State history museum

As a child in 1850s New York, Joe Monahan shortened the name given to him at birth as “Joe,” dressing only in boy’s clothing and selling newspapers as a boy. Monahan became one of the most famous transgender people from the Old West, his story told and retold in books, newspapers, theatrical productions and film. However, his transgender identity was erased in these retellings.

TACOMA — On the eve of Pride Month Saturday, May 29, the Washington State History Museum will open an original exhibition about transgender people in the West from the 1860s-1940s.

The exhibition was created in collaboration with historian, author and educator Peter Boag at Washington State University-Vancouver.

Crossing Boundaries: Portraits of a Transgender West is on view from May 29-Dec. 12 at the Washington State History Museum. The museum will also present an online curator conversation with Peter Boag and Gwen Whiting at 6 p.m. June 10. Find out more at WashingtonHistory.org/crossing-boundaries.

Crossing Boundaries: Portraits of a Transgender West highlights specific people who moved west and changed their activities, clothing and behaviors to lead lives that fit more with their sense of self.

Their life stories illuminate the exhibition’s themes of visibility, identity, acceptance and history — themes that remain significant in the queer community. Through historic newspaper clippings and artifacts, Crossing Boundaries considers how westward migration provided these individuals and others with opportunities for self-expression and fulfillment.

The history of transgender people in the West is an incomplete one, marked by sensational popular accounts and prejudice and a lack of personal records.

“One of the challenges in organizing this exhibition was locating stories of transgender people in newspaper, library, and photographic archives,” said Gwen Whiting, lead exhibitions curator at the museum.

“While there were many people who transitioned in the West, often we found that those stories had been lost, either through intentional erasure by communities or family members, or because the individuals left few personal accounts and belongings behind. For example, Dr. Alan Hart requested that all personal correspondence and documents be burned upon his death.”

Because written documentation is sparse, it has sometimes been assumed that trans people did not exist prior to the modern era; however, transgender people have existed in the West for thousands of years. Many Native cultures recognized three, four or more genders.

Examples of the individuals featured in the Crossing Boundaries exhibition include Harry Allen, a heartbreaker who was wanted by the police; Dr. Alan Hart, a medical doctor and Northwest novelist; and the mysterious Mrs. Nash, a laundress to the famed Seventh Cavalry and an officer’s wife. As with other pioneering experiences, theirs are stories of obstacles and fear, bravery and triumph.

“It is an honor,” Peter Boag explained, “to be a part of the visionary inclusiveness of the Washington State Historical Society, bringing to attention varied peoples marginalized in and by our history.

“Our exhibit shares stories that are of central importance to our state and region, but stories largely ignored or purposely misconstrued. As such, what we share is not only affirming of the lives of the people we explore, but also of fundamental interest to everyone.”

 

Annie joined the U-B news staff in 1979 and since 1990 has written Etcetera, a daily community column. She was promoted to a copy editing post in 2007. She edits copy, designs and lays out pages, including the weekly arts and entertainment guide Marquee,