24. Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy, ‘Coccinelle’
Jacqueline Charlotte Dufresnoy, ‘Coccinelle’ to her friends and adoring audiences, managed to rack up a lot of ‘firsts’ in her lifetime — she was, as far as we know, the first French person to have sex reassignment surgery, one of the first trans* film actresses, and the first openly trans* person to be married in the Catholic Church. She also founded the Association Devenir Femme, a support and advocacy group for French trans* women, and toured the world entertaining people and raising awareness.
Dufresnoy was born in 1931 and assigned male at birth. She was raised by a relatively sympathetic family — there’s an account of her dyeing her hair blonde as soon as she was old enough to do so, and she began dressing in femme-coded clothes at a very young age. She was nicknamed ‘Coccinelle’, ‘Ladybird’ (or ‘Ladybug’ to US readers!), because of a particular favourite red-spotted dress.
In 1953, aged 21-22, she began performing as a showgirl at Chez Madame Arthur and the Carrousel, two famous drag-themed nightclubs (both of which apparently still exist). She began taking hormones at around this period, and in 1958 she travelled to Casablanca for reassignment surgery. Here is what she herself had to say about the experience:
"Dr Burou rectified the mistake nature had made and I became a real woman, on the inside as well as the outside. After the operation, the doctor just said, "Bonjour, Mademoiselle", and I knew it had been a success."
She also commented that "It meant I could no longer be arrested by the vice squad for impersonating a man".
Dufresnoy appeared in her first film, Europa di notte, in 1959, and was a hit — shortly afterwards, the Italian singer Ghigo Agosti dedicated a song, ‘Coccinella’, to her. In 1960, she was married to journalist François Bonnet. What seems particularly amazing to me is that this apparently happened legitimately in the French church — and that she was given away by her father. The only religious/legal requirement was that she officially change her name and be re-baptised as Jacqueline — in the midst of today’s debates about religious intolerance and queer/trans*/same-sex marriage, this seems quite incredible to me. The church seems to have rapidly became less tolerant of trans* people and their marriages after her first divorce, however - you can read more here.
Dufresnoy would later divorce Bonnet and marry twice more. She made five more films throughout the 1960s, and travelled to the Americas and throughout Europe, including spending most of the 80s living and performing in Berlin. She retired from performing in 1990, and in 1994 she founded the Association Devenir Femme together with her third husband, Thierry Wilson. She also continued to give interviews to raise awareness and respect for trans* women in France and further afield, and worked closely with the Centre d’Aide, de Recherche et d’Information sur la Transsexualité et l’Identité de Genre (CARITIG), an advocacy group that campaigns for trans* rights. From 2002-2005, Dufresnoy owned and operated her own cabaret in Marseilles — well into her seventies at this point!
Dufresnoy suffered a stroke and died in 2006. She appears to have maintained her Catholic religion until the end. I don’t share her religious beliefs, but I’m still incredibly touched by what the priest who spoke at her funeral had to say — he reminded everyone that “All the children of God have a place in the Church”. It’s a shame that we need to be reminded of that just as much in 2013 as we did in 1960, but I’m glad that we have this lady to look back on to remind us.
Obituary from the Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/coccinelle-420311.html
Obituary from the Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/1532588/Jacqueline-Charlotte-Dufresnoy.html
Profile at ‘A Gender Variance Who’s Who’: http://zagria.blogspot.co.uk/2009/03/jacqueline-charlotte-dufresnoy-1931.html
Profile, pictures and video at Transgriot: http://transgriot.blogspot.co.uk/2009/05/coccinelle.html
LGBT People in History bio: http://calpol25.hubpages.com/hub/LGBT-People-Of-History-Part-Twenty-Eight-Coccinelle
Bio at Cabaret World (in French): http://cabarets-world.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=89
Wikipedia page for CARITIG (in French): http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centre_d’aide,_de_recherche_et_d’information_sur_la_transsexualit%C3%A9_et_l’identit%C3%A9_de_genre