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Bucking Binaries: A Queer American West

I am struck by a particular thought: when people speak about their own sense of self, maybe we should believe them. When an individual reveals their motivations for their sartorial choices, perhaps we should take them at their word.

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance, and in recognition the fabulous historical Twitter account, @WhoresofYore, tweeted a link to Sabrina Imbler’s June 2019 Atlas Obscura article “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West.” Imbler’s article is exciting and fascinating, especially for those who work hard to demonstrate the oft-forgotten queer histories of the world. Imbler reads the work of historian Peter Boag, who, in Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, shares the stories of trans[1] people (largely trans men) in the nineteenth-century American west.

The stories themselves are colorful and engaging and speak directly to the histories Imbler and Boag are writing. The narrative accounts they share could easily find themselves on social media today, such as that of Harry Allen, who told The Seattle Sunday Times in 1908 that “I did not like to be a girl; did not feel like a girl, and never did look like a girl…So it seemed impossible to make myself a girl and, sick at heart over the thought that I would be an outcast of the feminine gender, I conceived the idea of making myself a man” (qtd. Imbler).

Not all accounts are so direct and sensationalized as that of Allen; Imbler cites Boag’s research on Sammy Williams, a lumberjack, and Mrs. Nash, “a respected woman, interior decorator, midwife, and prized tamale cook who was a core part of the Fort Lincoln community,” whose assigned sexes were only discovered at their deaths. These are documented humans who lived, loved, and died, and seem to have done so as authentically as possible (as suggested by the surprise their autopsies cause their communities).

Because fashion is, and has long been, so strictly gender coded, much of the article and book research speak of clothing and dress in the identification and performance of these historical figures. Mr. Williams and Mrs. Nash would have dressed according to the social standards for their authentic identities, and were thus successfully read as such for the extent of their recorded adult lives. Others, like Allen, were targeted for the publicity of their gender performance as it conflicted with their assigned sexes: “Whatever the crime, Allen always seemed to be a suspect because he refused to wear women’s clothes, and instead dressed as a cowboy, kept his hair trim, and spoke in a baritone” (Imbler). My own research is on deviant dress and villainous identities, and so I recognize well how one’s dress, if perceived as “wrong,” can make a person a target for charges of legal deviance.

But I’m troubled by the treatment of another cited case within Imbler’s article – that of Jeanne Bonnet.

In the 1870s, Jeanne Bonnet, who was assigned female at birth, was arrested several times in San Francisco for dressing like a man. Though Bonnet explained this sartorial choice as a career choice—they worked as a frog catcher, a job that simply could not be done in a dress—they wore men’s clothing throughout their life, suggesting a motivation more personal than a paycheck.

Imbler cites Boag’s response to the common narrative of women dressing “as men” for their own safety and well-being: “If people thought you were a man, you wouldn’t be bothered or molested, there’s good evidence that some women dressed as men to get better paying employment,” Boag says. Imbler is concerned for this easy conclusion, though, arguing that “This idea—among others—that a person might assume another gender identity for purely practical reasons, is part of the reason that there is little explicit record of a queer history of the Old West, and says almost nothing about those people assigned male at birth who lived their lives as women.”

Imbler’s treatment of Bonnet seems, to me, to swing too hard the other way, projecting an identity that the figure did not claim, as others cited in the article so clearly do. Imbler challenges Bonnet’s expressed motivations, and uses gender-neutral pronouns to describe Bonnet, in order to make a point that is perhaps too binary and restrictive. Given my own research interests, I’d push back on the notion that clothing must necessarily function as a binary, and that one’s preferred dress, be it normative or nonnormative, does not override one’s expressed identity. I can agree with Imbler’s conclusion that Bonnet’s dress is personal, but not with the assumption that this means Bonnet is a trans man. Perhaps the personal reasons for Bonnet’s sartorial choices are … expense. I do not know how much a frog-catcher would make in the 1870s, but I imagine the wage is not significant. In a time when an adult might have only one or two full sets of clothes, perhaps it is not financially feasible or practical to keep both masculine and feminine suits of clothing. Why maintain both, if one enables an income, and the other threatens one’s employment?

Or perhaps the personal reason is … comfort. No, don’t come to me with cries of “OH THE CORSETS!” That’s not what I mean. Corsets, especially well-made corsets, worn by a person who has literally grown up in them, can be extremely comfortable and supportive, and do not restrict movement as much as popular media would have modern people believe. No, as one who makes and wears historic clothing, I can say with confidence that the dresses themselves are far more restrictive and uncomfortable. From the skirts that snag and catch and drag and trip, to the tightly-fitting sleeves and close arm holes that barely allow one to raise their arms, I can easily see why one would prefer the freedom of movement of men’s shirts and vests and trousers (depending on the time, the arms and trousers could be just as restrictive, but that’s unlikely for nineteenth-century working class individuals).

Or perhaps the reason is that Bonnet was indeed nonbinary, or a trans man, and feared saying so for the danger such a direct expression would bring. Perhaps Imbler and Boag have more information than would fit in this article, and I've read only an incomplete story. All, and any combination, of these explanations are logical for the time and place of Bonnet’s account. And all mark Bonnet as a figure of queer history, for one who – for whatever motivations – bucked binary systems of representation directly and purposefully. But, in order to avoid the same assumptive sins as the cited Victorian newspapers, I’d rather work with what Bonnet has said, and my understanding of the context in which it is said, than arguing for an identity Bonnet may not have felt.

[1] I am following Imbler’s lead here: “As the term "transgender" did not emerge until the late 20th century, it was not a category these people would have used themselves, writes Emily Skidmore in True Sex: The Lives of Trans Men at the Turn of the Twentieth Century. But Skidmore sees trans, rather than transgender, as a helpful umbrella term to acknowledge and encompass the gender variance expressed by historical individuals, and so we use the same terminology in this article.”

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