Something for the Reading List

For nearly a decade, I have been researching and writing about women who dressed and lived as men and men who lived and dressed as women in the nineteenth-century American West. During that time, when people asked me about my work, my response was invariably met with a quizzical expression and then the inevitable question: “Were there really such people?” Newspapers document hundreds, in fact, and it is likely there were many more. Historians have been writing about cross-dressers for some time, and we know that such people have existed in all parts of the world and for about as long as we have recorded and remembered history.

Boag, Peter. “The Trouble with Cross-Dressers: Researching and Writing the History of Sexual and Gender Transgressiveness in the Nineteenth-Century American West.” Oregon Historical Quarterly 112, no. 3 (2011): 322–39.

Human beings have a really distorted view of history; we tend to project our experiences backward in time. Just recently introduced to the term “transgender?” Then transgender people must have only recently been invented, in the same way that bromances never existed before the term was added to the dictionary. Everyone is prone to this error, however, not just the bigots.

A central argument of my book is that many nineteenth-century western Americans who cross-dressed did so to express their transgender identity. Transgender is a term coined only during the last quarter of the twentieth century. It refers to people who identify with the gender (female or male) “opposite” of what society would typically assign to their bodies. I place “opposite” in quotation marks because the notion that female and male are somehow diametric to each other is a historical creation; scholars have shown, for example, that in the not-too-distant past, people in western civilization understood that there was only one sex and that male and female simply occupied different gradations on a single scale. That at one time the western world held to a one-sex or one-gender model, but later developed a two-sex or two-gender model, clearly shows that social conceptualization of gender, sex, and even sexuality changes over time. This reveals a problem that confronts historians: it is anachronistic to impose our present-day terms and concepts for and about gender and sexuality — such as transgender — onto the past.

In Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, I therefore strove to avoid the term transgender as much as possible. It is central to my study, however, to show that people in the nineteenth century had their own concepts and expressions for gender fluidity. By the end of the nineteenth century, for example, sexologists (medical doctors and scientists who study sex) had created the terms “sex invert” and “sexual inversion” to refer to people whose sexual desires and gender presentations (that is, the way they walked and talked, the clothing they wanted to wear, and so forth) did not, according to social views, conform to what their physiological sex should “naturally” dictate.

I wish I’d known about this book earlier, it would have made a cool citation. Oh well, either way it’s long since hit the shelves and been patiently waiting for a spot on your wishlist.