The Real-Life LGBT Outlaws of the American West and Writing Queerness Back to Historical Fiction

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.

Katrina is queer, Latinx, and embracing her futch-ness in 2018. She lives in Seattle with her two dogs. Some of her favorite things are jellybeans, the beach, weightlifting, eyeliner, dad jokes, and impromptu dance parties. Her debut novel THE BEST BAD THINGS will be released this Fall. The book follows Alma Rosales, a queer woman and ex-Pinkerton detective, as she switches between female and male disguises to investigate an opium-smuggling ring. Come say hi and talk about books, sports, or your favorite jellybean flavor at Katrina's website or on Twitter!

Katrina has written 16 articles for us.

35 Comments

  1. This looks great!

    Favorite queer historical figure is probably Frances Willard (19th C social reformer and feminist – not a perfect woman at all but compelling).

    Bonus favorite historical fiction – Patience and Sarah by Isobel Miller

  2. 100% percent here for this book. A couple of years ago I went to see a movie highly billed as a feminist western (The Homesman) and was so pissed to discover that it was anything but (as is the norm with Westerns), so I welcome and look forward to an entry into this genre by a member of the community. Let us know where we can find it when the time comes!

    As for a favorite queer historical figure – so many, including Patricia Highsmith – but tonight I feel like mentioning one of my great-aunts and her longtime companion Georgia Marin, nicknamed “Sub Marin”, who were “spinsters” that cohabitated together and were known for throwing fabulous parties in the 1920s. I wish I knew more about them. What little I do know came from my father, who said to me while cleaning out his father’s home, “I present this to you without commentary,” which is New England WASP for, “I love you and you’re not the first one in the family.”

    • I love this family story! My mother’s great-aunt was the first woman to climb every Colorado mountain over 14,000 feet [pause for a brief google…longer pause to read the whole article at https://coloradoencyclopedia.org/article/mary-cronin …] OMG y’all I was gonna say “and any woman who did that at the time she was doing it must at a minimum have had some impatience with strict gender roles, ya know?” but that was my only queer-ish fact about her but BUT BUT that article makes it super clear she had a very strong friendship with another climber, one Agnes Vaille, and now man oh man am I wondering if maybe I am not the first in my family either. No way to know – I’m sure my mother would have told me when I came out to her if it were true and she knew about it – but…wow. Little mind-blown here.

      “In 1923 Cronin and Vaille embarked on an epic summer of peak bagging.” Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

      Suggestions for the queer definition of “peak bagging” are gleefully solicited.

  3. The book sounds amazing and even includes some PNW history! Thank you for writing about those whose stories have been purposefully erased.

    I recently found out about Eleanor Roosevelt and her “friend” who traveled with her. I’ve just started to look into queer history and want all the info I can get!

  4. Your book sounds very interesting and I’ll look for it soon. I really enjoy hearing about our forebears too. Just so affirming to know that we’ve always been here and have always survived and made better space for our descendants.

  5. Actual Real Life Queer Outlaw of the American West: One-Eyed Charley Parkhurst. Ran away from an orphanage aged 12, and went on to develop a reputation as one of the finest stage coach drivers on the West Coast (a very dangerous job involving fending off coyotes and bandits and driving incredibly narrow and difficult paths). He lost the use of an eye after being kicked by a horse.

    Charley was discovered to be AFAB after his death in 1879, and it was also discovered that he had given birth at some point. A baby’s dress was found in his house. Since he had been living as a man since the age of 12, that presumably means that at some point during his decades-long, extremely dangerous career he concealed a pregnancy and possibly gave birth without being found out.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charley_Parkhurst

  6. Thank you! I enjoyed reading about your search for not just queer people, but queer people of color, in other time periods.

