“So long as you say I lived as a woman”: Why Queer History Matters

With LGBTQIA+ rights facing renewed threats worldwide, the story of Paula C., a transgender woman and sex worker in 1960s London, serves as a poignant reminder of the continued struggles of queer communities and individuals. However, it also underscores the ubiquity and enduring presence of queer history.

This blog post is part of a series centered around Pride Month.

In July of 1964, policemen from the Notting Hill (‘F’) Division raided an apartment in Holland Park, a leafy borough of Victorian townhouses not far from Kensington Palace. After an extended period of observation, the officers felt they had enough evidence to declare that the apartment housed an illegal brothel, run chiefly by a mysterious woman that the notes taken at the time referred to only as ‘A.’ The results of their investigation are, nearly six decades later, found deep in the files of London’s Metropolitan Police, in the shelves of the National Archive—a story that is at once both ordinary and extraordinary, exciting and instructive not just for how we approach the past, but how we should look upon the present.

The brothel raid itself was relatively straightforward and meticulously recounted after the fact by the policemen, in the stilted and uncanny way that these things often are. As the case unfolded, both in the investigation and in court, the reader is introduced to a number of incidental characters: an elderly housekeeper, a man who insisted he was only visiting the brothel in his capacity as a hairdresser, and of course ‘A’ herself. As the alleged sex worker is arrested and interviewed, she provides the policemen with her name: Paula C. The chief inspector in charge, however, intervenes: ‘I put it to you that you are a man.’

The case of Paula C. is, in many ways, an illustrative footnote to history. At the time of her arrest, British police, like their counterparts in many other countries, continued to clamp down on what the laws of the time saw to be public indecency and immorality. Prostitution was one pillar holding up what authorities determined to be ‘vice’; another was queerness. Paula C., a transgender woman, found herself at a terrible intersection of institutional persecution. Though she lived openly as a woman (and had done so since 1955), and indeed was undergoing hormone therapy, the law recognised her as a man, and she conducted her sex work with male clients.

“Paula C. was damned not only for what she did, but for who she was.”

Even though a government committee had already reported in 1957 that the law had no place regulating private homosexual behaviour between consenting individuals, this would not lead to (partial) decriminalisation of homosexuality until some ten years later—three years after Paula C. was arrested. Moreover, the same committee, while giving a green light to private queer sexual relations, also advocated for clampdowns on prostitution—and while the legislature was slow to loosen laws governing homosexuality, it was much faster in its more draconian regulation of sex work. Paula C. was therefore damned not only for what she did, but for who she was.

Finding the Intersections

Many critics of queer theoretical approaches to history argue that it results in ahistorical work, and that it is dominated by an obsession with labels. But, as the Holocaust historian Anna Hájková demonstrates, queer history is a lens or a tool in the historian’s craft. Instead of forcing people into drawers or categories, by examining history from a queer perspective we are able to open our eyes to important, intersectional considerations that might otherwise have passed us by. In turn, these offer us not only the chance to re-evaluate the history itself—moving us closer to the truth of ‘history as it essentially was’—but also offers new approaches to examining the interrelation between queerness, gender, class, economics, politics, and race.

“By examining history from a queer perspective we are able to open our eyes to important, intersectional considerations that might otherwise have passed us by.”

Such is the case with Paula C. Her apartment was in an upscale neighbourhood close and the investigative team from ‘F’ Division seems from its own records to be unconcerned with Paula C.’s clientele, but instead only Paula herself and anyone else who might have profited from her sex work. Just the previous year, the Conservative government had been rocked by the Profumo Scandal, in which the Minister for War had been found to have had an affair with a woman also connected to the Soviet naval attaché. Beyond the security concerns at the height of the Cold War, this affair more than anything else served to undermine public trust in the sanctity and morality of Britain’s political masters.

In this context, it is unsurprising not only that the police were keen to tighten the reins on ‘public immorality’, but were also cognisant of the potential uproar that exposing Paula C.’s clients would cause. After all, the brothel was in a well-to-do area of Britain’s political and financial heartland. By contrast, Paula herself was seemingly economically disadvantaged; she was behind in her rent, and had to apply for legal aid to be represented in court. It is also remarkable to find in the police notes the casual racism displayed by the detectives: in spite of the fact that they never observed any people of colour at or near the apartment, they nevertheless made further inquiries as to whether any ‘coloured girls’ were selling sex there, demonstrating the mental and institutional link that the authorities drew between race and sexual morality.

Here we can see the mechanisms of asymmetric power at play: of a queer person whose gender and sexual identity was criminalised and instrumentalised against her, whose socioeconomic standing endangered her, and who, in light of events such as Profumo, would always lose out to Establishment demands.

Queer Past and Present

Finally, at a time when LGBTQIA+ rights are once again under serious attack across the world, and transgender people fear that they are targets of reactionary policies designed to legislate them out of existence, Paula C.’s story, though by now some sixty years in the past, may sound uncomfortably familiar. Paula C. had not always been a sex worker and, indeed, had earlier worked as a receptionist at a hotel. But she was forced out of this job because it was intended for a man, and ‘Management was doubtful as to his sex.’ Thus, though the law refused to view Paula as a woman because she was transgender, her previous employer had used the reverse rationale to deny her a job, because she was suspected of being a woman. How, we might ask, was she meant to live?

“Pride Month is a reminder that queer history is everywhere, and that its subjects have always existed.”

Paula C. may inhabit one small corner of history. But Pride Month is a reminder that queer history is everywhere, and that its subjects have always existed. Queer history allows us to reconceptualise familiar history in new, exciting ways, often with deep connections to other marginalised avenues and experiences. And these stories have the right to be told. It may be tempting to assume that they all too often end in tragedy—and, in many cases, this is true. But there is something tantalising about the traces they leave behind.

The police documents in Paula C.’s case refer to her as a man—and yet, in many of the documents, the original writer refers to her as ‘she’ or ‘her’, and it was only after the fact that these were edited out in pen. There is also something heartening to be taken from the fact that, even while she was being led away by the police, Paula insisted to them that she would not compromise who she was. ‘It’s alright’, she told them, ‘so long as you say I lived as a woman.’

[Title image by Jason Leung via Unsplash]

Bodie A. Ashton

Dr. Bodie A. Ashton [he/him] is a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer in the Philosophical Faculty at the Universität Erfurt, Thüringen, Germany. He is a researcher of queer history in relation to Germany’s twentieth century and a member of the VolkswagenStiftung-funded research project “The Other Global Germany: Transnational Criminality and Deviant Globalisation in Germany.” Furthermore, he is coeditor for the book series “Transnational Queer Histories.” You can find him on Twitter @manwithoutatan and at his university.

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