Sunday, May 15, 2011

The True Story of Men in Dresses

Such is life. Ned Kelly's last words before being hanged

Come, all my hearties,
we'll roam the mountains high,
Together we will plunder,
together we will ride.
We'll scar over valleys,
and gallop for the plains,
And scorn to live in slavery,
bound down by iron chains - The Wild Colonial Boy

Kelly Territory
I am currently reading True History of the Kelly Gang by fellow Australian New Yorker, Peter Carey. I'm finding it disappointing - heavy going, at times annoying - written as it is in the style of a dyslexic semi-literate, full of unnecessary abbreviations and ungrammatical sentences. I'm all for realism but not at the expense of readability ...

But I have plodded on, determined to finish it. And I've learned at least one factoid for my efforts - where and when Australian men started dressing up as women.

Ned Kelly of True History of the Kelly Gang, was the leader of a bush-ranger gang in Victoria Australia in the late 1900s. He is viewed by Australians as either a criminal or a hero, depending upon political predilection. He is the subject of legends. He was hanged on 11 November 1880 at the Melbourne Gaol for the murder of a policeman.

Sidney Nolan - "Ned Kelly", 1946
Kelly wasn't the first bush-ranger to be admired for his exploits. Before him a number of first and second generation Irish Australians were popular for their activities especially those showing contempt for the "English" and the establishment as represented by the courts, police and landowners - the privileged "squatters".

Kelly has become part of Australian culture, a sort of Robin Hood, epitomizing the underdog. Even the date of his death, November 11 has become important in Australian history. November 11 1918, official end of World War I. November 11 1975, the sacking of Australia's Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam by Elizabeth Queen of England's representative John Kerr.

And paintings. The most famous being those by Australian artist Sidney Nolan. In most of these Kelly is shown in his now iconic "armor".

A child's depiction of a bush-ranger called 'Khat'
Most Australian children grew up hearing about bushrangers and the Kelly Gang. It was essential reading in primary school.

What is not so generally known however is the cross-dressing behaviour of at least one member of the Kelly gang, Steve Hart. Movies about the Kelly gang do not show this aspect of bush-rangers' lives but apparently Hart was not alone in his cross-dressing behavior, which included riding his horse side-saddle. Earlier, in 1835, escaped convict, Edmund Carmen,was caught by police in countryside near Wollongong dressed in a woman's gown and cape. He was found guilty of improper conduct, given 50 lashes, and sent back to Sydney, being ordered never to return.

Nowadays people are used to seeing Australian men in drag. The 1995 film, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert brought to world attention the high profile enjoyed by drag queens in Sydney. And of course Australia's most famous cross-dresser, Dame Edna Everage has been camping it up for decades. More recently Chris Lilley plays a Year Eleven snobby/bitchy girl called Jai'me in the Australian TV comedy series, "Summer Heights High".

Sidney Nolan, "Steve Hart", 1945
I'd seen Nolan's painting of the Kelly Gang's Steve Hart, but until I started reading Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang I'd not been aware or the origin of the bush-ranger dressing-up-as-women thing. According to Carey, and a number of other sources I've since googled, it all harks back to the "Molly Maguires." - an organization of Irish miners. They were was dubbed the "Molly Maguires," after a group of Irish peasants who dressed up as women to antagonize their landlords.

Why they did this is unclear, as is the origin of the name. But the practice was apparently common in Ireland with a number of groups, mostly peasants who were anti-authoritarian due to the tyranny of English landowners. Like Ned Kelly the "Molly Maguires" represented themselves as custodians of the community.

I sometimes wonder what Ned and his gang would think of modern Australians. Yes it's true, men still dress as women. But Australia is still not a republic. The "Colony" of New South Wales and the "Colony of Victoria" are no more. But just over 35 years ago the Queen of England's representative, on the anniversary of Ned Kelly's hanging, dismissed Australia's democratically elected government.

The outgoing Australian prime minister Gough Whitlam stood on the steps of Australia's Parliament House and said, "Well may we say "God save the Queen", because nothing will save the Governor-General!"

As Ned himself said, with his last breath, "Such is life".

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