Shi Pei Pu (Chinese: 时佩璞), a 20th century Chinese opera singer and dancer specializing in female roles, is better known now for his unusual espionage saga than for his art. His fluent French was put to use when he met a diplomat at a party, igniting a nearly twenty year (sometimes long-distance) romantic and sexual relationship built on his requests for confidential French documents. Both he and the other man were later caught, and he served several years of prison time before being pardoned. After his release Shi remained in Paris as an opera performer; his death warranted a mention in Time. His story was loosely adapted into the play M. Butterfly.
Shi’s espionage case achieved notoriety due to the gender dynamics involved. Although reports on how it started vary between outright lying and insinuation, one way or another Shi’s lover was convinced that he was a woman for the duration of their relationship, including through a faked pregnancy. Although Shi was reluctant to speak on the details to the press, he did explain that he “used to fascinate both men and women” and that “what [he] was and what they were didn’t matter”.
Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, or the Chevalière d’Éon for short, was a French writer, soldier, spy, diplomat, fencing instructor, and subject of contentious betting pools on the topic of her sex. Her title ‘chevalière’ – the French word for knight and a shortening of ‘chevalier des ordres du Roi’ – was awarded after she drafted the peace treaty that ended the Seven Years’ War between France and England. Political warfare at court left her stranded in England, but she was able to negotiate a return in exchange for keeping some of the secrets she had learned as a spy to herself. However, she named as a condition that she be recognized as a woman, claiming that her parents had disguised her as a man for inheritance reasons; the French government agreed, on the condition that she wear women’s clothing. They even offered her money for a new wardrobe.
The latter part of d’Éon’s life passed in relative peace. She taught fencing and competed in tournaments for a living. Although she offered to go to war on multiple occasions she was rebuffed every time. Upon her death her body was examined and pronounced anatomically male.
D’Éon’s story is typically told with the understanding that she was a man who dressed as a woman for political reasons; to that end, male pronouns, including chevalier (the male form of chevalière), are employed. This post uses female pronouns for her because they were the ones she employed in her ghostwritten memoir, and because she repeatedly insisted that she was a woman. However, as with all deceased persons who left records that do not flawlessly map onto the present understanding of sexuality and gender, other interpretations – including some form of genderqueerness or gender fluidity – are possible.
Civil rights activist, spy, and premiere ex-pat entertainer, the “Creole Goddess” – who was actually from Saint Louis, Missouri – was a star of the early 20th century stage. She was, among other things: “the highest-paid chorus girl in vaudeville”; the first African-American woman to star in a major film; and such a fixture in Parisian nightlife that her animated likeness is given a cameo in the children’s film Anastasia. The cheetah in the above picture, her pet Chiquita, would terrorize the musicians in the orchestra pit while she performed, adding a novel level of appeal to her act.
Baker’s eventful life took her from the States to France, which she fell in love with on account of what she saw as a less racist climate. When World War II broke out she used her status as a touring performer to schmooze with high-level Axis officials, scrawling notes on her sheet music in invisible ink; for her efforts, she was rewarded with the Croix de guerre and was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur by Charles de Gaulle. After the war she returned to the US for a tour. Her experiences with segregation led her to join the NAACP, and she crusaded with such gusto that they called for May 20th, 1951, to be declared Josephine Baker Day. She even spoke at the March on Washington.