    One of my favorite historical queer figures is Eleno/a de Céspedes, whose story survives via a 1587 Inquisition trial. Céspedes was born into slavery and of mixed race in Andalusia and was received the same name (first and last) as Céspedes’s mistress, Elena de Céspedes. Céspedes later went by simply Céspedes and signed the trial documents as Eleno, despite authorities’ protests that it was not a real men’s name; sometimes the scribe changes an “o” to an “a” or vice versa in apparent confusion over how to refer to Céspedes. Céspedes was freed and held several jobs, from domestic servant to tailor, hosier, weaver, shepherd, farmhand, soldier, and, eventually, surgeon – and switched back and forth between men’s and women’s clothing. Céspedes was married to a man at age 15 and gave birth, but they soon separated. Later, while working as a surgeon, Céspedes met and married a woman called María del Caño. About a year after their marriage, Céspedes ended up before the civil authorities and then the Inquisition on accusations of bigamy, disrespect for the sacrament of matrimony, and using a diabolical pact to trick doctors, midwives, and other witnesses into thinking that Céspedes was a man who could licitly marry a woman. In defense, Céspedes claimed to be a hermaphrodite (Céspedes’s term) who sprouted a penis while giving birth then lost it through cancer, a horseback-riding incident, or the devil. Céspedes also said during the case that “le tenyan por neutro y por onbre que no era lo vno ny lo otro” [they considered h/im neuter and a man, for he was neither one nor the other] – and that after sleeping around for a while with assorted women, marrying María seemed like it would serve God better. I am fascinated by how Céspedes carved out a life in this early modern Spanish context, and I would love to meet Céspedes, check what pronouns Céspedes prefers, and hear Céspedes’s life story outside the context of an interrogation.

    Wow, that got long – I discuss Céspedes in my dissertation, and I spent a few months transcribing the case last summer and fall (among other tasks)!

  7. Oh goodness I cannot wait to read this. I will recommend it to our local library!

    Speaking of gender bent dressing, Julie d’Aubigny was a queer androgynous cross-dressing sword swinging opera singer who is kind of a personal hero.

  8. Wow this sounds like a great read! My fav queer historical figure is definitely Zhang Bao, the bisexual adopted son and lover of legendary pirate queen Zheng Yi Sao (aka Cheng Shih) who terrorized the Qing Dynasty and defeated both the Portuguese and British navies.

  9. I’m SO excited for your book.

    Annemarie Schwarzenbach is definitely a favorite historical queer. Had an extremely good look especially in Marianne Breslauer’s photos, traveled, wrote, hung out with other interesting people, etc.

  10. Wow, I am so excited for this book!

    My first thought was “every character from ALL OUT” but that’s historical fiction so that maybe doesn’t fit the bill.

    For now I’ll go with Da Vinci, mainly because the man could not convincingly sculpt boobs to save his life, and has thus led to one of my favorite museum games which is “which of your fav classic artists never saw real life breasts”

  11. I’m going to second Charley Parkhurst as my favorite queer historical figure! There’s a children’s book about his life called Riding Freedom (it doesn’t portray him as trans, sadly) that I read and loved as a child, and I ended up spending a bunch of time researching him and his life in high school.

    This announcement is actually very timely and exciting for me, as I’m currently in the middle of an obsessive interest with queer/trans/gnc wild west tales. I’ve read the “Backwards to Oregon” series, a YA series about a shape-shifting trans Texas ranger (Wake of Vultures), and I’ve just started a nonfiction book called “Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past” that looks like it’ll be full of more stories like Parkhurst’s.

    So this book is very up my alley, and I’m thrilled!!

  12. Looking forward to this book! Katrina, I’m glad you live so far away from me so that I’m not led into temptation (raised Catholic). I’m fascinated with all of the shenanigans of old Hollywood, but I’ve just seen “Wild Nights with Emily” (http://wildnightswithemily.com/), which EVERYONE should go see, so now Emily Dickinson is my latest historical crush. But always giving props to Audre Lorde and Durham NC’s own Pauli Murray. And then there’s my crushes on Lesley Gore and Dusty Springfield and…and..and…

  13. I love a historical novel that actually lets queer folks live – both literally and figuratively. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for this!

    I think one of my historical faves might be Anne Lister?

  14. I can’t wait to read this book!! It’s so hard to choose a favorite historical figure but I’m going to have to go with Edna St. Vincent Millay. I’m currently working on costumes for a musical about her life as well so I’m in pretty deep at this point too.

  15. Oh my goodness, this book is SO UNBELIEVABLY up my street. Added to my book wishlist now. And blurbed by Lyndsey Faye, who’s another author I love the hell out of. <3

    And favorite LGBT historical figure—I can't pick one but I'm in London right now, so I'll say Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf.

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