideals – he fought tirelessly for the right to medical treatment for women, for blacks, and for the poor. When he was in charge of prison inspection in South Africa, he had infuriated white wardens by asking black prisoners directly about the conditions of their cells and their treatment at the hands of the prison keepers. He fought for a better life for the lepers in the Hemel en Aarde leper colony — a colony which he had helped to found.

In spite of his genius and his compassion, however, it was always difficult to find Barry a posting because he had such a complex personality. At the best of times, he was cold, aloof, and eccentric. He loved to cause a scandal, and told wild stories of his adventure. He barely escaped courts martial several times for his rudeness to superiors, and once for going absent without leave.

His appearance, too, people noted as odd. He was tiny and androgynous, and the Count Emmanuel de las Casas admitted he’d mistaken Barry for a child when he’d met him.

Before Barry had reached Canada, he’d mellowed somewhat. Sickness and old age had taken its toll, and he was now less likely now to fling insults in every direction. He was still considered an eccentric. He carried a small dog named Psyche wherever he went, and took a pet goat with him on voyages for fresh milk. He was a vegetarian long before a vegetarian diet was popular. Some attributed his shortness and his strange appearance to this diet.

Mostly, though, he was known during his stay in Canada for his sanitation reforms in military housing, which greatly improved the lives of soldiers here.

Barry’s Life

James Miranda Barry seemed to appear out of nowhere in 1809, when he applied to the prestigious medical school at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He arrived in the company of an Irish woman named Mary Anne Bulkley, whom he usually introduced as his aunt, but once told a friend was his mother. Bulkley was sister to a famous painter named James Barry, and James Miranda Barry seemed to have inherited his name.

Barry’s entrance into the university was eased by a number of very powerful protectors. One of these was Francisco Miranda – grandfather of South America’s democratic revolutions and first president of Venezuela. Another was the progressive lord David Steuart Erskine, Lord Buchan, who was a firm believer in modern ideas like equal education for women.

Barry earned a reputation as something of a prodigy – his age was uncertain, but he passed his exams and thesis either in his late teens or early twenties. He then studied medicine in London under the greatest surgeons of the age.

He joined the military, and was posted to South Africa, where he set about reforming the medical and prison systems. He made a lot of enemies in the process of trying to protect the poor and the marginalized from the unscrupulous who saw medicine only as an opportunity for profit, and were importing poisonous “patent medicines.”

Barry also had a lot of sway with the colony’s governor, whose daughter’s life he’d saved. Rumours persisted about the androgynous Barry’s sexuality, and his relationship with the governor – one of his enemies, Bishop Burnett, said that Barry “is, has been and if rumour speaks true, will remain single.”

In 1824, a placard was hung on a Cape Town bridge declaring that “Lord Charles [had been caught] buggering Dr. Barry.” Later, Barry was always seen in the presence of a black man whose name is unknown, and who was officially entered on records as his “servant” but who may have been his lover.

Barry was moved from military posting to military posting, almost always to tropical islands – Mauritius, St-Helena, Jamaica, the Windward and Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, and Corfu. In each of these places, he implemented his usual far-reaching and ahead-of-their-time social and medical reforms.

He finally arrived in Canada long enough to greatly improve the lives of soldiers. Here he advocated a much more healthy diet for them, kitchens to prepare fresh food, and separate quarters for the married soldiers.

Barry was quite ill when he reached Canada, and after years of living in the tropics the climate didn’t agree with him. Finally, his doctor had to report to military authorities that Barry was now too sick to do his job, and Barry was fired a few months before he qualified for a full pension. He returned to Britain and tried to get his job back, but was unsuccessful.

The doctor spent his last days in an apartment in London, where he was treated by a military staff surgeon named McKinnon. Barry died in 1865. He had no will, but every time he had been close to death, he’d left very careful instructions about the disposal of his body. He had requested that no examination of it be made, and that be buried in whatever clothes he’d died in.

Apparently, the servant who’d prepared him for burial – a woman named Sophia Bishop – didn’t heed these instructions. When she wasn’t paid extra for her services as an undertaker by the family that employed her, Bishop went to the agents in charge of Barry’s estate. She demanded to be paid out what little property Barry had had at death.

Desperate for money, Bishop made the agency call Dr. McKinnon, Barry’s last doctor. She threatened him with the revealing of Barry’s secret: Bishop claimed that Dr. Barry was a “perfect woman,” and further added there were stretch marks that proved that “she” had given birth,

When Bishop wasn’t paid, she disappeared. Three weeks after Barry had died, her version began appearing in the popular press. The declaration that one of the military’s highest-ranking doctors was actually a woman became a gossip press piece throughout the British Empire.

