Count Sandor Vay - A Transgender Icon Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Count Sandor Vay - A Transgender Icon

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Illustration of Count Sandor Vay by Community Artist Rosie.

Count Sandor Vay was born in Hungary in 1859 and achieved notoriety in the late 19th Century for being an extravagant womaniser who had a female body.

Child

Sandor's father was Count Ladislas Vay, who needed a male heir in order to be able to pass on his title and estate. Count Ladislas and his wife had been married for several years before the Countess became pregnant. The Count was not a well man, so they believed the child was their only hope for an heir.

When the child was born, the Countess was informed that she hadn't obtained the male she had hoped for, but to please her husband she decided to pretend her child was a boy after all - she enlisted the help of a priest so that the child was officially registered under the female name Sarolta but was baptised as Sandor (a male name) instead. Sandor was taught to ride horses, take part in sports and was given an education suitable for a noble boy - his father never suspected the deception of the Countess.

When Sandor was 14, his mother became pregnant again. After the birth, the Countess was informed that her second child was a boy, so she confessed to her husband that she had deceived him about Sandor's official sex. Count Ladislas forgave his wife, as any emotions he may have felt would probably have been lessened by the knowledge that he still had the heir he needed. The Count and Countess tried to make Sandor become Sarolta, wear dresses and take part in ladylike activities instead of the manly pursuits he had previously enjoyed, but he rebelled. He asked to be able to join the army or to go to university, but his father refused.

I had an indescribable aversion for female attire - indeed for everything feminine - but only in as far as it concerned me; for, on the other hand, I was all enthusiasm for the beautiful sex.

Lifestyle

When Sandor attained the age of 21, he was no longer under the control of his parents, so he dressed in smart and fashionable men's clothes and travelled around Europe. He took to drinking, smoking and gambling and fought duels with men who criticised him. He also fell in love and lavished gifts on his beloved ladies. All these activities caused him to accumulate debts, even though he had a job for a time, writing articles for a Hungarian newspaper.

He used his allowance from his father's estate to pay off some of the debts he incurred, but he also forged a cheque for $7,000. He married several of his girlfriends and used their dowries to help him stay away from debtors' prison, although the subsequent divorces cost him considerable amounts of money as well.

In 1887, Sandor met Marie Englehardt, the daughter of a manufacturer, and married her in 1889. Shortly afterwards, however, detectives investigating the forgery and fraud caught up with him (they were alerted by Marie's father, who was suspicious of his new son-in-law after Sandor asked him for money) and he was arrested.

The case was widely reported in the press, with even newspapers in the USA running stories about Sandor. In spite of him saying that he would 'fight any one of them who dared to write of [him] as a woman', all of the newspaper reports referred to him as 'she' or 'her'.

Examination

Richard von Krafft-Ebing documented Sandor's story in his book Psychopathia Sexualis.

Sandor's body was measured and probed and found to have female characteristics, but which were underdeveloped - after he went through puberty, he menstruated, but his uterus (examined via the rectum) was only the size of a walnut, so there was only a small amount of blood each month. His head was measured in detail and his prominent front teeth were noted. His hips were still narrow like a man's, though, his voice was quite deep, and his body was hairy, but he did not have a beard or moustache.

His family history was analysed, in particular the eccentricities of his aunts, but it was also noted that Sandor's father was extravagant and wasted a considerable amount of money himself. Sandor's handwriting was examined and found to have a masculine character. His poetry and prose included reference to classic literature in several languages and was judged to have literary merit.

In conclusion, it was decided that Sandor had 'hereditary taint' and was born with the desire for women rather than men, which had manifested itself in changes to his female body when he matured. As a result, the experts decided that the fraud he had committed was because of his condition. The court released him.

After the trial, he was placed under the guardianship of a friend in Prague, and spent many months there recovering from the ordeal of the trial and examination. He had been forbidden to see Marie, but sent her a letter. Marie filed an appeal against the order preventing her from seeing her husband. The court then decided to test his sanity. It found he had 'moral derangement' so stated that the guardianship order should stand.

In 1891, it was reported in the newspapers that Marie aimed to try another appeal to secure Sandor's release from the court order, and it seems likely that she was successful. Sandor went on to publish several books of poetry and ten novels in Hungary. He died of pneumonia in 1918 in Switzerland.

Legacy

Sandor Vay's story could have been used as an example of 'nurture versus nature', since at first glance it could look like his parents gave him his identity by bringing him up the way they did, but in reality the situation is more complex than that, involving biological, social and personal factors. Indeed, Sandor's brother Peter wore dresses when he was young, but went on to become a clergyman and travelled to North America, so his gender identity (whatever it may have been) did not have as much of an effect on his life as Sandor's did.

Although the term 'transgender' had not been coined at that time for people whose gender identity does not match the sex other people assumed they were when they were born, Sandor's story is important to modern readers as the tale informs us of how people were treated in the past and also helps to illustrate the variety of human identities that exist. The struggles of Sandor Vay and the many other people who did not conform to their society's expectations of sex and gender have contributed to improvements in people's attitudes and changes to the law. There is still much work to be done in relation to preventing discrimination and securing rights, but one important step is that transgender people are nowadays more likely to be referred to in the way that they ask to be.


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