Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past. By Peter Boag. Berkeley: University of California Press, Illustrations, notes, and index. xii + 258 pp. $29.95 paper.
In Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, professor Peter Boag brings frontier crossdressers and the transgendered to the center stage. A pioneer on this subject, Boag has two principal goals and has divided the book accordingly. The first goal is to “re-dress America’s frontier past” by investigating crossdressers how their gender and sexual identities effected their communities. The second goal explains how and why this group of people, who were very much a part of the fabric of their communities, virtually disappear from history surprising many who learn of their existence over one hundred years later.
In part one, the author uncovers female-to-male and male-to-female crossdressers who chose to present themselves as the opposite sex for a variety of reasons. Utilizing newspaper articles, medical journals, letters, and other contemporary accounts, Boag retells the stories of several crossdressers, male and female, during the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Often documented in the press, crossdressers had a visible place in society, with many stories fabricated simply for entertainment. These accounts show that crossdressers are more common than previously noted in history. Many citizens were accepting of this lifestyle, but only if they could justify their crossdressing to fit within the social context and societal norms. It wasn’t until the late 1800s that it became more scandalous and unacceptable to dress as the opposite sex.
The second half of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past explains how society interpreted the lives of crossdressers to classify them into a category more acceptable to the general population. Contemporary accounts of female-to-male crossdressers normalized them by assuming their need to dress as men to be of a functional need. By dressing as a man, a woman could hold a better position, travel alone, or take part in more adventurous endeavors. If she didn’t need better social benefits, perhaps a man had wronged her in the past, thus changing her forever. A woman’s sexuality had not been forefront of these discussions as this would remove her from heteronormativity. Men, on the other hand, had a much more difficult time should they desire to live as a female. Male-to-female crossdressers were racialized and feminized, such as Mrs. Nash of the Seventh Calvary. This is in stark contrast to the white, strong, American frontiersman of the West, mythologized in the press and dime novels. As they did not fit within the heteronormative theme, their prominence in western history became minimized almost to the point of removing them from the narrative entirely.
During this same period of the 1890s, Turners Frontier Thesis came into prominence and contemporary sexologists began to align themselves with it. The idea of “sexual inversion” was prevalent in the urban areas to the East due to its modernity and industrialization. The frontier to the West was where only the strong survived and conquered. Aligning with this popular version of history removed crossdressers and the transgendered from the past. Boag, on the other hand, challenges Turner’s thesis by demonstrating how the frontier did not exemplify the masculine, Anglo-Saxon myth and contained people of differing ethnicities, gender identities, and sexual orientations. In a time where real lives and myths became blurred, Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, separates fact from myth and tells the stories of the forgotten lives, giving them their rightful place in frontier history.