Pretty soon, there was no shortage of people who’d met Barry saying that “they knew it all along.” Probably not surprisingly, only people who’d barely known Barry claimed to have “known it all along.” His close friends generally said that they’d had no idea.

Pretty soon, two competing myths about Barry had been framed, and around them was built a series of half-truths and complete fabrications. The first myth was that Barry was a woman who’d fallen in love with a military man, and cross-dressed in pursuit of him. The second story was that Barry was an early feminist, taking the only possible route “she” could to a medical career.

The first myth led to a series of truly awful novels that claimed to be exposés – perhaps the worst of these is Olga Racster and Jessica Groves’ nauseating Dr. James Barry: Her Secret Story. In this piece of High Edwardian saccharine, Dr. Barry dies with “her” lover’s name on “her” lips – “John…this…must…be…death!”

As times changed, though, this myth gave way to the one that was less popular in the 19th century: that James Barry was a feminist who’d reinvented “herself” as male only to claim a man’s privileges. This is central to Canadian Kit Brennan’s version of the story in her play, A Tiger’s Heart.

Interest has renewed in Barry recently, and now there are an increasing number of Barry scholars, and Barry-inspired art. Interestingly, Barry’s secret – not his skills as a doctor and his work as a humanitarian – has cemented his place in history.

However, there is still one question that has never really been answered: What was Barry’s secret, anyway?

The Problem of Barry’s Secret

Ultimately, the first myth about Barry’s secret is that we know what that secret was.

Immediately after the scandal broke, there was confusion. Dr. McKinnon was contacted by the man in charge of issuing the death certificate, Registrar General G. Graham, asking what Barry’s sex was. Dr. McKinnon — who’d also known Barry years before — replied that he thought it was “none of his business,” but that personally he’d always believed Barry was a “hermaphrodite,” what we now call intersexed. Barry’s Canadian doctor admitted that he’d assumed Barry was physically male, and told this to his medical students afterwards in lectures at McGill as a cautionary tale to warn them to make a thorough examination of all their patients.

The military, meanwhile, kept to the firm line that the rumours were just gossip.

Part of the myth that grew up around Barry was that an autopsy done after his death proved he was female beyond a doubt. Actually, no such autopsy was ever done – as Canadian doctor Sir William Osler discovered when he tried to dig up the facts of the story. Barry requested that his body remain unexamined after death, and a contagious disease had finally finished him off so they’d buried him quickly.

The story that Barry was a woman came from Sophia Bishop only. No one else reputed to have seen Barry naked would vouch for it. Barry was very androgynous, and often sexually connected with men (such as Lord Somerset), and this was considered enough evidence to corroborate the story.

Few now believe that Barry was simply male-bodied — though if he was, the sodomy story alone would have been enough to earn him a place in this queer history. It seems fairly clear that he was keeping some sort of a secret related to his body. Although a military man, he never changed his clothes in front of his fellow soldiers. He never wanted his body to be examined. He always lived alone except for his servant, never married, and avoided physical activities at school (such as boxing) that might expose his body to view.

Furthermore, recent research has shown (in spite of lurid Victorian romances that claimed he was the illegitimate child of nobility) that he was almost certainly Mary Anne Bulkley’s child.

Mrs. Bulkley had one son (named John) and two daughters. Her older daughter, Margaret Bulkley, evaporated from history without a trace four years before Mrs. Bulkley accompanies James Barry to Edinburgh. More convincingly, we have samples of Margaret Bulkley’s and James Barry’s handwriting, and they match. As well, Margaret vanishes at the age of fifteen, and Barry appears four years later in his late teens or early twenties (he claimed to be age nineteen).

The question then becomes, why did Margaret Bulkley became James Barry? The two main theories haven’t changed in about 150 years – James Barry was a woman, or James Barry was intersexed. In popular culture, the first possibility has won out (Barry as a heroic woman), though Barry’s best biographer – Rachel Holmes – believes that there’s more evidence to support the other theory.

There is another possibility, which I have never seen mentioned anywhere: Barry could have been transgendered.

The Problem of Trans History

Trying to uncover a transgendered history, the historian runs immediately into the same prejudice they hit when trying to dig up gay history – the misconception, bolstered by both prejudice and Postmodernism, that this kind of history is an anachronism.

The assumption that trans people appear out of nowhere the minute sex-reassignment surgery was invented is not helped much by the few books and webpages purporting to discuss trans history, which tend to begin in the mid-20th century. Both seem to reinforce the idea that a trans identity is something new.

