1728-1810. SPY, SOLDIER, EUROPE’S FIRST OPENLY TRANS WOMAN?
How to explain the Chevalier d’Éon? Born Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (DMV approved name, for sure), he was a spy, a soldier, and a unique sort of celebrity in France under the reigns of both Louis XV and Louis XVI. She is also widely considered to be the first openly trans woman in European history.
The Chevalier was born a boy in Burgundy and eventually became a secretary to France’s Russian ambassador in the court of Empress Elizabeth. He proved himself eminently amenable in the art of statecraft when, in 1756, he was recruited to join a 15-person group of spies called le secret du Roi, or literally, the King’s Secret (subtle). Not even the French government knew about this group. While it is difficult to pinpoint the origins of the Chevalier’s desire to present as a woman, the fact is that he was able to penetrate Empress Elizabeth’s court while presenting as a woman - initially because only women and children from France were allowed to enter Russia at the time. To be found out otherwise was a death sentence. She named herself Lea de Beaumont and served as a maid of honor in Elizabeth’s court. When her mission was complete, she was recalled to France to lead a corps during the Seven Years War against England. And this is where it gets complicated.
The Chevalier was sent to England, again to spy for the King. However, during this time, the ambassador - the Chevalier’s boss - changed and hostilities began between them, due to the fact that the Chevalier was spying for a group that operated solely for the King. Long story short, the Chevalier published a book of salacious correspondence he had had with the King of France, revealing state secrets in the process, and he then felt the need to essentially blackmail the King and this ambassador, threatening to publish more of their correspondence unless he received a pension that would cover his debts. Another long story short, the Chevalier was sentenced to political exile in London - but remember, he was spying on London for France, so the reception wasn’t the greatest. However, the Chevalier went ahead and published more correspondence, this time with the very unpopular ambassador, which made him into a chic outlaw beloved by the English. Eventually, Louis XV capitulated and gave the Chevalier his pension, with the understanding that he could not return to France so long as he remained silent and continued to spy on the English.
But then, something fascinating happened. The Chevalier d’Éon became famous. And not just famous for being a spy - famous for the way that he played with his own gender. Debates started to spark about whether or not they were male or female. The London Stock Exchange started a betting pool in regards to the true nature of the Chevalier’s sex (for the record, it was 3:2 odds, in favor of female). The Chevalier found that she could not leave the house because so many people had expressed the wish to strip her and see what story her body told. The debate was at a true fever pitch!
And then Louis XV died.
So, at the age of 49, after a long negotiation, the Chevalier d’Éon returned to France under Louis XVI’s condition that she exclusively present, and live, as a woman. This tactic has been much discussed over time, but the consensus seems to be that much of the King’s decision was made under the assumption that living as a woman would strip the Chevalier of much of his rights - essentially, it would be a punishment, because life as a woman in pre-Revolutionary France was definitely a punishment.
The Chevalier d’Éon, from then on, insisted that she was born a girl, but that her parents had simply raised her as a boy. She made a splash at the court of Versailles - Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette financed a wardrobe for her by the illustrious Rose Bertin, who was responsible for Marie Antoinette’s iconic, revolution-starting, era-ending dresses. The population at Versailles were utterly transfixed by her swashbuckling tales of adventure. However, stuffing a soldier into a corset and powdered wig does not necessarily make for the happiest of women, and eventually the courtiers at Versailles found her a bit unseemly - but not without constantly discussing the apparent mysteries of her gender identity. (What is it they say? Haters are gonna hate?).
After being denied a trip to America to help fight in their Revolution, the Chevalier was granted leave back to London. The pension was severed with the heads of the aristocracy during the French Revolution, and eventually the Chevalier d’Éon participated in fencing tournaments until an injury put her out.
She died, penniless, in England at the age of 81. Only then was the public alerted to the fact of her “male organs” and “remarkably full” breast.
But it’s not all sad.
Subsequent descriptions of androgynous “behavior” were referred to as eonism - a term which is now outdated, but was essentially the word that is now transgender. The Beaumont Society, an early organization for transgender people, was named after the Chevalier.
By our modern understanding, it is difficult to ascertain what the Chevalier would have identified as. Who are we to put that on them? They might have preferred “they” pronouns. They might not have. Who knows if they identified as transgender or transvestite? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter, does it? All we know is that this person broke serious ground for the LGBTQ community, as it exists today, simply by believably passing as whatever gender they preferred.
In 2012, it emerged that the Philip Mould Gallery in London had uncovered a very dusty painting of a very masculine woman. It turned out to be a very rare portrait of the Chevalier d’Éon, and it renewed interest in their life story. The painting was acquired by the National Portrait Gallery, and hangs there today.