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Sándor/Sarolta Vay, a Gender Bender in Fin-de-Siècle Hungary



The paper introduces and explores a Hungarian journalist of the turn of the 20th century, Sándor (Sarolta) Vay. She was born a woman, but was raised and lived the life of a traditional gentry man of his age. His figure was widely represented in contemporary press and literature, and her case was analyzed by the psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing as well. Vay’s cross-dressing and gender bending seems to be the only way to avoid the lot of an existentially dependent woman and also the only conceivable way to be a lesbian in that age – a strategy and a constraint at the same time. Her/his being raises a set of questions regarding the changing concepts of sex and gender, nature and performance, normality and perversion, representing both the transgression of boundaries, and the reinforcement of a binary gender order.
Sándor/Sarolta Vay – a gender bender in fin-de-siècle Hungary
Anna Borgos
In: Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek, Louise O. Vasvári (szerk.): Comparative Hungarian Cultural
Studies. Purdue UP, West Lafayette, Indiana, 2011. 220-231.
The protagonist of my paper is Sándor (born Sarolta) Vay, a Hungarian journalist at the turn
of the 20
century. She was born a woman, but was raised as a boy, and lived the life of the
traditional gentry male of her/his age. My study introduces and interprets how (s)he was seen,
described and placed by her/his contemporaries in different lay and expert discourses, and
how (s)he saw and thought about herself. Her life and her controversial reception raise a set of
questions regarding concepts of sex and gender, nature and performance, normality and
perversion. I am going to use the pronouns she/he in turns, according to the context and the
intention of Vay’s describers. (In Hungarian, there are no distinct male/female forms of
personal pronouns.)
Sarolta Vay was born in 1859 into an old, noble family. Her father, László Vay was
the crown-keeper of József archduke, her mother was the daughter of the Beniczky family.
Vay’s father’s intention was to raise his firstborn daughter as a man, while, interestingly, her
younger brother, Peter was raised as a woman, and later became an abbot, a missionary and a
writer of travel diaries. Historical sources provide no clues as to the intentions of Vay’s father
in raising his two children in this most unusual way. Given the male name, Sándor, Vay
learned fencing, horseback riding, and was later sent to study at the universities of Budapest,
Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin. Because the family had become more and more declassed since
the beginning of the 19
century, losing most of its fortune, Vay, even though he was an
aristocrat, had to find a source of livelihood. She started writing, at first literary texts, poetry
and short stories under her female name, but she soon chose the profession and lifestyle of a
journalist, writing articles in several dailies and weeklies under a variety of male pseudonyms,
such as Vayk, D’Artagnan, Floridor, Celesztin, etc. She worked for the cultural and life-style
magazines Magyar Géniusz (Hungarian Genius) and Magyar Szalon (Hungarian Salon) and
published in the dailies Pesti Hírlap (Pest Newspaper) and Budapest among others. (Szinnyei
1016-1017.; Steinert 499-507.; Buza 38-41.; Fábri 177-178.) She maintained a
correspondence with Renée Erdős, an early 20
century woman writer who was known for
her erotic poetry and later for her religious-piquant bestsellers. She also had a literary
connection with her cousin, the turn-of-the-century modern symbolist poet, Minka Czóbel.
While working as a journalist Vay completely displayed the traditional male identity
in her appearance and behavior. It appears that her life was going on fluently, although not
without psychic and practical struggles, within the framework of a conventional man’s life of
the period, with all its accessories in terms of name, clothing, and lifestyle, engaging in
typical male activities of her social class, such as duels, carousing, travel, and even, as we
shall see, an elopement. During World War I, he went to Zürich, where he fell ill with
pneumonia, and died in a sanatorium in Lugano in 1918.
A ten-volume edition of Vay’s oeuvre was published during her lifetime, in 1909, but
another edition, a selection of her work, did not appear until eighty years later, this time
(arguably) under the author’s female name, Sarolta Vay. (Steinert 1986; see also Vay 2006)
In addition to her journalistic writing, Vay wrote mostly historical feuilletons about the 18-
century Pest and the countryside, recalling the daily life of her own class, written in the
voice of a nostalgic male narrator. These texts depict coronations, balls, love affairs, weddings
and funerals, and feature monarchs, politicians and artists from all corners of the Austro-
Hungarian Monarchy, including Queen Maria Theresa and King Joseph II, the Hungarian
reformer politician István Széchenyi, the great national poets Kölcsey and Kazinczy, as well
as many now forgotten names and figures. The lively style of these narratives are somewhat
reminiscent of the style of Kálmán Mikszáth, one of the most significant Hungarian novelists
of the age, while their milieu and atmosphere is also akin to that featured in the writings of
Gyula Krúdy, a unique and prolific storyteller of the early 20
century Hungarian literature.
However, Vay’s work is primarily a rich historical-cultural material showing the spirit of an
insightful publicist.
