Sarah Chorn’s upcoming novel, Of Honey and Wildfires (pre-order link, review), is a fantasy set in a place heavily inspired by the American Wild West. It’s also a novel with multiple queer characters, both in terms of gender and sexuality. I was thrilled when Sarah was willing to let me host a guest post she wrote, about the queer history of the real Wild West, which is an aspect of history that rarely seems to get mentioned in the history books.
Read to the end for a special giveaway announcement, too!
Without further ado, I’ll let Sarah’s words speak for themselves!
When I realized that all of my characters in Of Honey and Wildfires fell under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, I kind of panicked. You see, I don’t plan my characters. At all. I do not map them out. I don’t even usually have names for them that settle in until well after I’ve written the first few chapters. I like to let them tell me who they are as I fill up those blank pages.
But I had an incident with Seraphina’s Lament, where someone told me that they worried my book was “too diverse” and “there aren’t any straight people in it” and that haunted me. Ultimately, they argued, I risked losing readers due to it. So when I ended up with two lesbians and one trans point of view character in Of Honey and Wildfires, I heard those words again, and thought, “Oh shit, what if this is too gay, or not realistic enough? What if this is too much diversity? What if people can’t handle it and I lose readers?” I didn’t plan it that way, but when characters reveal themselves to me, I’m very, very reluctant to change anything that I learn about them. This is how these characters live when they are inside my brain, and to bring them to life I need to be true to the core of who they are, else what’s the point?
So I had three points of view, and all of them are LGBTQ+ and I remembered what someone told me after reading Seraphina’s Lament and really got nervous. Should I change my characters? Should I make at least one of them straight? Should I essentially force my story into a more socially acceptable box? Should I change who my characters are?
I ended up doing what I do every time my nerves get the best of me.
I did research.
Of Honey and Wildfires is set in a secondary world, but I largely based it off of the Wild West in the late 1800’s, and I did a huge amount of research to bring a lot of the details to life, so researching this particular topic was not so much of a leap for me. In fact, I was rather surprised I hadn’t done it before.
It turns out, there is a whole LGBTQ+ history to the Wild West that most people never really know about. According to this article in True West Magazine, the words gay or homosexual didn’t come to mean what they mean today until well into the 20th century. The first recorded use of homosexual wasn’t until 1868, and the word heterosexual is an even newer word, first seen in print in 1924.
(Photo from True West Magazine, in the linked text above)
The argument is, these terms and the concepts they represented weren’t quite as solidified as they are today, and so the line between genders and gender roles wasn’t quite as solid, rather more of a soft, moving target than we tend to think, especially when we consider images of the Wild West, the rugged mountain men, the cow wrangler, the gun slingers.
There is a quote from the afore quoted article that says it all, as seen here:
More than that, when these all-male groups lived together, think mining camps, mountain men, etc., often times groups would form family units, where some would do the more “feminine” tasks of housework and the like, while others did the mining/whatever.
It should be noted that not all of these partnerships, termed “bachelor marriages” were sexual. Some were just partnerships so they could better function as a unit to get things done both on the home front and in the wider world. However, it does show how the typical macho cowboy image wasn’t all as divided between gender roles as a lot of us tend to think. Read more here.
It is not just relegated to women, however. In this article in the LA Times, the story of One-Eyed Charlie was told. One Eyed Charlie was known as fastest stagecoach riders in the west. Once Charlie died, and an autopsy was performed, they discovered that One-Eyed Charlie was actually a woman, Charlette Darkey Parkhurst.
With all that said, one can imagine how the Wild West could foster such societies that blurred commonly perceived general roles, and how a person could live a life that felt truer to who they actually were under all that wide-open sky, with society so far away.
(Image from Atlas Obscura, Regina Sorenson and others on the Minnesota Frontier)
When Peter Boag did his research for Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, he fell upon a whole bevy of nearly unknown documents detailing the lives of people assigned one gender at birth, but lived elsewise out on the frontier. According to Boag, likely the segment of the population in the Wild West who lived such lives were probably a lot more prevalent than anyone has realized. Trans people have been in existence as long as there have been people. Boag posits that a lot of people saw the possibilities of reinvention in the West, and made their way to the frontier, and lived lives that felt truer to who they were.
