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In the second grade, I started in a new school that was designed as a progressive environment where students, teachers and administrators were all on a first-name basis. Radical, even in ’82, our school was forward about gender, race and class diversity. Despite this, I only had one Black teacher in my elementary school years – the amazing music teacher. As kids, we could see few other Black adults: the assistant librarian, a handful of the lunchroom ladies, as well as the Black middle- and high-school teachers we saw in the same building. This meant that the Black adult we most consistently interacted with was Miss Saundra, the janitor.
Miss Saundra appeared around corners, could surprise you out of a closet you hadn’t even noticed was there. She was always on hand should there be any major mess or spill. Best of all, our school gleamed from top to bottom, every classroom, every hallway, every bookshelf, every restroom – every desk! It felt lovely to go to school every day, the floors shined, the windows sparkled, and even the banisters were pristine. I am certain this level of hygiene must have taken a team, but I remember Miss Saundra, probably because she was friendly to me. I can still see her, unbending her back to look at us, and speak face to face.
If I ever had to come to school early to play in the gym or have breakfast, or stay late for an after-school activity, Miss Saundra would likely be there, tidying up. She always took time to greet us. She was even there for school dances, and asked nothing in return, and we knew nothing of her outside the labor she devoted to us in the background. She was our school’s magic negro.
Other than the school guard who was not armed with anything but charm, Miss Saundra, might have been the first at school, followed by the ladies making breakfast. These were our essential workers – like the air we breathed in the heart of our city. I like to think because of their personalities we felt at home in our environment and therefore enjoyed school more fully.
Kids carry on.
When I was in the third grade, our teacher – a tall, grey-haired white man of grand stature who taught me I could master math even though it wasn’t easy for me – sent all the girls ahead to music class. He held the boys back for a chat. Apparently, someone had urinated in the second-floor boys’ bathroom, and they’d worked out that only our class had taken a break between cleanings. Since teachers had separate restrooms, I thought it must have been Miss Saundra who’d discovered the mess, and so I wondered what that conversation was like with our teacher, who was now accusing us! Though he didn’t demand we rat out the culprit, he called it “nasty,” and said we could get electrocuted, because “electricity travels through water,” wagging his index finger like it was on fire. With that, he sent us off to music!
This was probably the first time that I’d been explicitly asked to identify as a gender, and it was over THIS! I knew that whoever had done it would have needed an audience. So not only did some fool piss on the wall, some other fool(s) stood around and watched! I thought, what bastard did this! Didn’t they know Miss Saundra would have to clean it? Didn’t she greet them, and ask them how they’re doing like she does me? Did they ‘see’ Miss Saundra everyday like she saw us? Why would they piss on her parade? Why give Miss Saundra the blues for your pissing contest!
I stopped by the bathroom on the way back from music class. Sure enough, Miss Saundra had been done had it squeaky, bleachy clean! I could never have imagined girls’ doing something like that.
I knew that like me, Miss Saundra was an outsider in a space where I belonged. I knew people like Miss Saundra, so she was not a stranger to me. I had no ambitions of becoming a janitor, but I certainly knew women, in my family and in my community, who did this sort of work. And those women I knew who did that sort of work encouraged people like me to do well in school, so I could take advantage of the kinds of choices they didn’t have. I had no reason to think Ms. Saundra less of me. What’s more, even though I felt strange in my own body, she treated me as human, especially. The gratitude I feel for her sounds like a tambourine in my own theme song.
As a twenty-first century cis woman, I cannot directly identify with the people detailed below. However, I feel it important to mark LGBT+ History Month, recognising that so much history has been lost. This is detrimental to society’s understanding and hides the contribution that so many individuals have made to British and indeed, world history. What follows was the basis of a lecture I first delivered in the module CRI1006 True Crimes and Other Fictions but its roots are little longer
Some years ago I bought a very dear friend tickets for us to go and see a play in London (after almost a year of lockdowns, it seems very strange to write about the theatre).. I’d read a review of the play in The Guardian and both the production and the setting sounded very interesting. As a fan of Oscar Wilde’s writing, particularly The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis (both particularly suited to criminological tastes) and a long held fascination with Polari, the play sounded appealing. Nothing particularly unusual on the surface, but the experience, the play and the actors we watched that evening, were extraordinary. The play is entitled Fanny and Stella: The SHOCKING True Story and the theatre, Above the Stag in Vauxhall, London. Self-described as The UK’s LGBTQIA+ theatre, Above the Stag is often described as an intimate setting. Little did we know how intimate the setting would be. It’s a beautiful, tiny space, where the actors are close enough to just reach out and touch. All of the action (and the singing) happen right before your eyes. Believe me, with songs like Sodomy on the Strand and Where Has My Fanny Gone there is plenty to enjoy. If you ever get the opportunity to go to this theatre, for this play, or any other, grab the opportunity.
