Graham Burtle ’24 delivered his Brace Student Fellow Presentation titled “I Have Met with Noble Men: Surveying Transmasculine Experiences Throughout the Wild West” in Abbot Hall on April 3. In his presentation, Burtle unpacked how the conceptions of gender during the sensationalized time period allowed for more experimentation in unexpected and remarkable ways.
Burtle started the presentation by identifying topics to discuss, such as the gender expression of transmasculine people and the acceptance or criminalization of those individuals. Using anecdotes of such figures, he later shared the concept of masculinity being a performance, in which people who played the part well were welcomed.
“Fighting, chewing tobacco, or in a more abstract sense, playing the role of the western male figure, sheriff, cowboy, outlaw, you get the picture, were thought of as manly, so anyone who seemed conforming to that was assumed to be a man, without cause to question it. Even more so on the frontier, any masculine figure who said he was a man and was able to make himself useful to society was accepted as a man,” said Burtle.
To conclude, Burtle commented on the legislation that criminalized crossdressing and gender experimentation in the Wild West. As an example of how varied transmasculine experiences were at the time, he compared encounters with these rules in more or less populated areas.
“Cities tended towards stricter enforcement of crossdressing laws, rural areas either did not have such legislation or did not enforce it… Although still needing to pass as male to avoid public interest, transmasculine people were under less attack in a space that was more concerned with staying alive in the harsh frontier land than policing those who helped the community,” said Burtle.
One of the biggest challenges Burtle faced when researching the subject was finding source material. For the primary sources he did find, Burtle acknowledged the prejudice that existed within them since there was animosity geared towards other transmasculine individuals.
“Little personal documentation from trans individuals of the time survived, making newspapers and records of law and arrest the most accessible way to track individuals of the time. Therefore, it must be taken into account that much of this primary source material is inherently biased, as the general public at the time were not welcoming to those who upset their understandings of gender and sex,” said Burtle.
Erica Nork, a Fellow in History and Social Science who taught Graham in History 201, became Burtle’s Brace Fellow Faculty Advisor after they discussed the idea during a Conference Period. The pair met using Zoom over the summer. Nork also spoke to the challenging nature of finding primary sources and applauded Burtle’s tenacity throughout the process.
“By virtue of the project, it was really challenging research to do and scholars struggle with this kind of thing as well. I know he worked so much with [the Head of Collections and Access Services] Ms. [Emily] Goss in the [Oliver Wendell Holmes Library] to find and procure sources. There was one book that he was desperately trying to find and he literally couldn’t find it in a library in the country. [But] I would say that did not hold him back at all,” said Nork.
As someone who did not know much about transmasculine people on the frontier prior to the presentation, Semira Robinson ’23 noted how this information influenced how she would think about media of the Wild West. Robinson also explained how Burtle’s organization made the information more enjoyable and easy to digest.
“I thought it was really impressive how he split it up into three distinct sections, and then gave us an overview of the topic that way instead of diving directly into the research without context. Graham did a really good job at making it comprehensible and fun by highlighting particularly interesting people throughout his research, and making it interactive with having us read quotes,” said Robinson.
Jorge Briones Sausa ’25, who also attended the talk, applied this content to the current events surrounding transgender identities. Briones Sausa drew connections to the legacy left by the transmasculine people of the Wild West, who were not allowed to showcase their gender, but still did, as a means for inclusivity.
“Now we’re in a time where, unfortunately, a lot of awful things are happening with trans laws and legislation. It sucks to have to be in this time where the government thinks that they have the right to our bodies, and how we want to identify ourselves… I really hope that everyone that went can apply [the presentation] to where we are now and realize that we can make change for the trans community and for the queer community as a whole [by making] a more inclusive environment where we can all feel comfortable expressing ourselves that we want to,” said Briones Sausa.
Editor’s Note: Semira Robinson was a Copy Editor for The Phillipian, Vol. CXLV.
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