Vay often wrote about women, but her work rarely thematized the issue of gender
directly. Her general outlook is modern and liberal, she even mentions feminists of the age,
but she never seems to have doubted that a woman – even if she smokes cigar, plays cards, or
engaged in battles or politics – belongs to a different world. She has a nostalgic-gallant tone,
indicating a gentleman’s viewpoint: the respect and admiration for the “eternal woman” who
is represented as the inspiration for men among them for Sándor Vay him/herself. “There
was no mention of feminism at that time. Ellen Key, Käte Schirmacher did note give readings.
Our women did not claim political rights – but all of them were heroines, men, when struggles
came. […] These Kuruc women could love, suffer, and die in exile, too. And they could
sacrifice all for the one they loved.” (Vay 1909. 147.) “Since the creation of the world, the
woman has been the alfa and omega of everything. […] One can find the eternal woman
always and everywhere. In our social life, politics, art and literature alike they incite the
man to act, both failure and success are in their hands.” (Vay [1909], 1986. 194.) (All
translations of Hungarian texts are mine, B. A.)
Although through her life Vay was a talented, productive and relatively acknowledged
author, she nevertheless still remained professionally and socially on the periphery, due, no
doubt, to her/his gender bending. For a short time he even tried being a coffee merchant in
Fiume (then a part of Hungary), but the business soon failed, and he once again returned to
writing. In a letter to a female acquaintance, Mrs. Kálmán Csiky (a pedagogue, the vice-
president of the National Association of Women’s Education) he writes about his state of
isolation, disappointment and the painful lack of financial and professional recognition: “I’m
writing rarely now. Since last year I’ve been in poor health; the little acknowledgement, bad
allowance, and little benevolence from guildsmen have unfortunately made me tired of the
state of Hungarian literary men.” (Sándor Vay to Mrs. Kálmán Csiky, 8 Jan, 1905.) Vay’s
difficulties in having a regular and properly paid work are also related to crises in his private
life, as is indicated by some of his letters, or rather the lacks, blanks, concealments he just
refers to: “My articles are indeed not worth mentioning […] Bodily and even more spiritual
torments have broken me totally since last year’s May. They have taken away my zest for life
and work. It would be long to tell. Not things fit for a letter either.” (Letter of Sándor Vay to
Mrs. Kálmán Csiky, 28 Feb, 1906.) In a later letter written to “divina Renata”, that is Renée
Erdős, Vay mentions private events and their tabooed nature with similar hints: “There are
matters, however, which are difficult even to tell, let alone to write. Scripta manent. One must
always be afraid of the written word. One cannot tell, in whose hands the letter will get! I just
mention – which is perhaps the most important thing in life – I would be really happy now if
this happiness did not have many shady sides depending on the circumstances.” (Letter of
Sándor Vay to Renée Erdős, 13 Dec, 1911.)
In spite of all the emotional and financial difficulties Vay faced at various periods of
his life, the free, independent and mobile way of life of a journalist met his personal needs. He
could transform the constraints of the life of the gentrified nobility into the privileges of the
freelance journalist. It is important to note that the fact that Vay always worked as a male
journalist increased his opportunities enormously, as women journalists were very few indeed.
The first women involved in journalism and editing in Hungary appeared in the late 19
century and wrote either fiction or worked for women’s lifestyle magazines. A very limited
number of women began to work as full time journalists only from the 1910s. (Their
proportion was 2.3 % as late as 1920, see Sipos 2002.) In the 1912 issue of the Hungarian
Journalists’ Almanach, Kornél Tábori published an extensive and supportive overview with
short introductions by women journalists of the age.
The renowned Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing described the case of
Vay in a lengthy case study in his famous Psychopathia Sexualis. (Krafft-Ebing [1902], 1926)
He almost certain never met Vay personally but based his analysis on the detailed report of a
juridical medical expert, Dr. Birnbacher. Krafft-Ebing (333) reveals interesting details about
Vay’s background and adult way of life, as in this typical passage: “She received a careful
upbringing, she took journeys with her father, of course always as a young man, she soon
became independent, went to cafés, even to places of ill repute, and she boasted about sitting
once utroque genu puella in a house of prostitution. She was often drunk, liked men’s sports,
she was a very skilful fencer. She was attracted to actresses or other single, possibly not quite
young women. ’I preferred to go to women’s company with ugly or unsightly men, so that
they don’t overshadow me; […] I appreciated wit more than beauty in women. […] I like if a
woman’s passion manifests itself from behind a bewitching cover of a poetic veil. I find
indecency disgusting in women.’”
An episode around 1882, recalled by the actor Izsó Gyöngyi, provides a direct,
personal insight into Vay’s way of life, and gives some information for assessing the
contemporary intellectual influence of Krafft-Ebing as well: “It is not this guest performance I
want to evoke, but the chevalier servant of the guest artist. Last year I saw her in women’s
clothes in Miskolcz. She was called Sarolta Vay, and in Fehérvár she appeared at the theater
as a pretty suitor, by the name of Sándor Vay! […] He smoked like a chimney, and chatted
and behaved like an enfant terrible. Well, as a boy from Miskolcz I heard that the old count
Vay was eccentric, dressing his daughter in boy’s clothes and the boy in girl’s. But that this
countess is now inviting me to carouse in Fehérvár, I didn’t dare to dream about and he
didn’t back down. To carouse. And where? In a night club! Where one finds women! My eyes
goggled; this young lad seated the girls in his lap. After many years, Krafft-Ebing’s
Pychopathia Sexualis has explained what I could not conceive at that time.” (Gyöngyi 72-73.)
