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What's with the name?

Allow us to explain.

Gender Bendery

This Is the Portrait (And Story) of French Spy Chevalier d’Eon

The portrait above isn’t just any old vintage picture. Recently sold at auction in New York City as a painting of “a woman in a feathered hat,” it’s actually thought to be the first known formal portait of a transvestite, the spy Chevalier d’Eon. The subject of this portrait is definitely a man, even though he lived the latter part of his life as a woman. And did I mention he was a spy, too? No really, kids, let’s find out more about the Chevalier d’Eon.

First of all, no, this is not actually related to the manga or anime series Le Chavealier D’Eon, which was about a knight in service of King Louis XV looking for clues about the death of his sister. The real Chevalier was a man who spent the first 49 years of his life as a man and the last 33 as a woman. Though the choice may not have been entirely d’Eon’s own personal preference. In 1763, after being appointed to Le Secret du Roi, the secret network of spies who worked for King Louis XV (the same from the anime/manga), he was named Plenipotentiary Minister to London. However, someone was gunning to replace him, and d’Eon ended up demoted to secretary. He then got into a bit of a tussle with his replacement, accusing the man of trying to murder him and then, later, holding on to some private security documents to blackmail the king. By some accounts, he was sent to prison for this and escaped from France to England, where he lived out the rest of his life as a woman, cross-dressing to protect his identity.

But he was so persuasive as a woman (and also flat-out refused to admit his gender when asked) that people took bets on what gender he was, and when he died in 1810, only an autopsy confirmed that he was a man. The people who knew d’Eon for the last three decades of his life had no idea, including his own housekeeper (who went into a “state of shock” following the discovery). Apparently, the French government, knowing that d’Eon had a ton of secret information that could really blow their cover (including plans to invade England), let d’Eon off the hook and allowed him to live out the rest of his life as a different person as a way to thank him for not spilling all their state secrets. They also went ahead and paid all his debts, like he requested, just to ensure their spot would not be blown the heck up.

The painting itself had experts scratching their heads. Originally thought to be of a woman, once restoration began, some distinctly male features started revealing themselves on this handsome woman in the fancy hat. Like stubble, for one thing, and the muscular nature of the facial structure. Art dealer and historian Philip Mould made it his mission to figure out the identity of this portrait’s subject, and when he finally did, he knew this was a special find:

“It’s a combination of mirth and respect for a man who was bold enough, brave enough, but also extrovert enough to state his case.”

To this day, the “Patron Saint of Transvestites” still inspires those who choose to dress in the clothing of the opposite gender; the term “eonism” means the male adoption of female dress. And so goes the story of the former French spy who dressed as a woman before any had ever really heard of such a thing as a lifestyle (outside the theater, anyway).

(via Neatorama, MSNBC)


  • Ryan ‘Quavey’ Havers

    As a make up wearing guy who likes skirts amoungst other bits.

    I love this. :3

  • Anonymous

    Um a quick google search would let you know that “transvestite” isn’t really considered a polite term. It’s out of date and offensive. Looks like this is a nerd site for only cis women that can’t be bothered to educate themselves…

  • Corinne Marie M

    Technically if this individual lived as a woman she’d be considered transsexual or transgender not transvestite

  • Anonymous

    Perhaps, but it seems unclear whether d’Eon actually identified as a woman or whether it was simply the most effective disguise.

  • Christine Winckler

    You shouldn’t use male pronouns to refer to someone who clearly wanted to be thought of as a woman. It’s offensive. 

  • Kate Lorimer

    Sounds to me that this was a Bonnie Prince Charlie style disguise that extended for the remainder of his life due to necessity rather than someone who was trans – just from reading  the article at least.  Also transvestite is a simply a descriptive term for someone wearing the clothes of the opposite gender.  I believe the term that is applied globally and deemed to be offensive to transsexual people is “tranny”

    Because of the ambiguous nature of the story, however – where it could be said that the individual had to live the life of the opposite gender they were born as.. perhaps a more appropriate term might be Transgender.

    /devils advocate

  • Christine Winckler

    That’s exactly the problem with this article – D’Eon lived for 33 years as a woman, consistently presented herself as a woman to everyone for that entire time, and this article still refers to her as man, and frames it as though she wasn’t serious about the gender change. 