Yet, there has always been transgenderism – usually damned by association to homosexuality, or treated as a sign of insanity (as in the case of the Roman emperor Heliogabalus). Well into the 20th century, believing oneself to be a gender other than the one assigned based on the appearance of the body was treated as a form of madness, and this supposed madness has even formed the basis of a popular sitcom subplot.

Back to Barry: what if Margaret Bulkley didn’t adopt a male identity because “she” was partially male-bodied, or because “she” simply wanted male privilege, but simply because “she” felt herself to be a man? And, if so, how many others were there out there who successfully “passed?”

There’s no proof, of course – we have no idea how Barry saw his own gender, or even know for sure what his body looked like under his clothes. Yet the fact that the possibility has never even been raised is telling.

Also telling is that of the four possibilities of Barry’s secret – that he was a woman, that he was intersexed, trans, or a homosexual, cisgendered male – the least-queer possibility is the one that seems to have carried the day and won out in popular opinion.

Barry’s life is a good starting point for the discussion of a trans history in Canada. The problem is – before we can have that discussion – we have to admit that it was a possibility, and so far none of the historians or writers who’ve looked into the story of James Miranda Barry seemed to have considered it.

For my next instalment, I’m going to the increasing persecution in the late 19th-century and early 20th century, starting with wrap up this Pre-Confederation history with some concluding thoughts before moving on to late-Victorian Canada.


Sources: Anything written here, except for my own theories and interpretations, are nothing more than a footnote to Rachel Holmes’ brilliant Scanty Particulars, which attempts the delicate surgery of cutting away the layers of myth that have become a tumour on Barry’s story. Holmes is very attached to the intersexed theory, which I don’t think she quite proves, but she makes a very convincing case. Other biographies were riddled with inaccuracy Dr. Barry: Her Secret Story for example, and largely useful only for humour value. Most articles I’ve read on Barry – from the Dictionary of Canadian Biography to Wikipedia — are unhelpful and in Wikipedia’s case, inaccurate (Wikipedia lists a birthdate, for example, which can’t possibly be known).
The sitcom, for anyone who’s still wondering, was M*A*S*H.

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I’ve been on hiatus for a couple of months, partly because of being busy in real life, and partly because of difficulties in research.

However, I’ve finally managed to get a hold of some information on a Dr. James Miranda Barry that I’ve been after, and will hopefully have an article on this individual next Sunday (November 25th)

Thank you to everyone who’s been patient with this site.

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The Puritans and Restoration

What with the boys in dresses acting out Greek and Roman dramas, it’s no surprise that the theatres drew the ire of the Puritans. These were extremist Protestants wanting to “purify” the Anglican church of all Catholic rituals, and move it to a Christianity based solely on the Bible. They grew more and more hostile to the king over the years, and finally staged a revolution that toppled the monarchy in 1649. The fundamentalist dictatorship that followed closed all the theatres, and cracked down on “vice.” Needless to say, “vice” included homosexuality.

When Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell died, his son was chased off the throne and England invited its exiled kings back. Charles II re-opened the theatres, and allowed women to work the stage for the first time in history.

This move didn’t make English theatre any less queer, however. Aphra Behn, the first great woman playwright of England, wrote erotic love poetry about both men and women when she wasn’t staging risqué bits of theatre. She also surrounded herself with many of the best-known bisexual figures of the Restoration, and wrote a lot of fiction around sex and the sex scandals of her age. Somehow, she still found the time to work as a spy for the English king under the code name of Astrea.

John Wilmot, the notorious Earl of Rochester, wrote raunchy poems about the (bi)sexual adventures of himself and his friends at court. In one poem he declares that he doesn’t need women because “There’s a sweet, soft page [male servant] of mine/Does the trick of forty wenches.” Thanks to his poetry and his wild life, Rochester became the embodiment of the libertine – the very symbol of the wild, adventurous, hyper-sexual lord.

Not-So-Glorious Revolutions

Unfortunately, the atmosphere of celebration after the Puritan were thrown out of power did not last long. A conservative backlash drove out the king who protected these libertines, in what was called the Glorious Revolution.

Unfortunately, the Restoration had had an unpleasant side effect – the very visible bisexuality of figures like Behn and Rochester spelt trouble for sexual minorities, because England could no longer convince itself that homosexuality never happened there. When the backlash came, it targeted “sodomites” like never before in Britain.

This visibility had been heightened by another phenomenon: London’s gay community was getting larger and more obvious. Ned Ward, who wrote a History of London Clubs in 1709, was the first to tell us the name these men gave to themselves: “There are a particular gang of sodomitical wretches in this town, who call themselves Mollies.”

