If you’re like most people, the image that comes to mind is most likely cowboys, bandits, lassos, and straight people doing very straight things. But certainly, the idea of people of color dressing in clothing for the opposite gender doesn’t pop into the imagination of most individuals. However, many would be surprised to hear that they’d be wrong to count transness out of what had made up America’s new frontier. In fact, it was quite common. In his book Redressing America’s Frontier Past, historian Peter Boag argues just this.
The book happened by accident. When asked how his work came to be, Boag responded that he had discovered there were men wearing women’s attire while researching for a completely different project. In the end, Boag wrote a book researching the lives of those living in this frontier, discovering hundreds of individuals living their lives as the opposite gender – coming to form a part of day to day life in the Old West. When asked whether he was surprised by the discovery, Boag replied he was – despite being a historian on this period of American history – perhaps due to the way queer history has been covered up.
As the article “The Forgotten Gendernoncomformists of the Old West” points out, many of these people – the vast majority of which were individuals assigned female at birth presenting as men – were often presenting as the opposite gender for practical reasons. Take a bandit trying to evade the law, for instance. Many of these individuals chose to dress as the opposite gender to evade detection from the authorities, sometimes going to live entire lives as a different gender following their life as an outlaw. Or take, for example, a woman living in the patriarchal world of the Old West – unable to receive a liveable wage or work, confined to labor in the home, and treated as mere property. In such harsh conditions, many women found it better to simply live their lives as a man. Indeed, Boag himself told me via email that many of the individuals he researched were not trans.
However, Boag also argues that although many of these individuals presented as the opposite gender for pure practicality, many also may have been what we consider today as transgender. In other words, they internally identified as the gender they were performing to the world.
Although, in the beginning, these gender-defying individuals (particularly individuals presenting as male) were made a spectacle, and later on the media began to paint them as tied to the very character of the Wild West, including through imaginary stories such as those of Calamity Jane, before eventually becoming erased from our collective idea of the West. The same, however, could not be said for those presenting as women. These individuals (those of whom were assigned male at birth) were consistently ignored and little history lives on to exist today.
Shockingly, Boag also found that most individuals were only discovered to have been trans upon their death. The article “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West” in Atlas Obscura lays out the particularly funny case of Sammy Williams. Williams, who was assigned female at birth, presented and publicly identified as male to his hometown in Montana. He worked as a lumberjack in the area, furthering his male status to those around him. So, when he died at the ripe old age of eighty, many in the area were shocked to discover he had been trans.
These stories, while humorous, shed a bright light on the ways in which queer people have frequently been erased from our collective memory. Although many would like to say otherwise, gender non-conformity and queerness have existed as long as man. Boag himself expresses concern about this, saying that “there are active movements at state levels around the U.S. today to keep…(queer) research out of the classroom” – referring to bills such as Don’t Say Gay in Florida. Hopefully, though, with the work of Professor Boag and others like him, we can illuminate these forgotten memories and fight against stigma against trans and gender non-conforming individuals. Regardless, next time you have nothing to talk about with a friend you can ask: did you know there were trans people in the Wild West?
Jacob Gelman is a current undergraduate student studying American Politics and International and Public Affairs at Brown University. @jacobgelman