Say Hello To the Chevalier d’Éon, France’s 17th Century Transgender Spy
Watching the mainstream media it can often feel like they think transgender people are a “new” thing, just because as a society a larger number of people are finally acknowledging trans lives head on. But of course, being transgender is not new at all. For instance, last Monday, The Guardian‘s Comment Is Free section ran a piece on the Chevalier d’Éon, a French diplomat and spy who transitioned in her fifties… in 1777.
D’Éon was a great student and became a member of Secret du Roi, King Louis XV‘s secret network of spies, kept without the knowledge of the French government. Despite being a spy, her cover was that of an ambassador to England. She used that position to collect information for a potential invasion, the plans of which even Louis XV’s own ministers didn’t know about. She later feuded with a fellow French ambassador, but the British public took her side, and the other ambassador was recalled.
Throughout d’Éon’s career, she claimed that even though she was assigned female at birth, she pretended to be a man because of inheritance laws, and there had long been public speculation as to d’Éon’s gender. The London Stock Exchange even had a betting pool as to her “true” gender, and they even invited d’Éon to join the pool, but she declined, saying that either way she would be dishonored; the betting pool evaporated soon after.
She also demanded recognition from the French government as a woman, and she received it, with the proviso that she dress only in women’s clothing. She agreed and, after negotiations, was allowed to return to France yet remained banished to the Tonnerre region. This banishment kept her from helping with France’s involvement in the American Revolutionary War.
Unfortunately, the French Revolution didn’t do d’Éon any favors, and she died destitute at 81. Doctors examined her body, and determined she was indeed assigned male at birth. D’Éon lives on, however. “Eonism” was a term, now outdated, for what we now call transgender, and the Beaumont Society is named in her honor. She’s also had a number of plays, books and films made about her, though most of these gloss over her transgender identity, and she’s long overdue for a biopic that does justice to the real person that she was, telling her true story.