The “Mollies” had an entire culture, with ways of dress and speech, slang words all their own, and secret meeting places that came to be called “Molly houses.” These drew the attention of an organization called the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which made it one of its major goals to hunt them down.

The publications of this Society put an increasingly bright spotlight onto the “Mollies,” and the great silence that had engulfed English culture was broken. The myth that there was no homosexuality in Britain was replaced with another myth – that homosexuality had been successfully imported from Europe, had recently taken root, and must be exterminated before it could spread.

In the wake of the Revolution that had ousted one king and brought in the Protestant champion (and closeted bisexual) William of Orange, the Society used the religious fervour to whip up a movement against everyone from prostitutes to merchants who kept their stores open on Sunday.

Yet their favourite targets were “the Mollies” — the homosexuals and bisexuals. Every time they secured a conviction for any moral crime, the name of their victim was added to a list, which they published annually in “black letter” font. This came to be known as the “blacklist,” which is the origin of the word.

The Society for the Reformation of Manners would entrap homosexuals by sending decoys out into queer neighbourhoods. By 1707, the organization claimed to have been responsible for 100 arrests, though no one knows if the figure is accurate. That same year, a satire put the number at 40, but claimed the group had driven three men to suicide.

A raid by constables on Molly House run by a woman named Mother Clap in 1726 carried away 40 men for sodomy in a single night. The popular press urged all forms of torture for the victims of these raids, in addition to a death penalty.

These atrocities hit their peak by the early 1800s. From 1806 to 1835, a minimum of 60 men were hanged in England for sodomy. A great many others were attacked and even killed while locked in the pillory, where angry mobs could beat them and throw things at them. Only in 1835, when serious legal reforms began, did the violence start to die down.

”Female Husbands”

The law even turned its eye to woman who had sex with women for the first time. A number of high-profile cases of “female husbands” – women who passed themselves off as men so that they could marry women – aroused indignation among the moral crusaders.

Yet there was no law in England against female homosexuality, as there was in France – these marriages were simply dissolved. If the wife of one of these “female husbands” said she had been tricked, the accused could be charged with fraud however – a Mary Hamilton, a.k.a. George Hamilton, was publicly whipped for having “tricked” her wife into marriage.

However, then as now, the claim that two people could share the marriage bed and not know one another’s sex aroused scepticism in courts. And not all the wives used this excuse — at least one wife I’ve heard of testified in favour of her “female husband,” protecting her from prosecution.

The Unenlightened Enlightenment

The Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham – probably the only person in England publicly arguing for the decriminalization of male homosexuality in the early 1800s – described with disgust his experience meeting a judge who had just sentenced two men to death for “sodomy.” According to Bentham, “Delight and exultation glistened in his [the judge’s] countenance; his looks called for applause and congratulations at the hands of the surrounding audience [for the death sentences he’d handed down].”

Bentham tried publish a book arguing for the legalization of homosexuality, but no publisher dared touch them. They were only reached print in the 20th century.

Bentham, however, was practically alone among European thinkers. Even atheists, agnostics, and deists who’d rejected every other aspect of Christian sin found excuses to join in the mass-hysteria around homosexuality.

The philosopher Voltaire argued that homosexuality was dangerous because it could lead to an end to reproduction and thus the extermination of the human race. English historian Edward Gibbon, meanwhile, argued that it led to weakness – “effeminacy”– and that this in turn sapped a nation’s strength and will to work and to fight. This, he argued, was one of the reasons Rome had fallen. This myth that persists today, and in some quarters it’s still believed that sexual indulgence and homosexuality cause societies to crumble, though serious historians of Rome have long since given up on the theory.

Thus the Enlightenment found ways to transfer old prejudices from the Christian era to the modern age. Homosexuality destroyed nations, they said, weakening them at their core, destroying their willpower and eradicating their population. In the background was the old Christian superstition that fire would rain on cities that permitted homosexuality. It was now given a quasi-scientific veneer.

It was in the depths of this ugly, homophobic state of mind that Britain inherited New France in 1760. But before we turn to the situation of “sodomites” in Canada itself, we’re going to take a little detour by way of New England.


Sources: There’s a lot of material, and my sources are many and varied for all three instalments on England. The best among these are Louis Crompton’s Homosexuality and Civilization, Aldrich and Witherspoon’s Who’s Who in Gay & Lesbian History, John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, and Byrne Fone’s Homophobia: A History. The introductions to the current Pelican series on Shakespeare – the ones edited by Stephen Orgel and A.R. Braunmuller – were also incredibly useful.

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