So who were Fanny and Stella? Christened Frederick Park (1848-1881) and Ernest Boulton (1848-1901), their early lives are largely undocumented beyond the very basics. Park’s father was a judge, Boulton, the son of a stockbroker. As perhaps was usual for the time, both sons followed their respective fathers into similar trades, Park training as an articled clerk, Boulton, working as a trainee bank clerk. In addition, both were employed to act within music halls and theatres. So far nothing extraordinary….
But on the 29 April 1870 as Fanny and Stella left the Strand Theatre they were accosted by undercover police officers;
‘“I’m a police officer from Bow Street […] and I have every reason to believe that you are men in female attire and you will have to come to Bow Street with me now”’(no reference, cited in McKenna, 2013: 7)
Upon arrest, both Fanny and Stella told the police officers that they were men and at the police station they provided their full names and addresses. They were then stripped naked, making it obvious to the onlooking officers that both Fanny and Stella were (physically typical) males. By now, the police had all the evidence they needed to support the claims made at the point of arrest. However, they were not satisfied and proceeded to submit the men to a physically violent examination designed to identify if the men had engaged in anal sex. This was in order to charge both Fanny and Stella with the offence of buggery (also known as sodomy). The charges when they came, were as follows:
‘they did with each and one another feloniously commit the abominable crime of buggery’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they did unlawfully conspire together , and with divers other persons, to induce and incite other persons, feloniously, to commit the said crimes’
‘they being men, did unlawfully conspire together, and with divers others, to disguise themselves as women and to frequent places of public resort, so disguised, and to thereby openly and scandalously outrage public decency and corrupt public morals’Trial transcript cited in McKenna (2013: 35)
It is worth noting that until 1861 the penalty for being found guilty of buggery was death. After 1861 the penalty changed to penal servitude with hard labour for life.
You’ll be delighted to know, I am not going to give any spoilers, you need to read the book or even better, see the play. But I think it is important to consider the many complex facets of telling stories from the past, including public/private lives, the ethics of writing about the dead, the importance of doing justice to the narrative, whilst also shining a light on to hidden communities, social histories and “ordinary” people. Fanny and Stella’s lives were firmly set in the 19th century, a time when photography was a very expensive and stylised art, when social media was not even a twinkle in the eye. Thus their lives, like so many others throughout history, were primarily expected to be private, notwithstanding their theatrical performances. Furthermore, sexual activity, even today, is generally a private matter and there (thankfully) seems to be no evidence of a Victorian equivalent of the “dick pic”! Sexual activity, sexual thoughts, sexuality and so on are generally private and even when shared, kept between a select group of people.
This means that authors working on historical sexual cases, such as that of Fanny and Stella, are left with very partial evidence. Furthermore, the evidence which exists is institutionally acquired, that is we only know their story through the ignominy of their criminal justice records. We know nothing of their private thoughts, we have no idea of their sexual preferences or fantasies. Certainly, the term ‘homosexual’ did not emerge until the late 1860s in Germany, so it is unlikely they would have used that language to describe themselves. Likewise, the terms transvestite, transsexual and transgender did not appear until 1910s, 1940s and 1960s respectively so Fanny and Stella could not use any of these as descriptors. Despite the blue plaque above, we have no evidence to suggest that they ever described themselves as ‘cross-dressers’ In short, we have no idea how either Fanny or Stella perceived of themselves or how they constructed their individual life stories. Instead, authors such as Neil McKenna, close the gaps in order to create a seamless narrative.
McKenna calls upon an excellent range of different archival material for his book (upon which the play is based). These include:
- National Archives in Kew
- British Library/British Newspaper Library, London
- Metropolitan Police Service Archive, London
- Wellcome Institute, London
- Parliamentary Archives, London
- Libraries of the Royal Colleges of Surgeons, London and Edinburgh
- National Archives of Scotland
Nevertheless, these archives do not contain the level of personal detail, required to tell a fascinating story. Instead the author draws upon his own knowledge and understanding to bring these characters to life. Of course, no author writes in a vacuum and we all have a standpoint which impacts on the way in which we understand the world. So whilst, we know the institutional version of some part of Fanny and Stella’s life, we can never know their inner most thoughts or how they thought of themselves and each other. Any decision to include content which is not supported by evidence is fraught with difficulty and runs the risk of exaggeration or misinterpretation. A constant reminder that the two at the centre of the case are dead and justice needs to be done to a narrative where there is no right of response.
