Who was Chevalier d'Eon?

Liz Highleyman | October 05, 2006

Chevalier d'Eon, an 18th-century spy and diplomat who inspired sexologist Havelock Ellis to coin the term "eonism" for cross-dressing, was the subject of much speculation about his gender both during his lifetime and in the decades since his death.

Charles Eon de Beaumont was born in the Burgundy region of France in October 1728, the child of an attorney and a noblewoman. In a ghostwritten 1779 autobiography, d'Eon claimed he was born a girl, but was passed off as a boy in order to assuage his father's grief over a son who had died, and to claim an inheritance designated for a male heir. Later researchers say he was born male, but his mother often dressed him as a girl.

D'Eon graduated in 1749 from College Mazarin in Paris, where he studied law. After completing school, he worked as secretary to the administrator of the city's fiscal department and as a royal censor. He then joined a secret network of spies working for King Louis XV. In 1756, the king sent him on a mission to re-establish an alliance with Empress Elisabeth of Russia. It was widely rumored that d'Eon disguised himself as a woman to win the empress's confidence, but there is little contemporary evidence to support this tale.

In the early 1760s, d'Eon returned to France and became a captain of the dragoons, a light cavalry regiment. After he was wounded in battle, he was given the rank of Chevalier. He then went to London, where he worked as a diplomatic minister. Scandal ensued a few years later when d'Eon claimed in a letter to the king that the new ambassador had attempted to drug and kidnap him, and the fracas resulted in his exile in England.

Although d'Eon typically wore a dragoon officer's uniform and was a talented swordsman, rumors about his gender persisted. After the death of Louis XV in 1774, d'Eon negotiated his own return to France. According to one version of events, d'Eon claimed that he was physically a woman and demanded that the government recognize him as such. The successor king, Louis XVI, agreed and went further, decreeing that henceforth d'Eon must only wear women's clothing. Another version, however, holds that the king declared d'Eon to be legally a woman and compelled him to dress accordingly, against his wishes.

Gamblers in England and France wagered large sums that d'Eon was really a woman, or, alternatively, undoubtedly a man; still others thought he was a hermaphrodite. In 1777, an English court entered the fray to settle a bet, ruling that d'Eon was a woman. More recently, biographer Gary Kates posited that d'Eon reinvented himself as a woman after he had made political enemies in high places and gotten himself deeply in debt. For his part, d'Eon seemed to relish the confusion, sometimes claiming to have been born male, sometimes female.

After living with his mother for a time at the family estate in Tonnerre, d'Eon returned to England in 1785. He embraced Christianity and, according to Kates, seemed to regard living as a woman as a form of "moral purification." Although an autopsy after his death in May 1810 revealed that d'Eon was a biologically normal male, he has nevertheless remained a subject of considerable fascination: Was d'Eon a transgender woman who spent half her life as a man, or a man who spent half his life as a woman?

For further reading:

  • D'Eon de Beaumont, Charles (2001). The Maiden of Tonnerre: The Vicissitudes of the Chevalier and the Chevaliere d'Eon (Johns Hopkins).
  • Garber, Marjorie. 1991. Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety (Routledge).
  • Kates, Gary. 1995, 2001. Monsieur d'Eon Is a Woman: A Tale of Political Intrigue and Sexual Masquerade (Basic Books).

    Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics.

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