“There is no-one who can say that I ever failed to act as a man.” — Victor Barker
This article contains discussion of fascism.
Any time we look at the life of a transgender man throughout history, there are a number of hurdles we must first overcome. There are many reasons for a person assigned female at birth to wear clothes associated outside of that assigned gender. Historically, there is a precedent for women to dress as men to gain economic status or to more comfortably live in a relationship with another woman. It's important to untangle these threads in order to find the motivation. Victor Baker is a clear example of how these threads can weave a complete life story. If given access to our modern labels, we can see how he might have identified.
Barker was born in 1895 in the Channel Island of Jersey, and reports say from a very young age that he strayed outside of gendered expectations, going so far as to say he wished he was a boy. This evidence, of course, is not a determinant but an indicator. It is highly doubtful that at such a young age he would be plotting his economic success by one day dressing as a man.
In 1918, Barker began a short and abusive marriage to a man. His husband left for Australia shortly after they married, and though they never officially divorced, the marriage clearly ended there.
Barker later started what would be his most stable a relationship with another man. With him, Barker had two children. He remained devoted to them most of his life.
After the birth of his second child, Barker began dressing in a traditionally masculine way and remarried. His marriage to Elfrida Haward is often used as evidence that he dressed as he did only to secure relationships with women. However, Barker had begun dressing masculinely while still in a relationship with the father of his children. He did not meet Haward until later. Additionally, Haward says she was unaware of Barker's assigned gender. Their relationship was based on the knowledge that Barker was a man. Though not socially condoned, relationships between women were legal in England at the time.
One could argue that he pursued this route in order to marry Haward, but Barker later had several relationships with women he never intended to marry. They were all conducted under the shared knowledge that he was a man. And of course, it's important to recognize that his decision to live openly as a man caused him more harm than it helped.
His legal troubles starting in 1928 during a bankruptcy hearing. His assigned gender came up in court when he was arrested for contempt of the court, and he was switched to a women's prison. Then came an avalanche of legal battles. Some to do with gender, some not. With a bankruptcy hearing and several charges of theft, it's clear that if Barker started presenting masculinely with the plan to reap financial rewards, he was exceptionally bad at it.
He moved from job-to-job and name-to-name, given the advice by judges and friends alike to live in hiding as a woman. He never did. He later joined the National Fascisti in order to be seen as more masculine. It was there that he found the name he was best known by; Victor Barker. He worked as a secretary there for a while, never having his assigned gender revealed.
This, unfortunately, was more the exception than the rule. Time and time again his assigned gender was revealed, and each time the press made a spectacle of it. So much so that he was eventually able to monetize it with a peep-show. While there was the expected condemnation of him in the newspapers, there was also mountains of curiosity. Headlines like “‘Colonel Barker’ Takes Her Sentence Like a Man”, make it clear that not everything was portraying him as something evil. In fact, the press grew fond of him throughout the years. They were not the only ones. Along with love from the public and his various relationships, even his ex-wife remembered him fondly saying that he was “the soul of courtesy and chivalry and an ideal lover.”
His own account of his life seemed to change form interview to interview. He said what the public wanted to hear. He once claimed to dress as he did in order to provide for his son, though he continued long after his son was gone. That means, unfortunately, the most important factor in deciding a label for an individual in our history books is one of the only ones missing. Self-identification.
Though there are more than enough accounts from him saying that he was a man, he never described himself using any of the languages that existed at the time. While we can say he didn't want the baggage that came along with the language, we can't say that for certain.
While we can speculate as to his identity, and this project does believe that given the language at the time, he most likely would have identified as a transgender man, the depths we have to explore while looking into the lives of transgender men often remain murky.
In the end, when he died in 1960 in obscurity, poverty, and alone, he did so as a man. The road he followed was not an easy one, and it did not give him many breaks. While there may be questions as to labels, identities, and politics, the most important thing is to respect what he fought for his entire life. When we look at him in history, we see a man.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
DeCarlo, Tess. Trans History. Lulu, 2018.
Kushner, Tony. Kenneth Lunn. The Politics of Marginality: Race, the Radical Right and Minorities in Twentieth Century Britain. Routledge, 2012.
Logiudice, Rosie. “Colonel Barker, the most famous ‘man-woman’ of them all….” LGBT History Project. 15 Feb 2014. http://lgbthistoryproject.blogspot.com/2014/02/colonel-barker.html
Pugh, Martin. Hurrah For The Blackshirts!: Fascists and Fascism in Britain Between the Wars. Random House, 2013.
Vernon, James. "For Some Queer Reason": The Trials and Tribulations of Colonel Barker's Masquerade in Interwar Britain. The University of Chicago Press, 2000.