It is clear that both the book and the play contain elements that we cannot be certain are reflective of Fanny and Stella’s lives or the world they moved in. The alternative is to allow their story to be left unknown or only told through police and court records. Both would be a huge shame. As long as we remember that their story is one of fragile human beings, with many strengths and frailties, narratives such as this allow us a brief glimpse into a hidden community and two, not so ordinary people. But we also need to bear in mind that in this case, as with Oscar Wilde, the focus is on the flamboyantly illicit and tells us little about the lived experience of some many others whose voices and experiences are lost in time..
McKenna, Neil, (2013), Fanny and Stella: The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England, (London: Faber and Faber Ltd.) Norton, Rictor, (2005), ‘Recovering Gay History from the Old Bailey,’ The London Journal, 30, 1: 39-54 Old Bailey Online, (2003-2018), ‘The Proceedings of the Old Bailey,’ The Old Baily Online, [online]. Available from: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/ [Last accessed 25 February 2021]
I think that I am becoming one of THOSE Black people.
I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who doesn’t speak about race in mixed company, at least not casually, and certainly not in any space not specifically determined for such a conversation. If the invitation doesn’t say ‘race’ in the title, then I most assuredly won’t be bringing up sexism, racism nor classism, nor religious chauvinism – even if social status is evident and apparent by the time we get there. It’s too complicated, and I’ve been the unwitting sounding board too often for too many illiberals, or just folks who hadn’t ever really taken any time to (attempt to) put themselves in anyone else’s shoes – not even as a mental exercise to forward their own understanding of our world and its complexities.
Hurt people hurt people
I am an empath, and so shifting through perspectives is more organic to me than seems ‘normal’. Empaths more naturally take that Matrix-style 360-degree snapshot of any given scenario, distinct from neurotypical folks. I am also ‘a black man in a white world’, a gay man in a straight world, a Buddhist man in a Christian world, so I supposed I have made it a survival tactic to see the world through other’s eyes, knowing full well most hadn’t even considered I’d existed. It’s only other empaths who aren’t so surprised how we all got here across our differences. I have not had the luxury of surrounding myself with people just like me, and yet this has rarely made me feel unsafe.
This snapshot is also a means of connection: I like people and usually see similarities between people where they usually show me they’ve only ever seen differences. This isn’t to imply that I am colorblind or don’t see across differences. Naw, it’s that I am more interested in sharing hearts, no matter how deeply one has learned to bury and conceal theirs. Hence, I usually respond with “why” when told something ridiculously racist or sexist, and ask “how come you think that,” when something homophobic is said; and then I patiently listen. I genuinely want to know. I’ve observed that this response can throw people off balance, for they’ve become accustomed to people either joining in or ignoring their ignorance. Really, no one ever purely inquired how’d you become so hate-filled!?!
I wear my heart on my sleeve for I know how to recover from the constant assault and barrage of disconnection. Yes, it saddens me that so many have been so conditioned, and convinced for so long that we are so disconnected.
They want our RHYTHM but not our BLUES
Now, with my elite education and global aspirations, I often gain access to spaces that explicitly work to exclude people from any non-elite backgrounds. It’s not that I want to pass as anything other than myself, it’s just that I am often surrounded by folks who rarely seem to have considered that someone could – or would – simultaneously exist in a plethora of boxes. I can’t fit into any one box other than human. Yet, I used to try to fit in, to avoid standing out as a means to shield myself from the bullying or peering eyes and gossip as folks try to figure out in which box I reside – a classic tactic of projection.
I am a dark-skinned Black person with a nappy head and a stereotypical bubble butt. I neither bleach my skin nor straighten my hair, so I am identifiably Black up-close and from afar. I don’t even hide my body under baggy clothes, so even my silhouette is Black. I’ve lived, worked, studied and traveled in North America, western Europe, west Africa as well as north, south and southeast Asia, so I’ve taken 360-degree snapshots of radically different societies ‘seeing’ a Black man, and oh how radically different the reactions. I’m becoming one of those Black people who notices this, but won’t speak about race in mixed company because as an empath, one sees how defensive people become when raising race. I went through a phase where I would more readily speak about gender, then draw the parallels to race and class, for most folks can only handle one form of oppression at a time (fellow Audre Lorde fans may appreciate that pun).
Hello, my name is: Diversity.
I think that I am becoming one of those Black people who never questions people when they describe their backgrounds as ‘good’, when all they really mean is moneyed, racially and religiously homogenous. Many get all defensive when I reveal that my entire education was radically diverse by design, from second grade through my master’s. I know I had a “better” education than them because I was taught inclusion alongside people who were similar and different from me – and we went to each other’s homes.
I don’t look in the mirror and say ‘hey diversity’; I just see the face I was given, and do with it what I can. Yet, I have often been called upon to speak on behalf of m
any people. I offer my opinion, or relay my observations, and suddenly I am a spokesman for the gays, or the Blacks, rarely just me. So, what’s it like being on the inside of cultures of power? Darnit, I shan’t ask that either!