On Bridgett’s recommendation, I’ve just started Peter Boag’s Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past. I’m only through the chapter on women who dressed as men, but it’s blowing my mind. Boag’s trying to walk an unenviable line where he uses the term “cross-dressing” as the broadest category and then tries to drill down into as much material as he can find on each cross-dresser to try to understand how that person understood his or herself–and the understandings he finds are pretty fascinating. There were a lot of women who dressed as men in order to be able to travel freely. But he also has a lot of examples of people who were recognized by their society to be women who always felt that they were men. And there’s a lot of variety in between. I don’t envy Boag’s attempts to try to find contemporary words that easily map onto these people’s understandings of themselves, but I think Boag does a good job of reminding the reader that this mapping is problematic and obscures as well as illuminates.
I had known from how people maligned poor Uncle Walt, patron saint of this blog, that 19th century people certainly did have an understanding of “homosexuality” (I put it in quotes only to try to acknowledge again that there’s that mapping–me putting a contemporary word on a concept that doesn’t quite line up), even though we, as a culture, often pretend like gayness is something that was born in the ’20s in San Francisco. But I had no idea how much public discussion and acknowledgement there was of people who didn’t fit gender-presentation and sexual-orientation norms in the 19th century. Which is not to say that people were necessarily accepting, but that they knew people could be in these situations.
And that’s the other part that’s been blowing my mind–just story after story of people I had no idea existed. The women who dressed as men in order to become criminals. The women who dressed as men in order to marry wives. The people who were only discovered to be biologically female upon their deaths.
History books like this are great because you hear these stories. But I have this experience, too, of feeling like I had, until that moment, been robbed. These stories should have been available and were not, because they don’t fit some ideal of what it means to be American. So, they just got hidden away, kept from the kids.
Like I said, I’m not very far into it, so I don’t know if Boag gets into it or if it’s just something I have to hope someone writes about later, but it seems to me that there’s really fertile ground between the concept of (and anxiety about) “crossing” and “passing.” It’s kind of hard for me to wrap my head around, because I grew up in an era when we have arguments over these things like there are definitive answers. You have a set gender, sex, and race. We might fight over who gets to decide what evidence is recognizable when making those determinations–in other words, do we trust you when you say “I’m a white man?” Or do we decide certain biological standards carry more weight?–but we believe those things exist and are intimately and fundamentally embodied. For better or for worse, we’re committed to the idea that our bodies are evidence of who we are.
But this anxiety a hundred-some years ago about “crossing,” like the anxiety about passing, seems to suggest that those things were not linked for folks in the same way. They had a lot of anxiety because they seem willing to believe that you literally could become the type of person you were dressing to be.
In which case, it’s little wonder that there’s such heavy policing of the boundaries between blacks and whites and men and women–those boundaries could, if not heavily guarded, easily be traversed. And I’d like to hear some smart thoughts about that. So, I’m looking forward to the work that’s going to come out of this work, as well as looking forward to the rest of the book.