“Masculine Women/Feminine Men”: Gender Transgressions in Scotland, 1850-1930


Masculine Women Feminine Men

Which is the rooster which is the hen

It’s hard to tell ’em apart today And say…

You go and give your girl a kiss in the hall

But instead you find you’re kissing her brother Paul

Mama’s got a sweater up to her chin, Papa’s got a girdle holding him in…

Sister is busy learning to shave,

Brother just got a permanent wave,

It’s hard to tell ’em apart today! Hey, hey!

This ditty from 1926 ‘amusingly’ examines interwar gender transgressions; something that was particularly evident in concerns over gender roles during this period. Scotland, that supposed bedrock of Presbyterian values, was not immune to events and hysterical reactions to men and women who tinkered with the gender binary.

In the late 19th century the the Scottish writer Robert Buchanan (1841-1901) reflected on his friendship with the poet David Gray (1838-61):

…there was in Gray’s nature a strange and exquisite femininity – a perfect feminine purity and sweetness. Indeed, till the mystery of sex be medically explained, I shall ever believe that nature originally meant David Gray for a female; for besides the strangely sensitive lips and eyes, he had a woman’s shape – narrow shoulders, lissome limbs, and extraordinary breadth across the hips. Early in his teens David had made the acquaintance of a young man of Glasgow, with whom his fortunes were destined to be intimately woven. That young man was myself.


Although Gray and Buchanan lived together for a time before Gray’s early death, there’s no evidence that they were lovers. But Buchanan, a petulant man supposedly of forbidding manners speaks with such tenderness of Gray and his exquisite femininity. In this context this feminine man is not an object of derision or sympathy but is described in language that evokes feelings of tenderness.

Had this been written 60 or so years later, such prose might have elicited some excitement from the public; Buchanan describes an intimate friendship with a man so feminine in character that it led Buchanan to question the mysteries of sex. Undoubtedly, the emergence of an apparently more subversive, and visible – and this is key – effeminate man would become more problematic as the Victorian period shifted into Edwardian and Interwar. Noel Pemberton Billing infamously saw within the homosexual a foreign threat during WW1, one sent purposely to destabilise British morals and society. The homosexual, particularly the effeminate homosexual, was just a nudge away from treachery.

The interwar period and same-sex desire seem intrinsically linked. This was a period of radical transformation in culture and society, a transformation that often sped ahead of ‘popular comprehension’. It was a period of growing consumerism and widening consumer choice. A period that witnessed a crisis of masculinity – but that does seem ubiquitous – and of challenges to traditional gender frameworks; a period when the painted and powdered feminine man threatened the homogeneity of what it meant to be a man.

Intense post-WW1 sensitivity over the state of the British male meant that the identification of thriving homosexual prostitution rings in interwar Scotland led to much hand-wringing. Such revelations received little media coverage; neither did a spate of blackmail cases involving male prostitutes, primarily as a result of victims’ unwillingness to testify in court. Yet, the revelation that Scotland’s urban centres played host to such activities troubled some politicians. It uncovered evidence that even within solid, working-class communities same-sex desire was, if not prominent, evident. George Buchanan the MP for the Gorbals was unnerved by such revelations, and seemed genuinely perplexed that such men existed amongst Glasgow folk:

They were without dress, or any male attire, but with tight fitting jackets; and all that; with their hands finely chiselled—far more finely chiselled than, say, the hands of my wife; who called each other by female names, used the scents common to women, and even painted..

Rather than a critique of Mrs Buchanan’s cuticles, Buchanan was tapping into emerging concerns over a class of men that was becoming more and more visible – to the authorities at least. According to Matt Houlbrook, the powderpuff and associated accoutrements were increasingly used in legal cases during the interwar period as evidence of deviant character. Their use and possession symbolically marked the owner as transgressive.

William Merrilees, the former Chief Constable of Lothian and Peebles had been similarly exercised by the appearance of effeminate ‘perverts’ in Edinburgh during the interwar period. Helpfully, he provided an example of the ‘typical’ homosexual during this time:


Women too fell under the gaze of the authorities when their behaviour was deemed to transgress accepted roles. In 1869 John Campbell married Mary Ann McKenna, but within a couple of years had deserted her. John found employment at a shipbuilding yard in Renfrew, but in the intervening year his abandoned wife gave birth to a child. The parochial authorities in Kirknewton tracked John down but were stunned by Mary Ann’s revelation that ‘John’ was actually ‘Maria’, and thus was not the father of her child.


When presented with this accusation Maria acknowledged that she had been dressing and living as a male since she was 13 years old. She claimed that Mary Ann had been party to this ‘deception’, a statement that Mary Ann denied. Kirknewton Parochial Board were pleased at this revelation; it relieved them of providing maintenance for the child. For more on John alias Maria, please go here.

‘Masculine’ women and ‘feminine’ men presented Scottish society with a number of problems. Gender transgression disrupted an accepted order that was based on an assumption that gender was a natural, biological certainty. J. W. Crombie, the Scottish Liberal MP, viewed gender transgression as an unwelcome jolt to the accepted order; commenting at a meeting of the Women’s Progressive Union in Aberdeen in September 1902, that there was nothing as unpleasant as the masculine woman but he was thankful that very few ‘specimens’ existed. Gender role reversal, he suggested, was a danger to Scottish men, women and society.



Copyright © Jeff Meek 2014

All Rights Reserved.


One thought on ““Masculine Women/Feminine Men”: Gender Transgressions in Scotland, 1850-1930

  1. Pingback: History Carnival #136 | Exploring same-sex love in public history

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