Apart from his cross-dressing, the most important and visible manifestations of Vay’s
masculinity were his sexual orientation and affairs with women, but this was an endeavor in
which he had to face many difficulties. His first affair happened in Dresden, in a boarding
school. As Krafft-Ebing (333) recounts: “At the age of 13 she started an affair with an English
girl, before whom she pretended to be a boy, and seduced her. Sarolta then went back home to
her mother, [who] had to accept that her daughter is called Sándor again, she wears men’s
clothes, and she stages at least one love affair each year with someone of her own sex.”
Vay’s next affair documented by other contemporaries began about ten years later in Eger, a
Hungarian town, where he was courting Mari Hegyesi, an attractive actress. The attraction
was probably not reciprocated, although Vay did get entangled in a duel to defend Mari’s
honor. Another more successful seduction ended up in his only long-term relationship in
Nyíregyháza, where he ran away with Emma Eszéki, daughter of the local judge. Emma,
another actress, left the stage for Sándor’s sake; they lived together for three years in Pest and
were even married by a pseudo-priest.
The aforementioned memoir of Izsó Gyöngyi recalls another encounter with Vay
from 1883: “I went ahead to Nyíregyháza in order to collect subscriptions. As I was walking
around, whom did I notice in a gateway? A little, funny figure, like Baron Bizay: Turkish
bath-robe, slippers, fez, chibouk in his mouth. He calls me: Hello, my countryman! By
gosh, it’s Sarolta, that is, Sándor Vay. – Come, buddy, I want to introduce you to my wife!
And taking me by the arm, he drags me into the house. The wife is there indeed, in a modest,
small apartment. I recognize her, she’s an actress, I played with her at Lászi, I’m staring in
amazement, they live very modestly, but the host is hospitable, he wants to entertain me, and
sends for some beer and luncheon; meanwhile I’m left alone with my colleague, and make her
confess how this marriage is going. The old acquaintance gets her to speak confidentially.
And she tells me that she is happy, and satisfied in every sense. She explains everything to me
circuitously, but I cannot do this, I cannot publish it here, Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia
Sexualis deals with the case amply.” (Gyöngyi 110.)
Vay’s relationship with Emma Eszéki ended in 1887, when he met the daughter of a
Klagenfurt family, a schoolmistress, the 26 year old Mari Engelhardt. In spite of the
reservations of the girl’s family, the couple started a relationship, and got married in 1889,
Vay having “divorced” Emma Eszéki by that time, who nevertheless considered herself
countess Vay to the end of her life. Mari apparently was not aware of the biological sex of her
fiancé, as her confession demonstrates: “I don’t love other people’s children anymore, but if I
had one with Sanyi, I would adore him/her.” (Krafft-Ebing 334.) However, this promising
relationship was rudely interrupted by a legal procedure that soon turned into a medical
exploration. Vay had gotten into dept, having borrowed 800 forint from her “father-in-law”
for the deposit of an actually non-existent secretarial job. The father-in-law denounced him,
and during the time he spent in prison, his female sex was discovered, with the daily
newspapers reporting on the sensational case (see e. g. Borsodmegyei Lapok 12 Nov, 1889.
3.). At this point Vay was sent to an asylum, where the juridical medical expert, Dr.
Birnbacher examined her and wrote an expert’s opinion, on the basis of which Krafft-Ebing
published her case study under the label of “gynandria.” Sándor/Sarolta’s is the longest case
in the chapter on “congenital sexual disorder in women” in Psychopathia Sexualis. The
British sexologist Havelock Ellis also refers to Vay’s case in his book chapter “Sexual
Inversion in Women”, as an illustration of his view on the (congenitally determined) “true
invert.” (Ellis 140.)
The Krafft-Ebing case history of Vay starts with a description of his ascendants, which
according to the psychiatrist is where the cause of the patient’s disorder is to be sought. We
learn about the hysteria, somnambulism and imaginary paralyses of a sister of Sarolta’s
grandmother, the nervousness and moon-phobia of her mother, different compulsions of her
aunts, and learn of other spiritist and suicidal relatives. “Eccentricity” as a major family
attribute proves to be an evidence of the congenital nature of Vay’s own perversion. While
Krafft-Ebing also mentions Vay’s boyish upbringing as the father’s “whim”, there is no hint
at linking that with Sándor’s “disorder.” His reluctance to relate the father’s method of
upbringing with Vay’s condition suggests Krafft-Ebing’s firm belief that such an anomaly is
always genetically determined.
