02/05/2016 14:45 BST | Updated 03/05/2017 06:12 BST

"Let's Ditch the Labels": The Up-To-Date Resonances of the 150-Year-Old Cross-Dressed Inspiration Behind My New Theatre Piece

all women everywhere

Stepping outside your given gender terrifies people - and it makes them reach for their labels. With North Carolina's new laws over rest-room use still making waves and supermodel Andreja Pejic's new identity turning surprised heads all over the world you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the first time any of this had happened. In particular, you might think that that gender-transformation in all its contested varieties is something that post-dates hormone treatments and surgery. Well, no.

A century and a half before the North Carolina legislature started to get all twitchy about who pees where and how - in April 1870, to be exact - a strikingly well-dressed young woman named Stella repaired to the ladies toilet at the Royal Strand Theatre on London's famous Aldwych. She'd been watching the show when she discovered that her rather daring silk gown needed some attention, and was using the ladies room to fix it. However, this was no lady. It was in fact a 22-year-old failed bank-clerk named Ernest Boulton, for whom Stella was only one of many aliases. When she left the theatre at the end of the show, Stella was met by the police, arrested and carted off to Bow Street police-station - the same station where Oscar Wilde was to be charged just twenty-five years later.

The high-profile Old Bailey trial that followed Stella's arrest was all about labels; the press wanted to know if this "she" was a sex-worker, a lady, a queen, an impersonator - or simply a misguided young man with an unfortunate dress-sense. Nowadays, of course, we'd all want to know if Stella was "really" trans rather than drag; we, in our way, are just as keen to categorise anyone who strays outside of their allotted gender role as the Victorians were. Stella's mother told the gentlemen of the jury about how the school-age Ernest liked to dress up as the family chambermaid, and could even pass in front of her own grandmother - but they took that as evidence of high spirits, rather than of any nascent teenage gender dysphoria.

Unbelievably, Stella got off. Received wisdom dictates that after all that exposure she ought to have slunk away into obscurity like any other oppressed Victorian outlaw, but not a bit of it; her extraordinary transformations merely took a new turn. She changed her name, dyed her hair and took her act on the road, touring both British and American variety theatres for nearly three more decades as a female impersonator, actress, operetta-singer and comedian. In 1904, she assumed her final identity; a certain Mr Thomas E. Boulton is registered as having died that year in the National Hospital in London's Queen Square - Stella again, taking her final bow very definitely as a man.

A year ago, my husband and I moved house, and a chance confusion in unpacking my boxes of papers meant that a long-forgotten photograph of my younger 1980s self in drag came into collision with a photocopied newspaper illustration of Stella on the night of her arrest. That strange juxtaposition got me thinking, and eventually lead me to approach some producers with an idea for a new theatre piece.

The idea was simple; to bring Stella back to life for the night, and then just let her talk to the audience - to talk to our century, if you like, about the life-lessons she had learnt by enduring hers in such style. The producers said yes, and as well as going back to Stella's letters and police records and play-scripts I then started on a six-month journey to meet and talk to people who live or work in a gender different to the one they were born into - hairdressers, journalists, pensioners, actors, nightclub hostesses and singers, from Brighton to New York to Tokyo. Their words began to mix with hers.

Meeting these extraordinary people and hearing their stories confirmed what I think every time I recall what happened to Stella on that pavement outside the Royal Strand Theatre all those years ago. I think we need to get over ourselves. Instead of putting our energies into labelling, I think we need to put them into understanding that the gift that all transformers and transitioners and cross-gender-dressers give us is an invaluable one. They show us that our identities- especially the ones that matter most of all, the ones that we live out in our ever-changing bodies - are never a destination, but always a journey. They remind us that in the end it doesn't matter what category you fit or label you are given; it only matters how brave you are.

Stella's story is a strange, upsetting and ultimately inspiring one. I only wish some of those judges in North Carolina could get to hear her tell it.

Neil Bartlett's new theatre piece STELLA, inspired by the life and death of Ernest Boulton, premieres at Brighton Festival on May 27-28. The show then transfers to London for LIFT 2016 (Hoxton Hall London, June 1-18) and Amsterdam (Holland Festival, June 20-21).

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