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16 April 2013

A review of Kris Kirk & Ed Heath - Men in Frocks, 1984

There are three books on trans people in the UK in the 1980s: this book, Richard Ekins' Male Femaling and Liz Hodgkinson's Body Shock.  I have all three side by side on my shelf.  Each book focuses on a different group:  Hodgkinson on SHAFT, Ekins on the Beaumont Society and Kirk and Heath on the TV/TS group.  Somehow this results in no one person appearing in more than one book, although in reality there was migration among the three groups - for example we have seen that Janette Scott moved from the executive of the TV/TS group to the executive of the Beaumont Society.

Christopher Pious Mary Kirk (1950 – 1993) was a journalist for Gay News in the early 1980s. Later he was an openly gay music journalist writing for Melody Maker, The Guardian and other publications. In 1984 he published Men In Frocks, with photographs by his lover Ed Heath. In 1986, Channel 4 television broadcast a documentary-drama about Kris Kirk entitled A Boy Called Mary. In 1988 Kris and Ed moved to rural Wales to open a bookshop, but three years later Kris found that he had Aids. He went blind in 1992, and died in 1993. Other works: A Boy Called Mary: Kris Kirk's Greatest Hits, 1990 - a collection of his music journalism.

  • Kris Kirk with photographs by Ed Heath. Men In Frocks. London: Gay Men's Press 1984.

Note: this book was written in the early 1980s and thus, inevitably, it does not conform to the expectations of the 2010s.   The title was perhaps ill-chosen even then.   Kris, several times in the book has to apologize that a person (Poppy Cooper, Roz Kaveney, Letitia Winter) is not a man in a frock, they having become a woman.  However the book is of major historical interest, and many of its observations are still valid.


Kris asks where you would have looked if you wanted to wear drag in the 1940s?
"Well, if you were lucky enough to be on one of the few gay grapevines - and the right gay grapevine at that - you might hear of a secret party in somebody's private home where you could slip on a frock on arrival and slip it off again when you left.  There was little else. ... So what happened between then and now? What triggered off the rise of drag in Britain?"  
His answer is that
"The evolution of modern drag goes hand in glove with the increased visibility of those gay men who not only enjoy debunking the traditional male image, but also enjoy doing it in public."
Vivian Namaste has claimed that the pioneering for trans people was mainly done by sex workers, but has declined to provide a supporting narrative for her claim.  Kris' claim for the pioneering by gays is found in this book.

The Chorus Queens

Following the Second World War a venue of sorts did open up for the isolated few who wanted something other than the stereotyped male role.  In California Louise Lawrence was introducing trans women to each other, as was Marie André Schwidenhammer in Paris.  However in Britain the only option was the soldiers-in skirts revues, and of course to get into those you had to have some inclination, if not actual talent, towards singing and dancing, although you did not have to have actually served in the forces. The first such show was actually a US import, Irving Berlins' This is the Army, which played the London Palladium for four nights in 1944.  The going wage in the British versions was £6 or £7 a week and half of that went on draughty digs where they sometimes had to share four-to-a-bed.  We have already noted Poppy Cooper whose path to womanhood was via these revues. Other performers included Terry Gardener and Canadian Loren Lorenz.  Shelley Summers did drag while with HM forces in Burma until 1947 (for which he got sergeant's stripes) but did not join any soldiers-in-skirts revue because of family, but did become a drag performer in the 1960s.  While most books on either theatre or on cross-dressing barely pay any attention to these shows, Kris points out that while Lena Horne could not fill the Theatre Royal in Leeds, Men in Frocks played to capacity houses; Sophie Tucker's box-office record at the Golders Green Empire held for years until it was broken by Forces Showboat.  There was a significant difference from the drag acts of the 1930s such as Bartlett & Ross or Ford & Sheen and the pantomime dames all of whom had been doing cod drag, that is being funny.  Terry Gardener, who was in the first We Were in the Forces in 1944, explained:
"The general idea of the first show was to put men into dresses to make them look dreadful, but that soon started to change because the audience liked the prettiest ones best" - which much suited the performers. 
Most were gay:
 "Heterosexuals? In the choruses?  I can't say I ever met any.  I guess it was possible" - Loren Lorenz. 
 Men who were not queens were 'hommes' ('omnies' in Polari).  A surprising number of omnies wanted to bed the queens, but
"If you ever suggested to an homme in those days that he was homosexual, even bisexual, he would have killed you" - Poppy Cooper.