It is interesting to note that while at first Vay’s case received only legal attention, it
was now of interest for doctors, indicating the change in the “reception” of homosexuality
from the legal to the medical discourse and interest, and from the moral framework and
punishment to the search for an explanation, diagnosis and etiology. This did not, however,
necessarily mean an advance in tolerance, since the “laws of nature” were seen at least as
strong and untransgressable as those of the “moral” order. A significant element discussed in
Vay’s case study was her/his presumed active and “uncontrollable” sexuality, and description
of the “types” of women that attracted him. And the text always couched in Latin terminology
of the sorts of sexual acts s/he was able to perform with these women. “She is interested in
women not too beautiful or fleshy, and not quite young. […] Women between 24-30 attract
her with a magnetic power. She has found sexual satisfaction only in corpore feminae (never
on her own body), either by the manustupratio of the woman or by cunnilingus. Sometimes
she uses stockings filled with oakum as a priap. She makes these statements reluctantly, her
modesty apparently revolts against it; we cannot find any shamelessness or cynicism in her
notes either.” (Krafft-Ebing 337.)
Krafft-Ebing’s analysis with all the physical details of sexual act demonstrates that
women’s same-sex attraction was no longer considered an asexual, platonic, provisional and
“harmless” romantic friendship, but a stable sexual manifestation worth to be identified,
explored and pathologized. By naming the “phenomenon”, medical science both constrains
and reinforces it. This, from a wider, historical point of view, might be regarded as a phase in
the long process whereby from sexual behavior and desire a coherent identity, a way of life,
and a community develop, which later can constitute the bases of political action as well. (See
Foucault 1990) Krafft-Ebing stresses that female “inversion” does not basically differ from
the male one, in that it is based on the same sexual drive. That irrepressible and compulsive
drive serves as a mitigating circumstance, thus, paradoxically, on the basis of the medical
expertise of Dr. Birnbacher Vay was acquitted and was able to continue his life as count
Sándor Vay, although he was to have no more affairs that are known to posterity.
(On further encounters of homosexual women with psychiatry and psychoanalysis see
e. g. the analysis of Emese Lafferton on the case of Ilma, a working class gender- and law-
bender, who was also analyzed by Krafft-Ebing. (Lafferton 75-98.) See also a pre-analytical
study of Sándor Ferenczi (Ferenczi 19-24.) and Freud’s case study on the Hungarian Szidónia
Csillag (Freud 219-249.). The influence of Krafft-Ebing – and in its title Ferenczi – is
apparent in the work of the psychiatrist-neurologist Dr. Zoltán Nemes-Nagy (1934). On the
one-time medical-legal-cultural approach of (male) homosexuality see Pál 1927.)
Krafft-Ebing’s controversial characterization of Vay as a perverse and at the same
time respectable person is remarkable. The recognition of her talent, sensitivity and education
is expressed alongside the claims of her aberrant and degenerative bent: “She is religious,
actively interested in all beautiful and noble things, except for men [sic!], she appreciates it if
she is morally respected by others. […] She has an exceptional talent in the field of literature,
and a wonderful memory. […] Her whole appearance is upright, self-conscious and brave.
[…] The medical opinion concludes that S. shows a congenital, abnormal sexual feeling based
on serious degeneration, manifesting itself also in the anomalies of bodily development, and
the acts constituting the object of charge can be explained by her pathological and
uncontrollable sexuality.” (Krafft-Ebing 337-338.) Another feature of his analysis is the way
it assumes and reinforces the dichotomous gender system and describes masculinity along a
complex set of attributes that are usually related to the values of the patient, but
paradoxically constitute the basis of her “perversity”, too, as in: “Her writings reveal a firm
and resolute character. These are real masculine traits. […] An intelligent, not ugly face that
in spite of its gentle features would show a definitely masculine character if a moustache was
not missing. […] [On the importance of the moustache to prove one’s Hungarianness and
masculinity in the period, see Maxwell in this volume.] [W]hen the forensic doctors
communicated with Sándor, the man, the conversation became much more relaxed, natural,
we might say: more correct.” (Krafft-Ebing 334-336.)
The controversial and inconsistent judgments relating to Vay’s masculinity expressed
by Krafft-Ebing can be found in the contemporary press as well, where the gifted, sensitive
and educated Vay is described simultaneously as an eccentric, odd and aberrant person. For
example, according to one of Vay’s obituaries in the journal Magyarország (26 May, 1918):
“We haven’t heard about him for a long time, and now our heart sinks reading the sad
message of the Lugano telegram about the passing of a strange man, an interesting writer, a
faithful friend, and an infinitely refined, gentle and sensitive soul. He was the George Sand of
Hungarian literature. […] His masculine bents and some pathological aberrations mentioned
also by Krafft-Ebing, inspired him to take a male name and male clothing. In his writings,
however, there was nothing unnatural.” The Pesti Hírlap (25 May, 1918) refers to him as a
“day-dreaming, eloquent and romantic” author, while Budapesti Hírlap (26 May, 1918)
emphasizes his “poetic, soft-spoken, lavender-smelling writings on vanished times. […] He
lived and behaved as a man. His life was that of Ahasverus, he was wandering pointlessly, in
a discord with himself and the world. He had desires, but never had hopes…” The asexual and
ethereal descriptions expressed in these obituaries concentrate on Vay’s writings, and his
passing woman’s life is mentioned only in the context of references to his sufferings,
struggles and frustrated desires. Although the comparison with George Sand is not quite
correct, it indicates that there is a possible pattern, an existing representation of passing
women in the age.
