When did drag first begin as public performance art? Arguably, in London 1870, when two very blatant drag queens were arrested in a West End theatre. According to police testimony, they’d been cavorting outrageously in the company of their obviously enchanted male companions, and were arrested on suspicion of sexual importuning. When taken to a local police station, however, stunned police constables discovered the pair were both male. Cue the sensational trial of Boulton and Park, two young, very pretty opportunists who simply adored being pleasured by penises while dressed as women. Sure today, that’s no big deal, and might even get you your own reality TV show, but back then, the boys were facing possible ten-year prison sentences.
But – in a surprise verdict that still seems crazily improbable – both Boulton and Park were completely acquitted, despite damning medical evidence of having ‘profoundly slack anuses’. In retrospect, it’s utterly charming that any English jury was so incredibly naive and innocent that they couldn’t even imagine boys willingly prostituting themselves for money! It’s fabulously twisted logic – Boulton and Park had to be innocent just because they were so publicly blatant and made no attempt at secrecy!
So do you see where we’re going? Well, of course you do – Boulton and Park, arguably, originated drag as transgressive performance art, kick-starting a line that extends all the way down to David Hoyle. And imitation, always, is the sincerest form of flattery, so by the glorious, 1890s heyday of Oscar Wilde and English decadence, drag was fascinating bi-curious closet cases the length and breadth of London.
But – inexplicably – late Victorian drag had become freakier than Alice through the looking glass. Prettiness and convincing androgyny were viewed with contempt, and only the hunkiest, grossly male hookers dressed in drag, the more broad-shouldered and heavily-muscled the better! Somehow, in a society that positively worshipped masculinity, even women were expected to be a trifle butch, as in the paintings of Simeon Solomon and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And in an ironic mirroring of gay London epicentre Heaven, the Victorian LGBT hotspot was Haxell’s, a plush hotel dead-smack in Charing Cross. Each night, staid, secretly green carnation gentlemen would cruise the clustered, hefty beauties in their petticoats, the majority of the drags usually off-duty troops or labourers. And in a sexual aesthetic peculiar to Victorian rules of attraction, that contrast – sheer lace over strapping muscles – was an irresistible aphrodisiac for enraptured drag-fags, the punters who eagerly stalked cocks in frocks.
So no wonder famed artist and occasional tranny Aubrey Beardsley failed miserably when trolling for trade; the poor honey-bun was rake-thin and tubercular, the living epitome of ill-health. More Abattoir Auntie than British Beef, she relieved her sexual frustration in her astonishing artwork, drawing intertwined penises as elaborate and baroque as the Taj Mahal!
Still, it’s hugely misleading to imagine Queer London was comatose and invisible before Oscar and Beardsley. There’s an astonishing, if annoyingly anonymous book every queen living should get their hands on ASAP, Jack Saul’s Sins Of The Cities of The Plain.
Breathtakingly direct, it’s the only first-hand memoir by a male Victorian prostitute that we have, and riveting reading. Saul – described in his extensive police record as ‘fair-haired and blue-eyed’ – was quite possibly the model for Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, and writes quite beautifully. Never descending to crudity, even in his most extreme, sexual frenzies, he uses a gay lexicon I’ve never read elsewhere. ‘May I gamahuche you?’ he asks his punters politely, an oddly endearing phrase meaning rimming and sucking, and he’s insatiably fond of being ‘sodded’ by eager hunks. And isn’t it that fascinating, often contradictory mixture of strength and delicacy – mental and physical – that makes cocks in frocks so sexually irresistible? So, why not unleash your inner Lady Gaga ASAP? You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain!
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