The Wild West
When you think of the Wild West, you think of saloons, gunfights, and lawless individuals. These things are all glamorized in the westerns that we see on TV. What you won’t often see are those who represented the LGBT community back then. They lived more openly than Americans in the East, and somehow have been forgotten. These forgotten LGBT icons from the Wild West cast new light on the era.
Recently, scholars have dug up evidence that the Wild West was a place where gender-non-conformists could be themselves. It wasn’t just a handful of people. There are records and documents of hundreds of people living their lives freely. According to this historian, homosexuality among cowboys didn’t offend straight people back then.
The 17th Century
The American frontier opened up at the beginning of the 17th century as the English colonizers headed west. When President Thomas Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, it encouraged migration. The U.S. paid the French $15 million for land, and Americans felt confident about moving west. By 1900, this area was known as the Wild West. A historian from Washington State University named Peter Boag was researching the gay history of Portland but ended up uncovering more than he ever imagined.
Evidence Of a Trans Community
During his research, Peter found evidence of men dressing as women and women dressing as men. He found hundreds of examples of a trans community in the Wild West. According to his research, people could live their lives freely; however, they chose. They could get jobs and carry on lives that wouldn’t be possible in the east. Back then, the press was covering stories about the LGBT community, and those who wanted to live their lives their way read these stories and headed west. They believed that it would be an opportunity to live their lives happily and freely.
Everyone back then knew that the Wild West was a dangerous place. The papers didn’t print stories about people actually being trans. Instead, they wrote about the reasons why people dressed outside what was accepted by their gender. Stories were written about women who dressed as men so that they wouldn’t be bothered or molested. There were also stories about women dressing as men to get better jobs. As women, they could only get jobs as cooks or housekeepers. If a woman were to dress as a man, they could get better-paying jobs. They couldn’t find explanations of why the men dressed as women.
History left out the stories of cowboys who were in homosexual relationships. The tales they tell were of ranchers who were overly flirtatious toward women. Considering that cowboys were always in the company of other men, Peter believes that they were in relationships with one another. He says that in all-men societies, same-sex relationships were acceptable. Back then, people didn’t use labels. These labels weren’t used until the 20th century.
One-eyed Charlie was born in 1812 as Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. He lived in an orphanage after his mother died, and left at the age of 12. He ditched his female identity and began presenting himself as male. He changed his name from Charlotte to Charley. Charley crossed paths with Ebenezer Balch. Balch took him in, thinking that he was a boy. Soon, Charley showed a natural ability with horses. He taught Charley to drive a stagecoach, first with one horse then four, and finally six. When a horse kicked Charley, he lost an eye, which is how he got his nickname. During this time, nobody knew that Charley was born a girl. After his death due to tongue cancer, the secret came out.
Harry Allen was in the papers for bootlegging and burglary. It wasn’t just his crimes that made the headlines. It was also the fact that he was born Nell Pickerell, a woman. The headlines read, “A Woman By Nature, A Man By Choice.” When this story was printed and became national news, people in the East were shocked. Those who chose to live their lives this way migrated west, to have their freedom. Sadly, people’s views didn’t stay this way, and it wasn’t long before this behavior was no longer accepted.
Not Always Happy
Alice Baker was born male but lived as a woman. She worked as a teacher in Harrah, Oklahoma. When someone found out about her true sex, they reported her. To avoid the scandal and scrutiny, she skipped town and continued to live as a woman. Alice and her husband moved to Japan, where they swapped counterfeit bills for gold. This is the last known place that Alice lived.
While the LGBT lifestyle was running rampant in the Wild West, it wasn’t always accepted. It was, however, more acceptable than it was in the East.