I first heard about this historical figure on Futility Closet’s blog here. The Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810), is a great trans historical figure and sounds like an all-around badass. The Chevalier identified as a woman for the last 33 years of her life, so I will use her preferred pronoun.
Born with the magnificent name Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, she was from a very poor but noble family. She excelled at school and had a distinguished career in government, leading eventually to an even better career in Kick-Assery. She was, according to Wikipedia, “a French diplomat, spy, freemason and soldier who fought in the Seven Years’ War.” Apparently the Chevalier was an excellent mimic and could pass equally well dressed as a man or a woman, which made being a spy a hell of a lot easier.
When the Chevalier began her life as a spy, Britain was currently attempting to keep the French away from their pro-French buddies, the Russians. To do so, Britain had pretty much closed the Russian borders to anyone except women and children, out of fear of male diplomats, politicians, and rabble rousers attempting to gain Russian support of French causes.
It goes without saying that the Chevalier put on a dress, smuggled herself into the country, and directly into the court of the Russian Empress, Elizabeth. Not only did she manage to live at the court of the Empress without getting caught and executed by British soldiers, she also managed to become one of Empress Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting and eventually became the French diplomat to Russia–a significant post.
She was heavily rewarded when she returned to France for her service to the country. Despite a healthy pension, she joined up with the dragoons (and was captain of the dragoons, for that matter), and fought valiantly in the Seven Years War. Injured in battle but still distinguished in politics, the Chevalier was given important diplomatic posts and was knighted (well, the French equivalent is being given the title ‘Chevalier’).
Despite wearing her dragoon’s uniform frequently, there were rumours that the Chevalier was secretly a woman in drag. There were even enormous bets (like one at the London Stock Exchange) riding on the Chevalier’s ‘true sex’. The Chevalier was asked to undergo an examination so the bet could be settled. The Chevalier declined, saying that no matter what the result, she would be humiliated either way. After a year the bet was abandoned. The wager was officially settled years later when the Chevalier died and doctors revealed that she had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed“.
The reason why I bring this up is because the Chevalier, after refusing to participate in the bet, revealed that she was a woman and–what’s more–had been assigned female at birth (we know based on her autopsy that this wasn’t the case). She said that though born a woman, she had been raised by her father to be a son, since her father could only inherit money from his in-laws if he had a son and heir.
She was tired of passing as a man and demanded official government recognition of her gender. King Louis XVI agreed, and funded the Chevalier’s new wardrobe so she could dress as a woman. This is slightly remarkable to me that the king didn’t require a physical examination before agreeing to this unusual request and new expenditure.
Over the years she had wracked up enormous amounts of debt and had gotten into some political trouble resulting in her exile. She asked the king for permission to join French troops in America, fighting the British in the Revolutionary War, but he wouldn’t allow it. With few options and with her pensions running out, she eventually had to sell her possessions but ended up in debtor’s prison anyway. She had a bad fall in 1806, which left her paralyzed and bed-ridden. She died in poverty in Britain in 1810.
For a while, the Chevalier’s last name, d’Eon, was used to label transgender people. Havelock Ellis, the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century physician who specialized in human sexuality, developed the idea of ‘eonism‘ (or what we’d now know as being transgender) as something separate and distinct from notions of homosexuality. Havelock Ellis even discovered ‘eonism’ to be a “remarkably common anomaly“.