In addition to the obituaries it is also interesting to look at the articles that meditate on
the “real” sex of Vay, and make serious efforts to place him in one of the boxes. An article of
a rural paper, Eger és Vidéke (12 Nov, 1889) tries by all means to see Sándor as a woman,
with the author of the piece collecting a set of stereotypically feminine traits, and adjusts them
to the biological sex of Sarolta, disregarding Vay’s completely different character: “The
refined-nerved woman broke out of comtesse Sarolta even unintentionally. […] She likes
everything fine, warm, sensitive, everything that assumes heart, gentleness and taste that is
the womanly. Her poems and feuilletons are round, refined, tinkling, just like the laughter of a
charming lady. […] It was only in herself that she did not like womanliness. The love of
womanliness in everything outside her went to the point that eventually she fell in love with
The well-known early 20
century Hungarian writer, Gyula Krúdy was also impressed
by Vay’s story, dedicating a few essays to him delighting the unusually romantic and literarily
exciting figure: “He was a gentleman with a mannish hair-cut and a hairless face, smoking
thick cigars, turning walking-stick, wearing handsome ties, and had [strongly] masculine
gestures […]. It was only his voice that Sándor Vay could not change, his old-womanish
voice, although he would even swear so as to give a bigger emphasis to his words.” (Krúdy
1974. 426.) Krúdy also stressed the accessories Vay utilized to perform a male role, and the
difficulties of being a cross-dresser: “In fashionable clothing, the inherent woman did not
deny itself. She was more ’dandy’ than those hunched-backed or cripple beaus who want to
veil their bodily disabilities by their clothing. She had to veil a more serious thing with the
craftiness of clothing. She had to hide that she was – a woman. […] As I say, she pretty much
’pretended’ to be a man, and she must have been happy if she could make people believe that
here and there.” (Krúdy 1974. 410-411.) Here, Krúdy assumes some latent femininity
following from Vay’s biological sex, which cannot be denied even with the trickiest costume
and considers his male clothing as a masquerade, a performance; but for Vay it was probably
the female role and clothing that felt like that, while being a “man” was for him deadly
serious and genuine. Krúdy’s words may suggest that male appearance was a special “closet”
for Vay that was supposed to hide her biological sex, and – we might add – together with that,
also her lesbianism. Admittedly, however, using the term “closet” is rather problematical
here, as it assumes a modern lesbian identity that Vay did not hold.
At this point it is worth making a short detour towards a theoretical problem, the
question of the denomination and (self)determination of sexual identities. One does not
necessarily has to force the need of categorizing, but it might be useful to reflect upon the
categories for women with same-sex desires then and now. For behind the different terms,
there are different historical points of view and different conceptions of lesbianism. One
group of arguments considers every woman of same-sex attraction as a forerunner of the later
lesbian who just “lacks a liberating and identitarian discourse”; another claims that this “over-
rehabilitating” attitude is ahistorical and generalizing, covering up a whole set of shades and
self-definitions developed in different social circumstances. (See e. g. the different viewpoints
of Martha Vicinus and Judith Halberstam: Vicinus 215-238.; Halberstam 45-73. See also
Faderman 2001.) Choosing the ahistorical use of the contemporary gender studies
terminology, one might call Sarolta/Sándor Vay a passing woman, a lesbian or even a
transsexual; one might also determine her with her own words “simply” as a woman who felt
like a man and was attracted to women; and should also keep in mind that she was called an
invert or gynandric in the medical discourse of the age.
But how did Vay herself think about her gender-bending? At this point we have to
face the painful lack of personal documents that could help answer this question. On the basis
of his “reception”, however, it seems that while he was aware of his transgression, his
strivings to assimilate and internalize the social and gender norms were at least as strong. He
had a male identity, but did not have an identity of someone who was opposed to socially
constructed and expected roles, and, therefore, he did not make common cause, show
solidarity, or look for any community with other “passing women.” He had no contact e. g.
with the other “Hungarian George Sand” of the age, Mariska Simli (on whom see Saly 116-
157.). On the other hand, he had widespread personal and professional relationships with
straight men – journalists, friends and relatives. To quote Krúdy again: “He visited with
pleasure those Pest pubs lost in memory, where writers held their so-called literary gatherings.