    Read the Wikipedia article. She asked for the french government to recognize her as a woman after she returned to France. She wasn’t doing it to hide from the French government.

    Mary Sue – it’s time for “How to Apologize on the Internet for a Transgender-Related Mishap.” This really isn’t cool.

  • Clare

    There are people who identify as Transvestites, thus why saying “Trans Person” is great if you’re not sure. Not saying that this article couldn’t have been worded better – because it really could! – but just pointing out that in matters of identity “offensive” isn’t the same for everyone.

  • Clare

    Not only did D’Eon refuse to tell anyone their gender for ages, apparently when they did get fed up of the constant questions they told everyone they were a woman pretending to be a man. So basically, they were very cool and a massive troll and it’s pointless to try and impose modern gender theory on people who were dead long before it was invented.

  • Anonymous

    Looks like The Mary Sue are sailing between some tricky rocks today.  Hopefully if if anything is changed it will be with a good reason and not just from wishful conjecture or a desire to appease readers (in either direction, before someone jumps down my throat …)

  • Jenn W

    I wouldn’t exactly call it an offensive word, more like “squirm-inducing”. I’ve never liked the word because I’ve always felt that it held a fetish quality to it. Whenever I am discussing trans related topics I tend to use transsexual when referring to someone who identifies as the opposite sex or lives that way full time, and I use cross-dresser for someone who still identifies as their birth sex, but who dresses as the opposite sex occasionally. Transgender is probably the best option for news articles, because it can cover a wide variety of gender nonconformity.

  • Kate Lorimer

    *looks closely to see if is a veiled reference to Mass Effect 3* 

  • Sarah

    Oh Mary Sue there is so much going on here. 

    First off don’t use the word ‘transvestite’.From the things I’ve read like criticisms of Dan Savage by trans persons, calling a trans person a transvestite is like referring to an African American as “negro”. It’s dated and has a negative connotation without necessarily being as offensive as “tranny”. That being said, if an individual calls themselves that and uses it as their identifier, that’s their choice. 
    The pronouns here are getting a little fuzzy since whether or not the individual chose to present as the opposite gender is unclear. “They” is a good alternative since it’s still humanizing. “Zir” could work but it’s not as widely known. 

  • Sarah

    And now all the comments don’t make sense because The Mary Sue has corrected their error. Nice job in correcting :D

  • Frodo Baggins

    That is DEFINITELY NOT an effective disguise.

  • Frodo Baggins

    Would you describe Eddie Izzard as a Trans Person?

  • Life Lessons

    Well that is fun!

  • Jill Oliver

    This is very interesting to learn. But the comments make my head hurt. There is a lot of lumping people together that have no reason to be lumped. Just because a person dresses in traditional garb of a different gender, doesn’t mean that they identify as that gender. There are so many different types of people in the world, we really don’t need to force them into categories against their will (or without their knowledge because we can’t ask someone that’s been dead for centuries what their preference is).

  • Carmen Sandiego

     I thought trans person meant ‘transsexual’ not ‘transvestite’.

  • Carmen Sandiego

     Are we sure it didn’t have anything to do with her being a spy?  I’m just saying, it’s unclear.

  • Carmen Sandiego

     Exactly.  I know plenty of men who identify on all levels as men, but enjoy skirts, dresses, heels, cosmetics and other traditionally feminine accoutrements every now and again. 

  • Clare

    Eddie Izzard has described himself as transgender, as a transvestite and as a cross dresser & is just one of many people who don’t fit neatly in to even the broadest boxes of “gender non-conforming” or “gender independent”. As to calling a self-identified transvestite as a trans person, why not? Some people on the internet use Trans* to symbolise that they acknowledge the person they’re discussing has an independent gender identity but nor their exact self-identification.

    Interestingly, Tranny was originally invented by the Australian queer community as the umbrella term for gender independent people but sadly as the word spread to became twisted in to an insult.

  • Clare

    Well, apparently it was! 33 years is a long time

  • Laura

     Maybe just “he” for the first half of the article. ^_^ /lame joke.

    Gendered pronouns are a tricky business no matter who is being referred to, I’ve been trying to do without them completely lately but have not had much success.