In an article in the December 15, 2009, Los Angeles Times, David Ng writes about a museum exhibition that is likely the first of its kind. “Out West” looks at the history of gays and transgender persons in, well, the Old West. The play on words in the title is a hoot and surely hits the right note, although officials at the Autry National Center, where the exhibit is being held, went to some pains, according to Ng, to come up with the right title. Tedious, academic-sounding proposals such as “Gay and the West” and “Equality and the West” were vetoed, thank goodness.
As an example of what is offered in “Out West,” Ng recounts the story of One-Eyed Charlie, “a stagecoach driver known for his hard drinking and itchy trigger finger,” with a reputation as “one of the best drivers in the wild West.” Following his death in 1879, however, it turned out that Charlie was actually Charlotte—Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst. “The discovery of her true gender became a local sensation,” says Ng. “And her story still fascinates U.S. historians, some of whom believe that she was the first woman to have voted in a presidential election, long before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.”
I want to say that somewhere over the years I’ve read elsewhere about One-Eyed Charlie, probably in the same place or places where I came across other fascinating minutiae and footnotes to history. Certainly she is reminiscent of female pirates such as Anne Bonny and Mary Read. And surely it should come as no surprise to anyone that gays, bisexuals, transgender folks, and the many assorted others we pass on the street every day made up the population of the frontier following the Civil War as well as the populations of anywhere and everywhere else in history. What intrigued me most, however, in Ng’s article, is the following observation:
“Patricia Nell Warren, a historian and author, said that same-sex relationships between cowboys were often tolerated in the early days of the West largely because manpower was scarce, thus making it impractical for landowners to be choosy about whom they hired. But attitudes changed with the introduction of mechanized agriculture, which rendered human labor more expendable.
“‘Tolerance went away after that,’” she said.
This tells me something that I’ve long suspected, that frontiers are where the unconventional people go because where else will they find a home? Define frontier as you wish and define unconventional however you like, but every generation has its children who don’t fit in with traditional society, be they gay or transgender folks, be they hucksters or dreamers, con artists or card sharks, or simply souls restless and eager to live life every day rather than simply put in their time. No doubt the frontier serves for them the same purpose that cities have since time immemorial: the opportunity to create one’s identity oneself rather than accept an inherited seat at the table, the freedom of becoming anonymous or of taking risks impossible to undertake otherwhere.
Yet the anonymity offered by cities is tenuous and depends on shifting moods of tolerance. Similarly, the freedom of frontiers is always going to be domesticated by the attitudes that come with the introduction of mechanized agriculture or mechanized anything else. Technology enters the scene, the situation becomes regulated, and the big middle moves in to civilize everything within reach, to nail it all down within well-monitored perimeters.
And this is absolutely necessary. The big middle—the majority of us who aren’t at one extreme or the other, who keep our dreams in check, who don’t take the risks, who do not remove to the frontier to live out our identities—the big middle is needed to foster the dynamic tension that leads to progress. The big middle consolidates everything for the benefit of all: it regulates traffic laws and provides education and builds hospitals. It does this so that the dreamers and oddballs, the artists and fools, the gay and the straight and anyone trying to find his or her own voice, have someplace to leave when they try to find a new frontier.
It really is a necessary creative tension or dynamic tension, too. My hypothesis is this: that once a frontier—mental, physical, or social—is settled, extremists push against the borders from inside and, by doing that, redefine both the borders and the middle. Think of the civil rights movement or the women’s movement. The so-called extremists pushed things past the point where the great middle was most comfortable, like a rubber band pulled almost to the breaking point. Yet once the tension in the rubber band was relaxed, why, we find that the middle of the great middle has itself moved a bit, and likewise has pushed the perimeter past where it was previously. Advancement therefore comes from taking two or three steps, and then a step or two back—but not all the way back.
So the first woman to have voted in a presidential election did it in the guise of a man, and it wasn’t discovered until after she died? That’s pushing several borders at once. And it, too, is a hoot. One-Eyed Charlie surely had to be smiling to herself as she cast her ballot.
Keep stretching those rubber bands, I say.