- Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past by Peter Boag
Joe Monahan lived in the West for most of his fifty-three years. Raising livestock, working in the goldfields, a sawmill, and a livery, Monahan moved throughout the West doing a variety of odd jobs. He proved up a small farm in New Mexico, served on several juries, and voted in local and national elections. A relatively solitary figure, Monahan's neighbors took him in when he fell ill. When he finally succumbed to his illness, his mournful neighbors went about preparing his body for burial only to discover that Joe Monahan was biologically female. In Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past, Peter Boag reveals that Joe Monahan was anything but alone: women living as men and men living as women in the West were ubiquitous.
Boag argues that the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century West was a place where gender and sexual transgressiveness were as common as the tumbling tumbleweed. He further claims that the erasure of the history of transgendered and cross-dressing individuals was purposeful and systematic. Boag's work is divided into five chapters and two parts. The first part of the book uncovers male and female cross-dressers long hidden or explained away. Boag analyzes the various challenges, community responses, and popular memories that confronted men and women who challenged sexual and gender norms in the West. Women's cross-dressing was easier to account for than men's: ease of travel, personal safety, adventure, even to conceal a crime or elude capture. The Southwest is singled out as a place of particular danger and violence. That women dressing as men availed themselves of the greater mobility, economic opportunity, and anonymity that trading in petticoats for trousers offered is clear, but Boag's analysis reveals that these rational explanations often served as cover for much more emotionally complex identities. Men dressing as women were harder to explain away. Racializing cross-dressing men and feminizing non-white males served to minimize or remove their biographies from the western past.
Indeed, while the first chapters of Boag's book focus on recovering the lives of men who dressed as women and women who dressed as men, the second part of the book examines the ways in which these lives were forgotten [End Page 217] and folded into the increasingly heteronormative telling of western stories. Boag explores the ways in which frontier mythologists, sexologists, the popular press, and even historians straightened up a past that was anything but. In these final chapters, readers learn of the convergence of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier myth and the progressive narrative with sexologists' pathologizing of cross-dressing and homosexuality. Locating what they perceived to be increasing "sexual inversion" in the East, with modernity and urbanization, sexologists allied themselves with a Turnerian reading of the American past that erased it from the West.
Boag's sources range from anthropological studies and medical papers to the mass-circulation press. Newspaper accounts, critically read and thoroughly mined, serve as the bulk of his source material. As all students of the West know, frontier myths and frontier lives often blended together as easily as a child on an overland wagon train could pick up his favorite dime novel. Boag explores the places where real lives and popular culture were buttoned tightly together, often obscuring same-sex attraction and transgendered identities.
While the structure of the text requires some repetition and students of the construction of whiteness and the transformations of American medicine will wish for more attention to the relationship of gender identity to changing boundaries of race and disease, Peter Boag has made an important contribution to western history and the history of sexuality. Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past deserves a prominent place among recent scholarship that reveals a more intimate and increasingly embodied western past.