Here’s the setup of my soon-to-be-published novel, The Best Bad Things, in a nutshell: The year is 1887, and in the wild west of the Washington Territory, a hard-boiled, rule-bending Pinkerton’s detective goes undercover to infiltrate a smuggling ring. The detective’s name is Alma Rosales. She’s Latinx, she’s gender-fluid, and she’s queer. One of my writing friends and I fondly call her the “manic pixie butch stud.” I’m kind of in love with her — and I hope you’ll love her, too.
When drafting The Best Bad Things, I often thought of this piece of writing advice: “write the book you want to read.” I kept a mental list of characters and craft I loved in other books. The lyric prose of literary novels. The twisty plots and red herrings of mysteries. The rich world-building of historical fiction. Women who defied expectations and made their own rules. And queer characters — lots and lots of queer characters.
I wanted to read a book in which a queer woman was the main character, and was surrounded by other queer people. Where the main character’s queerness was not the focus, but rather an accepted facet of her life. I wanted to read a book in which queer folks were not merely there to provide a body count. As the Bury Your Gays trope reminds us, all too often the storylines of queer characters end in misery or death. I see a parallel here with stories about women “behaving badly,” where the female character’s story arc consists of her realizing she must change her ways: she must conform or perish (and sometimes perish anyway); she must stop straying outside the bounds of femininity. All this ties into queerness for me. Queer women are often villainized and categorized as behaving badly — not because we’ve done anything wrong, but because we aren’t conforming to societal expectations about sexuality and gender, and sometimes physical presentation.
Of course, because The Best Bad Things is fiction, I was able to push the boundaries of “behaving badly.” Alma doesn’t just blur gender lines and delight in her queerness. She and the other characters do quite a few bad things. And I found so much pleasure in writing about them: a cast of queer folks competently navigating the criminal underworld, pursuing their physical and sexual wants, breaking laws. I love Alma’s story because she is a fierce queer woman who does not apologize for her desires — and she is not punished for pursuing them.
Though they are my favorite to read, books (in any genre) that feature queer main characters constitute a fraction of what is available. One of the many effects of this lack of representation is that the queer experience, in itself, becomes mysterious — certainly to straight people, but also to queer folks, especially those who are not out, or are still learning about themselves, or are seeking affirmation through fiction that they are not singular in their experience of the world. I can only recall a handful of novels I encountered through school and afterward that explored the queer experience, even obliquely. As a late-blooming gay (not even out to myself until my late twenties) I clung to these stories, loved them even when they were frightening, or sad, or from the perspective of male-identified characters, because the little glimpses into queer lives held such power for me.
The mystery of the queer experience extends even more so to historical fiction. The overwhelmingly straight, cis, and white historical record has obscured or erased much of queer history. With The Best Bad Things, I intentionally chose a place, time, and combination of genres (western and noir, in particular) where queer people, women, and people of color have usually been stereotyped or written out entirely. But of course there were queer people in the 1880s American West — we just don’t hear about them as much as the popularized, white macho cowboy/outlaw narrative. And of course there were queer people of color in the West, including those who were there before white colonizers. Alma is Mexican-American, with roots in Southern California. Another central character, Delphine Beaumond, is a Black queer woman who leaves the South for the West Coast in the aftermath of the Civil War. I wanted to center and empower Alma and Delphine in a story where their presence is perhaps unexpected but also completely plausible and necessary.
In researching for the book, I dug into stories of women (and some men) in the west in the late 1800s who defied social norms when it came to money, presentation, or sexuality. Not all of them were queer, and most of them were not criminals, but all were accused of behaving badly — or even outright law-breaking — because they didn’t conform. Mary Ellen Pleasant was a Black woman who came to San Francisco in the 1850s. Starting with a boardinghouse, she built herself a fortune and a social network in San Francisco high society. She was active with the Underground Railroad before coming west and filed a pair of lawsuits that ended segregation on San Francisco streetcars. In response to her various successes, she was accused of practicing voodoo and, later, of murder. Jeanne Bonnet (fictionalized in Emma Donoghue’s novel Frog Music) was a pickpocket in 1870s San Francisco who often wore men’s clothing, and was frequently arrested for her male attire. Jack Bee Garland (also known as Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta and Babe Bean) was a Mexican-American writer who lived in Stockton, California at the turn of the century; Garland was assigned female at birth but lived as a man; he too was periodically arrested for wearing men’s clothing. Other queer or trans people, about whom very little is known — sometimes, even their names are lost — appear in historical materials. The Jefferson County, Washington, coroner’s records contained this entry from Sept. 14, 1913: “The body of an unidentified woman, age 55-60, dressed in men’s clothing, her breast tightly bound and her hair cropped short, was found floating in Discovery Bay. There were several cards with Seattle addresses but no money in her pockets. Believed to have fallen from a passing steamer, she was still unknown when buried by the county.”
Each of these small bits of history made me hungry for more information, and brought home how many stories — especially those about queer folks — have been lost, compared to those few that have survived. In writing The Best Bad Things, I wanted to fill in some of those gaps. I wanted to imagine queer people where they must have been, in shipyards and customs offices and coastal boom towns. I wanted them to be in love, to be gender outlaws and survivors, to triumph. The longing for these kinds of stories helped shaped my book and Alma’s journey. In turn, my hope is that other queer readers searching for a portrait of the past that includes them will read The Best Bad Things and find a place where they can belong.
Leave a comment about your favorite queer historical figure and be entered to win an advance copy of THE BEST BAD THINGS! Three readers will be randomly selected to receive copies of the book. Comment by Monday, September 10, to be entered to win.