Transgender celebrities are not a new phenomenon: though the press attention lavished on Laverne Cox, Janet Mock and now Bruce Jenner might seem unprecedented, 250 years ago, newspapers in Europe were filled with stories about the Chevalière d’Eon, the transgender French noble person who was a well-known diplomat, statesman and soldier – all before publicly transitioning in her 50s.
An officer during the Seven Years War, d’Eon won the coveted Cross of St Louis for battlefield bravery, became a world-class fencer and then a major diplomat who helped negotiate the 1763 Peace of Paris. By the late 1760s, the middle-aged d’Eon had an illustrious public career, was living in London as the French ambassador and was known to everyone in high society.
Suddenly, around 1770, London newspapers leaked stories that d’Eon was actually a woman masquerading as a man. “A report prevails at the West end of the town’’, went one story in the London Evening Post, “that a celebrated Chevalier (D’—n) has, within a few weeks past, been discovered to be of a different sex”. Noblemen began to argue over d’Eon’s gender and placed bets that led to several lawsuits.
D’Eon exploited this remarkable situation to transition to womanhood, getting both the English and French governments to declare that “Monsieur d’Eon is a woman.” The press closely followed these announcements and, starting in 1777, d’Eon lived her life legally recognized as a woman. In Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, d’Eon is held up as one of the most remarkable women of her century.
D’Eon saw her change as a psychological and moral transformation rather than a physical one. Her memoirs repeatedly speak of changing from a “bad” man to a “good” woman.
At the same time, d’Eon admired the militant medieval heroine Joan of Arc (who was executed for wearing men’s clothes to fight the English) and, after her transition, she publicly vowed to lead an army of women in the American War of Independence. Foreign Minister Vergennes turned down the request.
Upon her death all Europe was shocked to discover that Chevalière had male genitals – which, even today, is a question of prurient interest for some members of the public for whom it is a matter of utter irrelevance.
As I learned while writing my biography of d’Eon, today there are thousands of women who transitioned only after living much of their lives as men – often married with children – and busy, fulfilling careers.
These late-in-life transitions must not be seen as something they delayed – something that should have already happened, for instance, to Jenner, as Diane Sawyer inquired – but as part of the ageing process itself.
Jenner’s story reveals a complexity similar to that of d’Eon. Rejecting the oft-heard formula that he is a woman stuck in a man’s body, Jenner insisted to ABC’s Sawyer that gender identity is about the brain and the soul and has nothing to do with sexual behavior or the performance of one’s body. He told Sawyer that “as a woman” he would still be ready to “kick butt”. Just as there was a feminine side to his manhood, Jenner insists that there is a masculine aspect to his womanhood.
While both stories defy simplistic narratives, what does tie d’Eon and Jenner together – along with thousands of others – is that their transformations occurred when they were fully mature individuals with little left to prove. Soon after I wrote my biography of d’Eon, I was invited to speak at an annual meeting in Texas of 200 transgender women, most of whom began transitioning only in their 50s. They saw d’Eon as one of their own.
We are all on a journey towards working out our gender identities. As d’Eon taught us centuries ago, and Jenner today, it may take most of our lifespans to figure it out.
[Editor’s note: at the time of publication, Jenner had requested that people continue to use male pronouns.]