TACOMA, Wash – On May 29, the eve of Pride Month, the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma will open an original exhibition about transgender people in the West from the 1860s to the 1940s. The exhibition was created in collaboration with Dr. Peter Boag, an historian, author, and educator at Washington State University-Vancouver. Crossing Boundaries: Portraits of a Transgender Westhighlights 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 today. 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.”
Crossing Boundaries: Portraits of a Transgender West is on view from May 29-December 12, 2021, at the Washington State History Museum. The museum will also present an online curator conversation with Peter Boag and Gwen Whiting on June 10, 2021 at 6:00 PM. More information at www.WashingtonHistory.org/crossing-boundaries.