Mother George is among those featured in the exhibit.
Mother George is among those featured in the exhibit. Washington State Historical Society

We don't know much about Mrs. Nash, a laundress who served the wife of General George Armstrong Custer. Nash was born in or near Mexico, and spoke Spanish; she worked for the United States Army, and was present for the Battle of Little Bighorn. She married three times to enlisted men. And after she passed away and her body was being prepared for burial, it was discovered that her body was not what those who knew her for years had assumed.

Mrs. Nash is just one of the fascinating figures featured in Crossing Boundaries: Portraits of a Transgender West, a new exhibit opening this weekend at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma. The exhibit shines a light on people who lived in the American West from around 1860 to 1940, and who we would likely describe in today’s language as transgender.

“All the people in the exhibit are extraordinary,” says Dr. Peter Boag, a historian who helped create the exhibit. “They lived lives that were quite different from the mainstream, and they lived in an era that we don’t often associate with queer history.”

The exhibit emerges from Boag’s 2011 book, Redressing America’s Frontier Past, which reveals the surprising fluidity of gender presentation in centuries past. Staff at the museum were fascinated by Boag’s research, and approached him in 2019 to create an exhibit for Pride. It took two years to write, design, and research the exhibit now opening.

Among those featured is Joe Monahan, a popular figure who held various jobs, voted in elections, and served on juries; despite some suspicion that there was more to his identity than he let on, Monahan was generally accepted by his community.

There’s Mother George, a midwife believed to be of Black and Native descent who lived in Idaho’s Grays Lake Valley. And then there’s Dr. Alan Hart, a pioneering physician who developed new techniques for detecting tuberculosis, and who was one of the first trans men to undergo a hysterectomy in the United States.

That these people lived lives of dignity and acceptance is all the more remarkable given that there was certainly not an extensive LGBTQ+ community to offer support at the time. But of course, they were everywhere, Boag says: “There were many many people in the American West who lived lives differently from the sex that they were assigned at birth,” not just among settlers and pioneers but among Native people as well.

“Many Native cultures recognized three, four, or more genders,” the museum writes in a statement announcing the exhibit, and Boag notes that scholars have identified over a hundred tribes that recognized genders beyond what we would recognize as today’s male-female binary.

Crossing Boundaries will remain at the museum through December, and its creators hope to bring more attention to those who have, in the past, been marginalized in and by our history. The story of the region we call home includes people whose lives have been “ignored or purposely misconstrued,” Boag says. “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 runs from May 29 to December 12. Join Dr. Boag and Washington State Historical Society Lead Curator Gwen Whiting for an online discussion of the exhibit on June 10.