Western couture: Cross-dressing on the frontier

Posted on 31 Aug 2012 at 9:30am

Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag (University of California Press, 2011), $40; 257 pp.
booksJoe Monahan’s neighbors were shocked. The fall of 1903 was short and winter came early. Tough and self-sufficient, Joe had come to the Mallory ranch complaining of illness and he didn’t look good. Shortly after his arrival, he died in the warmth of his neighbors’ home.

The shock came when they went to prepare Joe’s body for burial: Grizzled ol’ Joe Monahan was a woman.

Do clothes make the (wo)man? Are we what we wear? In Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, author Peter Boag proves that those questions plagued our ancestors more than history admits.

Boag says that scenarios such as Monahan’s were common in the West in the decades between 1850 and 1920. Cross-dressers, for myriad reasons, were “very much a part of daily life,” and while people tittered and talked, general attitudes were based on late-19th-century beliefs on gender. Medical experts eventually claimed that cross-dressing was part of a “neurological disease” called homosexuality, and that “homosexuality was understood as an unfortunate by-product of modernization.”

But button-holing wasn’t so easy…

For women, the frontier was a man’s world. There was adventure and prosperity there, and becoming a man as much as possible was a way to seize opportunity. Safety was another reason for appearing masculine, cross-dressing could be scandalous fun, and it could help escape punishment for criminal behavior. There were also women who believed themselves to be boys from birth.

For smooth-faced men, it was common to dress as women for dances and parties because biological women were scarce. Men impersonated women to entertain others. In some Native American communities, berdaches were encouraged to embrace femininity. Like some women, males took on girlish appearances to escape crime, and then there were the men who simply wanted to be women.

But for those men, and their female counterparts, life wasn’t easy. Arrests for the “crime” of wearing gender-inappropriate clothing were common and cross-dressers were often shunned. Interestingly, however, their partners (usually same-sex) were generally socially accepted.

That’s pretty fascinating stuff, but did Boag really have to devote 250 pages to it? Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past is good, but long, with many excellent examples offered to back up Boag’s thesis about why these stories are largely hidden from history. What he found will set Western fans (not to mention screenwriters) on their ears.

And yet the book has its distractions. It’s scholarly and often reads like a dissertation more than a page-turner, which occasionally makes it hard to read if you’re just looking for a peek at hidden history and not a lecture.

That aside, because it uncovers a wealth of stories that are overdue for telling, Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past is the ticket. If you’re a Western history buff especially, you need to outfit yourself with this book soon.

— Terri Schlichenmeyer

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 31, 2012.

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