Did somebody say: what about Gillies, Dillon, Cowell?  They don't fall within the pervue of this book.  Not only were none of them gay, and to be a trans patient of Gillies you had to be the child of either one of England's top doctors or of a Baron.  Anyway he stopped after two patients.  Hoi polloi need not apply.  

Gay Paree and the Sea Queens

By the mid-1950s the forces drag shows had run their course, and the audiences were no longer coming - many of them had acquired televisions.  There were other things happening that were a bit of a surprise to the queens: those who took being female more seriously.  There were stories in the press: Christine Jorgensen, Bobbie Kimber, Roberta Cowell.  

Basically the show queens had nowhere to turn to.  The few exceptions were Terry Gardener who partnered with Barri Chat and found work in regular variety shows, as did Phil Starr and Terry Dennis.  Danny Carrol changed his name to La Rue and in 1955 started a residency at Winston's Club in Mayfair that lasted for six years.  Mrs Shufflewick pursued an idiosyncratic career on the wireless and also did eight seasons at the Windmill Theatre - many of her audience took her to be a woman. However Roy Alvis, not finding any drag work, became a meat porter at Smithfield Market until the pub drag boom in the late 1960s.  Some like Poppy Cooper went to Paris where Le Carrousel and Chez Madam Arthur were hiring.  Tommy Osborne remembers
"I liked Paris, but I wasn't too happy in the show.  I was a singer and I used to go out there and belt out the numbers big and loud and forget about being in drag, but most of the audience was there purely for the sensation of seeing boys with tits.  The boys were all incredibly beautiful.   But they just couldn't do anything, bless them."   
1953-4 was a particularly good time to not be in England.  In addition to the Coronation, David Maxwell-Fyfe, Home secretary 1951-4, and John Nott-Bower, Commission of Scotland Yard(1953-8), under US pressure and in the shadow of the Guy Burgess defection to Moscow, started a purge of homosexuals.  In 1953, the actor John Gielgud, the writer Rupert Croft-Cooke and the MP William Field were all convicted.  In 1954 Edward Montagu, Lord of Beaulieu, the writer Peter Wildeblood and Michael Pitt-Rivers were convicted and imprisoned.  On release Rupert Croft-Cooke moved to Morocco, and drag entertainer Ron Storme worked in Tunisia.  

The other destination for show queens was the merchant navy.  Lorri Lee recalls:
"The sea was an ideal life for queens in those days.  There were hundreds of us, literally.  Competition was very stiff if you wanted an homme.  ... The Sea Queens were all drag queens and had a frock tucked away, just in case.  We did shows on a little stage on the ship: the crews got the dirty version, while the passengers got the cleaned up version."  
On layovers in London, a popular place to stay was Stella Minge's.  Other sea queens were Loren Lenz and Yvonne Sinclair.

However there were drag gatherings in Britain that were not bothered by the police, such as Blackpool at Easter, and the Vic-Wells Costume Balls (Old Vic and Sadler's Wells) although it had signs posted saying "No Drag Allowed", and later the Chelsea Arts Ball, which had a similar sign.

The Pub Queens

There was very little pub drag before 1960 except for a few tolerant, mainly straight, pubs in the East End, such as the Bridge House (which later became a heavy metal/punk/goth pub) in Canning TownThrough the 1960s the number of pubs doing drag increased.  Roy Alvis returned to doing drag, although he was arrested by the police for doing so more than once.   Gay men started going to drag shows in straight pubs in that that was a good way to meet gay men.

The drag scene was helped by the various youth homeovestic fashions - the Teddy Boys, The Mods, the Rockers - which opened up clothing options so that short-back-and-sides, jacket and tie were no longer so overwhelmingly demanded
.  The iconography was upended in the mid 1960s, following the Beatles and the Stones when long hair on men became acceptable.  Swinging London came and went, as did the Permissive Society.   Drag was never central to either but it benefited from the further loosenings of required dress.  The first edition of Roger Baker's  book Drag: a history of female impersonation on the stage came out in 1968.

In London, the Union Tavern, the Vauxhall Tavern and Black Cap became established as drag venues.  A similar situation happened in Manchester, where the Union Tavern was the place.   Danny La Rue opened his own club in 1964, performed for royalty and for a while was Britain's highest paid performer.  Gays who were not queens were arguing in public for changes in the law, and the law really was changed in 1967 as part of a liberal package from the Labour Party which included abortion and divorce law reform.  While a significant number of the drag performers did continue their journey and become women, the majority did not.

