Nb. We have chosen to use ‘they’ pronouns for Quentin Crisp, as they spent most of their life identifying as a gay man, but realised late in life they identified as a trans woman.
Quentin Crisp was an English writer and actor who was born in Surrey in 1908. They were born Denis Charles Pratt, but as they grew up they began to be teased at school for their ‘effeminate’ behaviour. As they entered their 20s, they took the name Quentin Crisp. They studied journalism at King’s College London, and then took art classes at Regent Street Polytechnic.
Crisp soon found themselves drawn to Soho where they were able to experiment with their identity. In Soho they met gay men and tried wearing make up and women’s clothes. At this time, partaking in this behaviour was dangerous for men in Britain, as it was still against the law for men to engage in homosexual acts with other men. Dressing in women’s clothes was an advertisement of a homosexual identity and subversion of gender norms, which would easily attract attacks.
By 1930, Crisp felt more comfortable in their eccentric appearance, continuing to wear bright make-up, dying their hair and painting their nails. As the Second World War approached, Crisp tried to sign up to join the army but was rejected on medical grounds. The medical board said that they was suffering from “sexual perversion” because of their homosexuality and the way they dressed. Being gay was considered unnatural and often as an illness or disease. A gay man was not to be admitted to the army.
As they were not able to fight in the war, Crisp chose to stay in London during the Blitz. Crisp later remarked that this period of the war had actually seemed like a golden age to them at times, as people they passed in the streets were far more friendly and willing to talk to them whilst they were wearing women’s clothing than they were before. Despite this, attitudes were still generally very harsh towards Crisp’s identity, and they continued to be harassed and threatened for how they dressed.
In 1942, Quentin Crisp began to model for life drawing art classes, including in Hertfordshire. They often modelled at the St Albans School of Art up to the late 1970s. You can read students’ memories of Crisp’s modelling and sketches of them in our LGBTQ+ section of Herts Memories. In 1967, the Sexual Offences Act legalised consensual, private, homosexual acts between two men who were aged 21 or above in England and Wales. The following year, Quentin Crisp published their autobiography The Naked Civil Servant. The book sold a few thousand copies, but in 1975 it was picked up for a television adaptation which was broadcast in both Britain and the USA.
The Naked Civil Servant brought Crisp fame, and they stopped life modelling and started acting. In the late 1970s, Crisp decided to make the move to New York, a great place to host their popular theatre shows. They continued to write books, film reviews and columns for both US and UK publications. They also acted on television and in films alongside stars like Helen Mirren and Sting. They continued working until the end of their life, performing in a theatre in New York City in the month they turned 90.
As they turned 90, Crisp also came to the realisation that they were not a gay man but instead they were a transgender woman. They also realised that they were asexual. They described feeling a great freedom in being able to live “in the outer world the way I live in my head”. They also expressed that if gender reassignment surgery had been available and cheap when they were in their 20s, they would have jumped at the chance. Crisp described their feelings about their identity and their journey in realising how they felt in their last autobiography, The Last Word which was published posthumously.
Crisp died in 1999, a month before their 91st birthday, in Manchester. Another book based on recorded interviews between Crisp and their friend Phillip Ward was published in 2019 called And One More Thing. In 2009, a television sequel to The Naked Civil Servant was broadcast, where John Hurt – who had played Crisp in the original show – returned to play him again. Today, much of Crisp’s work is preserved by Crisperanto, The Quentin Crisp Archives, run by Crisp’s friend Phillip Ward.