One of the most memorable figures of the eighteenth century must surely be the Chevalier Charles D'Eon(or Chevaliere Charlotte D'Eon as he became more famously known). Born in Tonnerre, France in 1728 to a distinguished family, Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée Éon de Beaumont completed his education in 1749 and began a diplomatic career. He also became a spy for King Louis XV and took part in an espionage mission to the Russian court. While dressed as a woman, he became a close associate of the then-Empress. Later, posing as the uncle of the woman he had previously pretended to be, he reportedly convinced the Empress to sign an important treaty with France. After returning from Russia in 1761, he became a military officer and fought in the Seven Years War. When the war ended in 1763, along with a decoration for bravery, he also earned the rank of Chevalier and a position with the French embassy in London. As a favourite of English society, D'Eon was in a good position to remain in England after a quarrel with the new ambassador prevented him from returning to France. He took revenge by writing a best-selling book that scandalized the English and French courts and D'Eon lived in England as an exile for fourteen years. Until the rumours started...
D'Eon's boyish appearance, absence of facial hair, and lack of interest in female companionship led to speculation that he was really a woman. Allegations concering his gender arose in England and in France and became the subject of substantial wagers. It was a trial in 1777 before Lord Mansfield that forced the rumours into the open. The grounds for the trial were straightforward enough: a surgeon named Hayes had made a substantial bet with a broker over whether D'Eon was really a woman. While D'Eon was not directly involved, the humiliation caused by the trial led him to quit England and return to France. King Louis XV had died by this time and his successor, Louis XVI was less kindly disposed towards him. D'Eon was told on arriving in France that the King had issued a decree that he "should resume the dress of his sex"
The Chevalier took the King at his word and, for the rest of his life, dressed and behaved like a proper French lady (in addition to a pension, the King also provided D'Eon with funds for a new wardrobe). He later claimed that he had been born a girl but that his father had raised him as a boy to ensure an inheritance from his in-laws. In 1779, Chevaliere D'Eon (as he was then called), published his (probably ghostwritten) memoirs La Vie Militaire, politique, et privée de Mademoiselle d'Eon. When the American Revolution broke out, D'Eon asked for permission to abandon his female dress and join the military but his offer was rebuffed. D'Eon returned to England in 1785 and stayed in London until his death in 1810. The French Revolution brought an end to the royal pension on which he had been living and he spent the last years of his life supporting himself by participating in fencing demonstrations (until an injury forced an end to his fencing career). His efforts to complete another autobiography never got past the planning stage and he died in poverty. It was only when his body was laid out for burial that (as one contemporary writer described it): "death proved the folly of those who had forced him into petticoats; for his manhood was placed beyond all doubt by an anatomical examination of his body". Even though he had lived with a woman, Mrs. Mary Cole, for the last fifteen years of his life, she had never suspected that he was really a man. He is buried in St. Pancras Cemetery in London where his grave still attracts visitors.
Despite various attempts at attaching a proper diagnostic label to describe the Chevalier's gender-bending life, he continues to defy classification. His case gave rise to an early term for cross-dressing, eonism, although it is has since fallen into disuse. Was D'Eon a transvestite or something more? His absence of facial hair and effeminate features suggest that he may have been a transsexual although there is insufficient information to tell either way. So, much like James Barry with whom he has been often compared, the Chevalier D'Eon remains a mystery long after his death. Perhaps that's the way that he would have wanted it.