Peter Boag, Columbia Chair in the History of the American West at Washington State University, tells a lot of stories about people transgressing gender expectations. Following on his Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homo-sexuality in the Pacific Northwest, this most recent work further cements his position as a leading historian of queer lives in the US West and as a scholar who queers the ways we narrate the region.1 Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past recovers gender-diverse peoples and contextualizes them as a sustained, regular part of the nineteenth-century US West. It also suggests how their absence in our understandings of western history relates to how the so-called closing of the frontier was constituted through a "heterosexualized and unambiguously gendered" conceptualization of the American past (3).
Boag recognizes the limitations of his chosen term—"cross-dressers"—to describe male-birth-assigned people who dress and live as women and female-birth-assigned people who dress and live as men. Still, he explains, people used the term at the time for a broad swath of people. In other times and places, his subjects might otherwise be understood as inverts and berdache or, later, transvestites, transsexuals, lesbians and/or homosexuals, or even later, transgender and Two-Spirit. His term also incorporates those who used temporary masquerade to dodge the gender binary's social, cultural, economic, and political constraints. Boag covers a lot of terrain by taking this expansive view of cross-dressing.
In the book's first half, Boag describes the lives and times of cross-dressers across the nineteenth century, showing how mass-media representations of their regular and frequent "discovery" changed over time. For female-to-males (F2M), media rationales, often backed up by testimony from the individuals themselves, involved ease of travel, safety, love of adventure, military service, employment in male-designated jobs, ability to go to places otherwise off-limits to women, or commission of crimes. Many accounts saw the regular appearance of F2M cross-dressers [End Page 204] as a sensational but understandable element of a rough and mobile western environment. It was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that newspapers increasingly linked female-bodied-male personas with queer sexualities, the dangers of feminism, and the scientific mysteries of inversion. Male-to-females (M2F), Boag explains, appeared in different ways, as often racialized stage impersonators or through "discovery" as streetwalking sex workers or masquerading men. The latter sometimes claimed to comport themselves as women merely as a lark, but media and the law suspected them of criminalized intent to deceive. By the late nineteenth century, M2F cross-dressers were viewed as potential sexual inverts, although female impersonators continued to be popular on western stages. While Boag explores possibilities for why his many subjects cross-dressed, he is careful to not overdetermine motive even as he honors persistence as historiographically suggestive of what might today be understood as an enduring transgender selfhood.
The book's second half is a sustained critique of the limited ways in which US western historiography and the American frontier imaginary understands and represents the region's gender diversity. Boag argues that the convergence of sexology and the closing of the American frontier is significant. American exceptionalism required a conceptualization of the frontier as a space of collective immunization from the sexual perversion, inversion, and decadence related to Old Europe even as it embraced a modernity juxtaposed with the supposedly primitive gender and sexual diversity of Native Americans and other nonwhites. Hegemonic middle-class white manhood came to be linked to gender-exclusive outdoor activities, contact sports, bodybuilding, militarism, and adventure often overlain with yearning for the frontier imaginary. To combat degeneration, medical experts attacked inversion associated with city living and perversion related to primitivism. Popular culture recast the roles of cross-dressing in the US West accordingly. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century popular culture reimagined F2M cross-dressers through literary devices that allowed women wronged by men to dress and live like them during a temporary frontier...