And it makes sense. Out in the West, there was a lot more room for a person to get lost. It was a place you where you could show up, surround yourself with people you’ve never seen before, and be the person you’ve always longed to be with no one knowing any different.
As stated on The Forgotten Trans history of the Wild West on Atlas Obscura, another aspect of trans history in the west is stated here, and this is perhaps why we don’t know more about it. Humans, as ever, are so good at explaining things away.
It was easy for tabloids and historians of the time to explain away trans men as a quirk of the frontier. It was, after all, a land dominated by men: violent, physically demanding, and steeped in the oppression of women. It seemed logical that certain women might choose to disguise themselves as men for safety, or to gain access to power and agency—with no queer motive. “If people thought you were a man, you wouldn’t be bothered or molested, there’s good evidence that some women dressed as men to get better paying employment,” Boag says. The best job most women could hope for in the Old West was cooking or housekeeping. On the other hand, someone assigned female at birth who passed for a man could earn real wages.
But, as argued on the linked article, this idea of people assuming specific gender roles to fit into society better, find better jobs, etc., is likely part of why this aspect of society in the Wild West was so rarely talked about, and little known to us now.
And while that was likely true for some, there were people who did assume certain gender roles to do one thing or another (we’ve all heard the stories of the female soldiers assuming male roles so they could go to war, for example), it really wasn’t always as simply explained away or brushed under the rug as all that.
Another case and point on the Atlas Obscura article (seriously, read that article) is the case of Mrs. Nash, who was assigned male at birth, but lived in Montana, worked as a laundress, and was married to three men before she died. Mrs. Nash, arguably, cannot be explained away by higher paying jobs, and the like.
Mrs. Nash, photo from Atlas Obscura
Now, I’ve talked a whole lot about men, but I haven’t said much about women, and there’s a reason for that. You can probably guess it. Throughout history, women have largely been left on the fringes, not important enough to mention. In my endless digging about this fascinating topic, I’ve found precious little about the females who have lived out on the frontier, unless they were trans.
There is some evidence and records of some Native American tribes, like the Lakota, who used to perform certain rituals for the women who did not want to marry. They would twine a rope to form a “baby” between them. Though the exact purpose of the ritual is unknown, the implications seem clear enough. Read more here.
Willa Cather was likely the most famous lesbian who lived on the frontier. And of course, one must think of the areas where women lived amongst women, and men frequented, but never stayed: the whore houses, some of which have left records of relationships between women.
So with all of this, it is pretty obvious that there is a wide and nuanced LGBTQ+ history of the Wild West, probably a much larger history than any of us really know of. I do suggest clicking on all the links above, because all of these articles are worth reading, and I’ve only really scratched the surface on this.
Ultimately, I decided to keep my characters as they were, to be true to who they were. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?
Back when I was facing this same issue with Seraphina’s Lament, I told a friend of mine what was bothering me. I asked if I should rewrite some of the characters, add in more straight people, and they replied, “Sarah, if every character in your book was straight, no one would ever say, ‘your book is too diverse.’ This isn’t really an argument about diversity.” I’ve kept those words with me. There have been LGBTQ+ people throughout history, in every country, region, and historical period in the world.
I found this rather hidden history of the Wild West to be incredibly fascinating, and I think it is unfortunate that we do not know more about this, and that we are not taught more about it. I felt, in the end, that Arlen, Cassandra, and Ianthe are perhaps a bit more representative of the Wild West as it truly was, than I’d originally thought.
Thank you so much, Sarah, for writing this piece and letting me host it. It really was a fascinating read!
And now, for the giveaway announcement! Sarah has kindly agreed to give away one (1) ebook copy of Of Honey and Wildfires, .epub or .mobi as the winner prefers. All you have to do to enter is to comment on this article with your favourite queer character from an SFF novel, and tell me why. What makes that character so special to you? What makes them awesome?
Don’t forget to leave contact info (email address, Twitter, etc) so I can contact you if you win!
This contest is open internationally, entries will close at 11:59 PM, PST, Monday April 27. The winner will be drawn and announced on April 28, and the winner’s contact information will be forwarded to Sarah Chorn so she can reach out regarding the prize. Best of luck to all who enter, and I look forward to reading your comments!