[…] Here he was sitting about among those semi-wild, shaggy men […]. He felt the best
among these poets pursuing a somewhat nomadic life. […] [H]e also went to the writers’
cafés, and a very bitter smile appeared around his lips when these malicious people
reproached him for Miss Mariska Simli from Fehérvár, who following in the footsteps of
Countess Vay, was rambling over the country in a priest’s cassock, in order to collect
subscribers to her never-appearing works.” (Krúdy 1966. 382.)
Vay did break the expected consistency between her biological sex and his male
identity, but did not transgress the one between his gender identity and his sexual orientation.
It is probably senseless to ask what the “original” inclination was male identity followed
from the attraction to women or vice versa. There is no “original” – both gender identity and
sexual orientation (and their unquestionable, indivisible coherence and exclusivity) are
constituted by the social norms and discourses. Vay and his contemporaries had inevitably
different ideas about this than we might today:
Gyula Krúdy presumes that Vay’s maleness was the “original” state he felt: “She once
explained her transformation into a man by her parents deliberately having enrolled her in the
Alsódabas primary school as a girl, because it was the year of 1859, recruitment of soldiers in
Hungary for the emperor’s order, only girls could avoid it: so Sári was telling as an adult that
she was a man already in the swaddling-clothes, but that her mother had had her christened
Sarolta by way of precaution for the cruel recruitment at that time.” (Krúdy 1974. 409-410.)
This might well have been Vay’s subsequent narrative, but it is nevertheless remarkable that
he thought that he must have been born with one original sex determining his gender identity
which biologically programmed his sexual orientation as well. She could not and did not even
want to completely leave the naturalizing, dichotomous system.
Analyzing Krafft-Ebing’s account of Vay’s life, the Austrian women’s historian
Hanna Hacker considers her case the first medically described, prototypical female
homosexual. (Hacker 70-75.) Arguing with Hacker, Geertje Mak in a recent study regards it
as the first medical description of the masculine woman. (Mak 54-77.) In my view, these
notions are closely interrelated and presume each other in the psychiatric (and also the lay)
thinking of the given cultural context. Nevertheless, Vay had a good reason for transgressing
this boundary: to be a “masculine” passing woman a straight man instead of a lesbian
woman. This process was determined by several factors, starting with her upbringing – which
was itself related to the social circumstances making a financially and intellectually
independent and active life much more easily available for a man. The rigid gender
boundaries of her age and class induced Vay (and her family) to place herself in the position
of the more privileged gender without any possible passage to her female traits. Regarding her
gender identity she changed the conventions (she was a “transgressor”), but socially she
adapted herself to the norms expected by her age and class.
As Vay was attracted to women, to be a straight man was the only alternative to keep
her traditional way of life without deeply confronting with her surroundings, which she could
not have done as a lesbian woman. However, she could not completely avoid this
confrontation; her efforts to live like a conventional, possibly married man met with serious
difficulties. But presumably she could still get on more easily this way, than a lesbian woman
could have, and it is no accident that we actually do not know about any attempts to live an
actual lesbian life from this period. Thus, it is understandable that Vay completely adapted
herself to the “heterosexual matrix” of her time as the best route of survival. Nevertheless, in
order to live as a straight man, Sándor Vay had to deny her “female” being totally. Krafft-
Ebing quotes Vay: “I’ve felt an unspeakable idiosyncrasy for female clothes and everything at
all that is female, but only on myself, otherwise I’ve admired female sex.” (Krafft-Ebing 333.)
In this framework active sexuality is inevitably phallic, and Vay’s primary refusal of sex with
men covers an internalized homophobia. Quoting Krafft-Ebing: “She did not know lonely or
mutual onanism. She finds it especially disgusting and under the ’man’s dignity’. She never
let her genitals be touched by others, also for the reason of keeping her great secret. […] She
does not like to speak about this topic, because she finds it opposing her male feelings and
consciousness; she knows the pathological nature of her state, but she does not want anything
but to feel good and happy in her perverse feeling. The idea of sexual intercourse with men
evokes a sense of disgust in her, and she finds its realization simply impossible.” (Krafft-
Ebing 336.)
As it is apparent in the above sentences, too, Vay identifies with the “perverse” nature
of her state with a special splitting: “[S]he holds her sexual feelings perverse, and in a healthy
person, she considers the love of a woman towards another detestable.” (Emphasis in the
original.) In his “plea”, he refers to God as the creator of his “perversion”, with a slight irony
towards the “wise, expert psycho- and pathologists:” “Dear sir, wise legal experts, psycho-
and pathologists! Guide you my life; every step of mine has been led by love, every deed of
mine was caused by that as it was implanted in me by God. If he created me like that and
not something else, I cannot help it; or are these the inscrutable ways of fate?” (Krafft-Ebing
335.) While apparently – perhaps just for the sake of getting released – Sándor acknowledges
his “perversion”, he also stresses the naturalness and fatefulness of his state that he did not
choose. Nevertheless, Vay does not link his situation with social antecedents and
consequences, like many other contemporary passing woman or early lesbians do, among
them the English gentlewoman Anne Lister, the American-Indian Cora Anderson, the French
Jeanne Bonnet, the Californian Babe Bean, the French painter Rosa Bonheur or – from a
closer region of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy the Austrian feminist activist Irma von
Troll-Borostyáni. He might recall the figure of Stephen Gordon, the protagonist of Radclyffe
Hall’s emblematic, long suppressed novel, The Well of Loneliness (1928) a typical early
masculine lesbian who is very ambivalent about her own sexuality, considering herself
“sexually invert.” Vay seems to have no further reflections about being a man. To the
question on what his “purpose” with wearing male clothing was, his answer is
straightforward, but at the same time feels somewhat insufficient: “Nothing else but the fact
that I am a man, I want to be a man, and no one can forbid me that!” (Quoted by Buza 41.)
