[Guest Post] Sarah Chorn, on the LGBTQ+ History of the Wild West

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.

scgp4As 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!

Of Honey and Wildfires, by Sarah Chorn

Buy from Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – April 28, 2020

Summary: From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.

What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.

The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.

Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.

Thoughts: I’ve been a fan of Chorn’s writing style since reading Seraphina’s Lament in 2019. She has a brilliant evocative style that drew me in, turning emotions into landscapes in a way that felt downright poetic. That same style is evident in Of Honey and Wildfires, though I found that this one had a much stronger focus on the narrative than Seraphina’s Lament. It might be because her first novel dealt with events happening on a massive scale, changing how the very world worked, whereas here, the story has a narrower focus. One small area, a few primary characters. It’s a different scope, but Chorn deals with it just as well.

Of Honey and Wildfires is a fantasy Western, at its heart, taking heavy inspiration from the American West during the 1800s. The setting is Shine Territory, a place where shine is pulled from the world and is infused into everything. Shine is like magic, only with a physical form. Add some shine to food and it will taste better. Use it to make ammunition for guns. Give undiluted shine to a person and grant them temporary psychic powers, but also make them terribly addicted. Shine production and distribution is controlled by Shine Company, and is a blessing and a curse for pretty much everyone involved with it. Life gets better with it, but at the cost of the lives of those who mine it or pulls it up from wells.

Your basic capitalist scheme that values profits over people, basically.

While I don’t think that Chorn intended to write a book about worker exploitation specifically, that element is definitely present in the text, and it’s nearly impossible to ignore. One of the protagonists, Arlen, is the son of the head of Shine Company, sent out to Shine Territory to further company interests, sees firsthand how brutal lives of the company’s workers can be. Children in the mines, company propaganda about how kids working is a good thing because they help take care of their families, the benefits given to the people who agree to become addicts for the company’s sake… It’s not a pretty world, and the company byline clashes with the brutal reality of the situation, and early on the weight of the situation comes crashing down around Arlen’s head. He recognizes that his life has been immensely privileged, living off the benefits of an exploitative system, and the real meaning of that hits home when he sees the people who are being exploited for his comfort.

Arlen’s viewpoint isn’t the only one followed in the novel. There’s also Cassandra, daughter of an outlaw who works to shut down Shine Company, sent to live with extended family to keep her safe. Cassandra’s childhood isn’t an easy one, being markedly different from the people in Shine Territory, and also having a known outlaw for a father, but she’s a fascinating character, strong and stubborn and devoted to the things and people dear to her.

Cassandra’s one of those characters to whom things happen, whereas Arlen is one who has greater impact on the events he takes part in. True, Arlen still gets dragged along for rides now and again, but his is definitely the more action-oriented viewpoint, whereas much of Cassandra’s story involves the simple telling of a complicated life. Her narrative is compelling, to be sure, since she occupies a rather unique place in the world, but in many ways, hers is a more passive role. She could have been removed from the story as very little would have changed, since most of the main story elements were in the hands of Arlen and Chris, Cassandra’s father. The narrative would be poorer for her absence, since her tone and style are quite different from Arlen’s, but if her chapters were removed, most of what readers would lack would be context. Cassandra’s chapters are the emotional connection in many ways.

Now, I’m a bit torn on how I feel about this, to be honest. In one way, Cassandra’s character dips into some problematic territory. Her relationship with her best friend Ianthe ends somewhat tragically (this is foreshadowed heavily early on, so it’s not a massive spoiler to say so, I figure), which adds her to a large list of “queer characters who lose their lover in a tragic fashion.” Combined with her more passive role in the story, especially when compared to Arlen, it’s easy to categorize her as “a woman who isn’t really necessary to anything.”

But as accurate as those criticisms may be, they also do a disservice to Cassandra’s character. She may have a more passive role in the tale, but her parts of the story are still interesting. With her, you get context. You get to see how many people in Shine Territory live, what their lives are like, what their concerns are. I love reading this sort of thing. One of my earliest complaints with learning history in school was that we always got taught the big events, the major players in how things changed, but we never got anything about how the general populace lived out their lives. Wars occurred to determine who sat on a throne, but for your average labourer, their lives went on as they always did, and I wanted to know about those lives. That is, in essence, Cassandra’s viewpoint. She gives that everyday context that provides the counterpoint to Arlen’s experiences, and yes, I know that “woman who exists to further a man’s story” is also a damaging trope, but I don’t think Cassandra quite falls into that one, since she can absolutely carry her own story.

It just happens that her own story had less action and less impact to Shine Territory in the end. But it was no less interesting than Arlen’s, and I think it’s a testament to Chorn’s skill with writing that she can create a character who has less impact but is nevertheless just as compelling to read about.