On p48 Kris notes that

"Whatever their reason for donning drag in the first place, dragging up soon became 'just a job' for most of the regular Pub Queens.  One of the many ironies of professional drag is that, for many performers, what began as a giggle or as a pleasure soon became a chore.  And then drag queens come to realise what women have always known: that the fun of dressing up quickly evaporates when you feel obliged to do it." 
Another change in the 1960s was the innovation of miming to records.  The act Alvis and O'Dell are credited with being the first when they mimed to Susan Maughan singing Bobby's Girl, a 1962 single that went to number 3 in the UK and number six in Norway.  Alvis and O'Dell were then one of the hottest acts in town -- until every body else got a tape recorder.

Kris. a gay man who loves drag, but was unhappy about what the pub scene had become,  finishes the pub chapter with a regretful survey:

"I have spoken to drag performers who have been genuinely hurt at the suggestion that they are satirising women because they feel  - however mistakenly - that they are paying homage to their female idols; and while there are Diana Rosses and Shirley Basses in this world I cannot see how they will ever be dissuaded of this.  ... There are also drag acts like Dave Dale who consider themselves to be character actors who do caricatures of both men and women.  There are acts who are still doing the pregnant bride routine which they were doing twenty years ago.  And there are acts which prey on the basest instincts of their audience, perpetuating the notion that women smell like fish and that black men swing from trees.  What the latter acts do is unforgivable and I prefer to reserve my venom for them and those unthinking audiences of gay men who appear to share their brute misogyny and racism."
The Ball Queens

The problem with the Chelsea Arts Ball was that officially drag was not permitted, and if you did not pass well, or drew attention, there was a risk of being ejected.  By the mid-1960s there were balls that were really drag balls.  After trying different locations the Porchester Hall was selected as the place.  Prominent among the organizers were Jean Fredericks and Ron Storme.  At first most of those who went thought of themselves as drag queens,   A fair number of them didn't bother at first with female underwear, and in fact would rush home afterwards to change and then go out to pick up a bloke. But then they realized that there are lots of men who went to went to the balls to pick them up, and that these men expected them to be wearing stockings and frilly knickers. (1)

As the balls continued, those better described as transvestites or transsexuals starting coming.

"The drag queens thought the TVs were peculiar for wanting to dress like an ordinary woman does, and the TVs thought it peculiar that the queens like to go over the top.   In those days you could always tell them apart by the clothes.  -- Ron Storme

TV and TS (2)

In this chapter Kris discusses the differences between DQ, TV and TS.  The stereotypes, and that many do not fit the stereotypes.  He concludes:

"If there is any one lesson to be learned from studying this field it is that the individual is individual.  People define themselves and the self-definition must always takes priority over the received wisdom.   I have met self-defined draq queens whom others would describe as TV either because they enjoy 'passing'; or because they 'dress' so often that it could be seen as a compulsion; or because they wear lingerie, either to turn men on or to make themselves feel sensuous.  I have met drag performers who have grown to dislike drag, and men who insist on being called 'cross-dressers' because they dislike what the word 'drag' stands for, and men who wear part-drag in order to create confusion and doubt amongst others, but who would never wear full drag because that would defeat their object.  I know self-defined TVs who are gay or bisexual or oscillating, some of them having learned to cross this sexuality barrier through their cross-dressing.  I have met TVs  who dress like drag queens and drag queens who dress like TVs, and TVs whose cross-dressing has encouraged them to question their 'male role', which in turn has made them examine their idea of 'femininity'.  And perhaps most important of all, I have learned how marshy a terrain is the middle ground between our earlier clear-cut distinction between transvestites and transexuals."


Until 1968 theatres had to obtain a license for each production from the Lord Chamberlain.  This was of course inimical to innovation.  John Osborne's A Patriot For Me at the Royal Court Theatre in 1965 was banned because of the drag ball scene – it became a private theatre club to continue the performance.  The previous year, Douglas Druce, whose imitation of Elizabeth Windsor was regarded as stunning, was invited to close the first half at a show called Sh... at the New Century Theatre in Notting Hill Gate.  This was met by great applause, in that Druce had got HRH absolutely right.  The next night the Lord Chamberlain in person appeared and would close the theatre if the scene were not cut.  (3)

The Lord Chamberlain also did not approve of any drag shows.  Chris Shaw managed to get some staged by disguising them as Old Tyme Music Hall.

The 1970s, however, were very different. Tim Curry got the role of his life in The Rocky Horror Show which opened in 1972.  Lindsay Kemp opened Flowers, based on Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers at the Edinburgh Festival in 1974.  The Cocteau inspired Grande Eugene appeared at the Roundhouse.