Sándor/Sarolta Vay did not challenge the traditional boundaries of gender roles in his
writings and way of thinking, but did challenge them by his very existence. Although he had
nothing to say about these questions himself, he gives us an opportunity to speak and think
about her – and this we must appreciate and exploit.
Works cited:
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esettanulmányok II. [The Woolfman. Clinical case studies II.] Budapest: Filum, 1998. 219-
Gyöngyi, Izsó. Színész egy félszázadon át. [An Actor Through Half of a Century] Budapest:
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Hacker, Hanna. Frauen und Freundinnen. Studien zur “Weiblichen Homosexualität” am
Beispiel Österreich, 1870–1938. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz Verlag, 1987.
Halberstam, Judith: “Perverse Presentism. The Androgyne, the Tribade, the Female Husband,
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csodabogarak. [The Oddballs of Pest] Budapest: Ab Ovo, 2005. 116-157.
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Daily news and obituaries:
“Két leány.” [Two Girls] Eger és Vidéke 12 Nov (1889): 1-3.
“Kisasszony-férj.” [Miss-husband] Borsodmegyei Lapok 12 Nov (1889): 3.
Fővárosi Lapok 25 Dec (1898): 15-16.
“Vay Sándor.” Magyarország 16 May (1918): 9.
Pesti Hírlap 25 May (1918): 5-6.
Budapest 26 May (1918): 6.
Budapesti Hírlap 26 May (1918): 7.
Letters of Sándor Vay to Mrs. Kálmán Csiky and to Renée Erdős. Hungarian National Library
Archives, Archives of letters.
... For example, one of the first LGBT History Month events was dedicated to a discussion of "Controversial figures in Hungarian LGBT history", 53 including Kertbeny, Cécile Tormay, Hungary's best-known conservative woman of the interwar era, who was involved in a divorce trial surrounded by charges of female homosexuality, 54 the "gender bender" aristocrat Sándor/Sarolta Vay, who was born as a woman, raised as a boy, and lived the life of the traditional gentry male of late 19th-century Hungary, and the poet Kálmán Thaly, who forged 17th-18th century poetry. 55 In 2018 at the 6th Hungarian LGBT History Month a "Having a name for 150 years -Károly Kertbeny, the first Hungarian gay rights activist" exhibition was organized by activists of the Háttér Archives to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Kertbeny's coining the word homosexual. 56 In October 2020 Kertbeny even made it to the Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation), a daily newspaper, functioning as the mouthpiece of the government since February 2019 (when merging with another 'national conservative' newspaper, associated with Orbán's Fidesz government). ...
... 6 We try to reveal all the different forms and shades of same-sex attractions in the past from cross-dressing and butch-femme relationships to intimate friendships, secret loves and out lesbians. We intend to create files for the primary and secondary documents of those more well-known Hungarian women whose stories have been more or less reconstructed, such as turn-of-the-century journalist passing woman Sándor/Sarolta Vay (1859-1918), 7 and writers Minka Czóbel (1855- ...
The paper investigates the curious case of the Hungarian Count(ess) Sarolta/Sándor Vay, journalist and writer, but, above all, a notorious gender bender in late nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. The article examines her case in the context of the history of European cross-dressing and of narrative transvestism. The author argues that nineteenth-century dandyism provided an effective cultural framework for Vay’s contemporaries to accept her unconventional presence in fin-de-siècle Hungarian society. Moreover, she claims that Vay’s narrative transvestism may also be construed within the cultural phenomenon of dandyism, as her writing practices prove to be further instruments for her self-fashioning. Finally, she concludes that Vay’s gender performance and narrative transvestism become illustrative examples of instances that both frame and confuse accepted cultural patterns, destabilize gender binarism, and participate in its maintenance.