I don’t know if there’ll be any more to Cassandra and Arlen’s connected story. Of Honey and Wildfires could be a standalone novel and work perfectly, a short glimpse into a fascinating aspect of a fantasy world that isn’t any more than it needs to be. At the same time, the world and characters are interesting enough that I absolutely want to see more, to see what has changed now that this book has ended and Shine Territory isn’t what it was in the beginning. It feels like there could easily be more stories set in the world, and I’m down for reading them. If the true tale is only beginning, I want to be there at the end. But I could still be satisfied with this one novel, if that’s all there needs to be. I do enjoy books that can stand on their own merits without needing to be half finished or give cliffhanger endings to keep me interested, and Of Honey and Wildfires definitely checks that box.

If you enjoyed Chorn’s other work, then you’ll similarly love this one. It’s an engaging story in an uncommon fantasy setting, and it’s written with the same beautiful and evocative style that I’ve grown accustomed to with Chorn. This is a novel that deserves a place on your bookshelves, with plenty to say and a compelling way of saying it. Do yourself a favour and dip your toes into this Western-inspired shine-soaked world that is sure to make an impression.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Seraphina’s Lament, by Sarah Chorn

Buy from Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2019

Summary: The world is dying.

The Sunset Lands are broken, torn apart by a war of ideology paid for with the lives of the peasants. Drought holds the east as famine ravages the farmlands. In the west, borders slam shut in the face of waves of refugees, dooming all of those trying to flee to slow starvation, or a future in forced labor camps. There is no salvation.

In the city of Lord’s Reach, Seraphina, a slave with unique talents, sets in motion a series of events that will change everything. In a fight for the soul of the nation, everyone is a player. But something ominous is calling people to Lord’s Reach and the very nature of magic itself is changing. Paths will converge, the battle for the Sunset Lands has shifted, and now humanity itself is at stake.

First, you must break before you can become.

Review: I’ll start off by saying that Seraphina’s Lament is a very hard novel for me to review. Mostly because while the story itself is fascinating, the characters interesting, most of what I want to do is gush over Chorn’s writing style.

But one step at a time.

Seraphina’s Lament takes place in the Sunset Lands, a place that was previously a monarchy but that had its ruling power overthrown in a revolution. Now in charge is Premier Eyad, head of the collectivist government, maker of the laws that have resulted in overfarming and the resulting famine. As with most people who attained power in such a way, he’s paranoid about counterrevolutionary elements, and oddly sees “failure to grow food where food won’t grow” as a punishable offense. People are fleeing, to escape a life of starvation and cruelty. But problems in the Sunset Lands run deeper than that. An army of skeletons approaches Lord’s Reach, dying people infected by hunger until their very humanity has been eaten away, led by what was once a man and who now calls himself the Bone Lord. Magic in the form of elemental talents seems to be dying, except in those for whom it grows wildly and out of control. Old powers stir. People are changing, becoming something new, something different.

And before you become, you must break.

While the book is named for one of its characters, the story goes far beyond Seraphina herself. She is a slave, owned by Eyad, scarred and in chronic pain and possessing a fire talent that seems to be growing in strength. There’s Neryan, Seraphina’s twin brother who escaped slavery, possessing a water talent that is Seraphina’s opposite and complement, bent on freeing his sister from bondage. There’s Vadden, who grabs the title of My Favourite Character from early on and keeps it through the story, determined to remove Eyad from power and atone for the wrongs he committed in playing a part to overthrow the previous government and pave the way for Eyad to take the abusive stance he has. Every single character is broken in some way, holding themselves together against overwhelming odds, and none of them are perfect, which is what makes them all so compelling to read about.

I mentioned Chorn’s writing style, and it’s that which makes this book really memorable, at least for my part. Her writing is incredibly evocative, poetic, concerned with metaphor and simile that sets the mood in a way that physical descriptions can’t always manage. Instead of mentioning the phase of the moon, for instance, you get lines akin to, “The moon was a scythe meant for killing,” a description that conveys the phase to the reader anyone (for those looking for clear imagery to picture), and also sets the tone of the scene without any further words. The book has been categorized by many as being grimdark, and that word alone tends to conjure images of blood and violence and death, and yes, those things are definitely present in Seraphina’s Lament, but in ways that are more horrifying (at least to me) than someone being hacked to death with swords and axes. Instead, you have chilling depictions of people eating their recently deceased neighbours, sometimes children, acts born of starvation and desperation in a dying land. Much of the poetic prose is beautiful, which serves as a counterpoint to the events that, inspired by history, horrify and disgust.

This is the sort of book that largely defies proper description, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that to really understand it, you have to read it. Reviews and summaries really only scratch the surface, and I know I’m failing to really do Seraphina’s Lament justice here. Chorn is a rising star in the grimdark world, a star worth tracking, and I, for one, am excited to see what she’ll do next.

(Received from the author in exchange for review.)