The US histories tell us how San Francisco's Cockettes were such a flop in New York.   The same thing happened to the Ballet Trocadero and the Cycle Sluts from the US and the Australian Simon and Monique's Playgirls Revue when they came to London.  However Hot Peaches were successful and an inspiration to the Brixton Faeries and Bloolips.   Divine played the warden in Women Behind Bars, 1976. Hinge and Bracket started their career.

The Rad Drag Queens

London Gay Liberation Front was established in 1970.   At first there was no drag.

"It started with jellabas and kaftans and long hair and flowers ... then we discovered glitter ... and the nail varnish.  Later some of us - a quarter of the men, I'd say, at some time or other - would get a nice new frock for the next Gay Lib dance.  Then a few people began wearing it to meetings.  It just evolved." -- Michael James.
It then became street theatre, notably the Miss Trial demo outside the Old Bailey in support of the women who were on trial for disrupting the Miss World contest, and then the disruption of the 1971 Christian Festival of Light. Some GLF queens wore drag because it felt right, some for fun and some for political reasons.   

Generally the queens were living in communal squats and in poverty in Brixton and in Notting Hill, and wore drag all day every day. They aligned themselves with lesbians against the masculine gay men who were dominating the GLF meetings. When the women finally split from GLF in February 1972, the Rad Fems began to dominate at the All-London meetings at All Saints Hall in Powis Square, which was a bit intimidating for newcomers.

However the RadFems also demonstrated against the launch of the feminist magazine Spare Rib, which allowed The Sunday Times to run an article on the irony of feminist men telling women how they should behave. The fledging Gay News used this to disassociate from what they referred to as 'fascists in frocks'. The initial issues of Gay News were hostile to GLF in general and even more so to the queens.

There was also a Transvestite, Transsexual and Drag Queen group which met separately.

And Now?

The 1970s and 1980s had a lot of drag on record and stage: David Bowie and Boy George.  The punks initially went to gay bars because they weren't accepted anywhere else, and some of the gay bars evolved into punk bars.   The New Romantics and the Blitz crowd came and went.

Kris provides a profile of many who were active in the 1980s.


"In general, people do not like complexity.  That is why when they come across something like transvesting they look to science to provide them with cut and dried answers.  But science, for all its valuable contributions to understanding, has little to tell us about the human spirit.  To learn about that you have to talk to and observe human beings.  If the people in this book are saying anything at all with one voice, it is that there is no overall psychological compulsion for cross-dressing. There is nothing that the men we have spoken to have in common except that they dress in the clothes associated with the opposite sex.  They are the most extraordinarily  wide range of people, they see all sorts of different reasons for why they dress, and they dress in all sorts of ways.  We are left, as we always knew that we would be, with more questions than answers.  This might appear confusing, but of course confusion is what drag is all about.  And confusion can be a very valuable tool, because when people are confused, they are sometimes obliged to think.  And perhaps the more they think about it, the more they will find an understanding of why men sometimes discover a wish or a need to play sometimes at being 'not-men'."


(1) Indifference to underwear can be argued either way 1) that it is a marker of a lack of a female gender identity; 2) that it is marker of a non-erotic gender identity. Either way it is not confined to self-identified drag queens -- see Felicity Chandelle.  Also some cis women insist on sexy underwear, while other choose what is practical.

(2) We have already seen Virginia Prince's unlikely claim to have coined the abbreviations TV and TS.   I think that their use here demonstrates  that they are the obvious abbreviations and were arrived at independently by different people.

(3) This of course is long before Helen Mirren essayed the part.

April Ashley, while androphilic, is not featured here because she did not go to any of the places discussed.

None of the people in this book appear in any book by Vern Bullough.  It was realizing that that led me to perceive the systematic exclusion of gay/androphilic trans persons from Bullough's work.

Probably Ray Blanchard would regard these persons as "homosexual transsexuals" as he uses the term, although many of them defy his stereotyping.  However he never does discuss work by other writers outside a small circle of psychologists.   The one person in the world who does self-identity as a "homosexual transsexual" in the Blanchardian sense, ie Kay Brown, is not such that she would would be featured in this book even if she were British.  In the autobiographical accounts that she has published there is no mention of participating in gay events, nor does she express similar sentiments to the ones found in this book.

Like - well actually very unlike - Darryl Hill's Trans Toronto, this book is an oral history.  Hill seems to think that all his interviewees must be confidential.  In some cases there is such a need, but some of Hill's interviewees are well known to trans readers.  He should have given them the option to be identified by their full name.  Also they are encouraged to talk using their own term rather than just to affirm or dissent from theory points.

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