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In Central Europe nowadays universities, research institutes or museums are attempting to reconfigure the region's complex history from the perspectives of formerly forgotten or marginal/ized individuals and groups. Besides initiatives such as the opening of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, or of the Center for Queer Memory in Prague, new studies and literary works presently (re-)create narratives that challenge the generally accepted past. Two recently published Hungarian books, a novel and a study that partly deals with the novel, exemplify this revisionist tendency. Ildikó Lovas’ novel, Spanyol Menyasszony ['The Spanish Bride'] (2007), which questions the cult of Géza Csáth (1887-1919), the writer and psychoanalyst who was also a drug addict that murdered his wife, renders the fictional diary of Csáth's wife and victim, Olga Jonás (1884-1919); Anna Borgos’ study, Nemek között: Nőtörténet, szexualitástörténet ['Between the Sexes: Women’s History, Sexuality History'] (2013), examines the Csáth affair within an inclusive analysis of women’s positions, roles and sexuality in the Hungarian culture of the last century. In this article Chmurski traces the ways in which both authors reread the lives and tragic marriage of Csáth and Jonás.
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The article explores the personal narratives of middle-aged and elderly Hungarian lesbian women based on oral history interviews. The stories open a window into the Kádár era from a special perspective, allowing us to get a glimpse into the women's self-recognition and coming out process; their different (sexual, professional or maternal) identities, relationships, informal social scenes, and communities; their thinking about gender roles, as well as the available representations of lesbians over the decades. The women also discuss the freedom and greater visibility—as complex as it was—that came after the democratic transition. The article contributes more detailed knowledge about the situation of LGBT people in the region during the state socialist period and around the 1989 regime change.
In his article "Nádas's A Book of Memories and Central European Journeys" Steven Tötösy de Zepetnek discusses theoretical, literary, political, social, etc., aspects of travel in Péter Nádas's novel. "Travel" in the novel represents both a conceptual and lived experience at a time when travel between the East and the West in Europe was restricted and when a person hailing from the "East" considered a journey to the West a complex and ideological matter. Further, the aspect of urbanity, that is, cultural and social spaces and the journey and what such entails in terms of ideology, points of origin, knowledge, and the individual's perceptions of "locus" are also discussed in the context of Hungarian, East German, and Hungarian Jewish literature. While in today's postcommunist 1989 order of Europe Nádas's text would be read in the context of history, the theme of travel by Hungarians to cities such as Vienna, Paris, Rome, or Berlin has been and remains a prominent genre in Hungarian, as well as Central European literature in general.
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Recently there have been attempts in Hungary to rehabilitate authors with nationalist, anti-Semitic, and national socialist views and integrate them into Hungarian literary canon, including the suggestion that the works of Cécile Tormay, József Nyirő, and Albert Wass become compulsory school literature. Since one of the most important goals of Hungarian literary education is to reinforce a sense of Hungarian nationalism, the focus is primarily on the authors rather than their literary works and they tend to be presented as role models to students. This paper aims to show that, given that the three authors mentioned above have publicly participated in anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi activities, it would be unethical to place them in a position where they may be lauded as role models for children. It is also argued that only a small part of the literary work of these three authors can be considered aesthetically valuable while all of them had written works containing anti-Semitic and faux-historical elements. Both the authors’ choice of topic and their literary style makes them unsuitable as compulsory school literature for children.
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In 1899, Sarolta Vay was accused of allegedly defrauding her father-in-law, marrying under false pretenses, and deceiving her wife and in-laws about her sex. This case soon came to be seen in the psychiatry profession as prototypical of female homosexuality. More recently, this eager use of her case as the ideal example of mannish lesbianism has been interpreted as an attack on the late-nineteenth-century women's movement. This article details the transitions that took place when this lawsuit was transformed into a psychiatric case of sexual inversion and focuses on the consequences of Vay's case for the im/possibilities of women to embody masculinity. Based on the discovery of the published medical forensic report, it shows how a transgressing, secretly acting subject was converted into a pathologized sexual object. It also illustrates how the earlier, simple connection between sexual acts and organs transformed into extensively described, inseparable, intertwined identities.
Színész egy félszázadon át
  • Izsó Gyöngyi
Gyöngyi, Izsó. Színész egy félszázadon át. [An Actor Through Half of a Century] Budapest: Hajnal Kiadás, 1922.
Noémi Saly: Pesti csodabogarak
  • Noémi Saly
Saly, Noémi. "A reverendás írónő." [The Woman Writer in Cassock] Noémi Saly: Pesti csodabogarak. [The Oddballs of Pest] Budapest: Ab Ovo, 2005. 116-157.
Surpassing the Love of Men. Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present
  • Lillian Faderman
Faderman, Lillian. Surpassing the Love of Men. Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Perennial, 2001.
Psychopathia sexualis különös tekintettel a rendellenes nemi érzésre
  • Richard Krafft-Ebing
  • Von
Krafft-Ebing, Richard von. Psychopathia sexualis különös tekintettel a rendellenes nemi érzésre. [1902] [Psychopathia sexualis, with a special regard on sexual disorders] Budapest: Nova, 1926.
Studien zur " Weiblichen Homosexualität " am Beispiel Österreich
  • Hanna Hacker
  • Frauen Und Freundinnen
Hacker, Hanna. Frauen und Freundinnen. Studien zur " Weiblichen Homosexualität " am Beispiel Österreich, 1870–1938. Weinheim, Basel: Beltz Verlag, 1987.