Homo(sexuality) on the Range
The wild, wild west was indeed untamed, unconventional and “under the radar” in many ways, especially regarding intimacy. The fierce western ethos to live free and unfettered applied as much to gender and sexual freedom as it did to other areas of life. Frontier life was one of isolation, wide open spaces and lawlessness and divergent behaviors were common. So it’s not surprising that, even though Victorians didn’t write about it, homosexuality was as common then as it is today. But because the Victorians avoided the topic, then Hollywood followed suit with its sanitized, black-and-white depictions of the West, the icons of the rugged cowboy and western life were sacrosanct and simplified. But, modern research, archival photographs, memoirs, diaries and more open attitudes have uncovered a shocking underworld of the west.
The shock first came with Alfred Kinsey’s 1948 study, “Sexual Behavior in the Human Male,” when he reported that “the highest frequencies of the homosexual we have ever secured anywhere has been in particular rural communities in some of the remote sections of country.” He surmised that the isolation of such places may foster a “make do” attitude. “There is a fair amount of sexual contact among older males in Western rural areas, the type of homosexuality which was probably among pioneers and outdoor men.
Today it is found among ranchmen, cattle men, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general that are virile and physically active. These are men who have faced the rigors of nature in the wild. They live on realities and on a minimum of theory. Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex.”
What was perhaps most shocking about homosexuality in the Old West was not that it was so common but that it wasn’t a big deal. In fact, miners and cowboys settled into convenient partnerships called “bachelor marriages.” When the miners in Angel Camp in northern California had dances, half the men wore bandanas around their arms to signal their feminine role. It was also very common and accepted for same sex bed mates to sleep together in small beds.
While homosexuality among whites arose from quiet acquiescence and sometimes necessity, Native American cultures enthusiastically embraced alternative genders. They called them “berdache” or “two-spirits.” Zunis, for example, believed that men skilled at women’s crafts and women skilled in male activities combined the two sexes and they were valued in native society. Two-spirits have been documented in over 130 Native American tribes in every region of the continent. In most societies, two spirits were regarded as especially blessed and honored as having extra powers.
Although not as openly embraced as in Native cultures, frontier life provided easy cover for homosexuality and cross dressing. Most instances went undetected to the grave, although some were uncovered—so to speak—right before the grave when preparing the body for burial brought a surprise.
Such was the case of an 80-year-old lumberjack in Montana named Sammy Williams, who died in 1908 and was sent to the undertaker who discovered the brawny Williams was really a woman.
One of the most famous cases involved George Armstrong Custer and his wife, Elizabeth. Custer’s 7th Cavalry was posted at Fort Lincoln (North Dakota), when one of his corporals, John Noonan, married a woman who had been Custer's long-time laundress. She also baked delicious pies and was the fort's resident midwife. She had a nurturing manner with the pregnant wives of the soldiers and always asked: "Are you comf?"
Noonan and his wife had been married happily for many years until one day he came back from a scouting expedition to find his wife had died. On her deathbed, Mrs. Noonan had begged that her body be buried directly and not bathed and prepared for burial. But Mrs. Custer and the ladies did not heed her request. Mrs. Custer left to pick wild flowers for her dead friend. She returned only to discover that Mrs. Noonan had, in fact, been a man. Bereft of the loss of his wife, Corporal Noonan killed himself several days later. Elizabeth Custer was not judgmental. "Poor old dear," she said of Mrs. Noonan. "I hope she is finally 'comf.' "
One case, however, was widely known to the public and wildly sensational: Harry Allen was one of the most notorious men in the Pacific Northwest from 1900 to 1922. As early as the 1890s, he made a name for himself as an all-around roust-about, jailed for theft, vagrancy, bootlegging, saloon brawling, bronco busting, horse stealing, and hard drinking.
Allen dressed as a cowboy but was well-kept, with his hair trim, spoke in a rich baritone, and walked with a swagger. He worked as bartender, barber, and a longshoreman. In 1912, he was arrested for “white slavery,” as he had traveled across state lines with a sex worker named Isabelle Maxwell, who was happily posing as his wife. Allen was thrown in jail for “vagrancy,” which was a catch-all for various violations, including gender non-conformity, that is, a woman dressing as a man.
Allen was open about his charade. In an interview with the Seattle Sunday Times, he said:” “I did not like to be a girl; did not feel like a girl, and never did look like a girl,” he said. “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.”
Newspapers were fascinated with Allen’s gutsy independence and determination to redefine himself with such grit and vigor. With a strange sort of admiration, they cast his defiance as befitting the spirit of the American frontier.
PHOTOS: (1) Cowboy Stag Dance in the Old West. Men wore a bandana around their neck or arm to indicate they were the “ladies of the dance.” Date/place unknown. (2) Photo taken on the Minnesota frontier. Pioneer woman Regina Sorenson and three other women dressed in men’s suits. Date unknown. Minnesota Historical Society. (3) A Navajo two-spirit couple in New Mexico in the 1860s. Collection of the Museum of New Mexico. By Bosque Redondo, 1866. (4) We’Wha, a Zuni “berdache” (two-spirit) of New Mexico, circa 1871-1896. We’Wha was biologically male but engendered with a female spirit. Image: John K. Hillers. (5 & 6) Joseph Lobdell in his youth, circa 1853, dressed in Indian attire, although he was born female as Lucy Ann Lobdell to a white working-class family in New York State. (6) Shown later with sheared hair, Lobdell lived as a man for 60 years and married a woman. (7) Two black cowboys decked out in “woollies.” Circa 1913. (8) The 1970 movie, “Little Big Man,” with Dustin Hoffman also depicts a Native American “two-spirit” or “berdache.” (9) The award-winning 2011 movie, “Albert Nobbs” starring Glenn Close playing a Victorian woman who goes through 19th century life as a man. (10) The Ballad of Little Jo is a 1993 American western inspired by the true story of a society woman who tries to escape the stigma of bearing a child out of wedlock by going out to the West, and living disguised as a man. (11) Multiple Academy Award winning 2005 American western, Brokeback Mountain, about two cowboys who fall in love despite opposing social mores.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted August 29, 2019
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