Joe Monahan was a cattle worker and integral community member in Idaho’s Owyhee county until his death in 1904. It was then that his body was found to be female.Monahan is one of five individuals whose lives challenge gender stereotypes of the American West that Peter Boag, history professor at Washington State University, will discuss Tuesday in his talk, “Alternative Masculinities in the Old West: Some Stories of Subversion, Resistance and Acceptance.”
Monahan was born as a female in 1850 in upstate New York, but little is known about those years except that Monahan preferred boys’ work, games and clothing. Around 1867, while still a teenager, Boag said, Monahan moved out west, where he was known exclusively as male. He worked in male-dominated industries of ranching, mining and mill work and was known to have voted and served on a jury, something that wouldn’t have been possible for him as a woman.
“He was accepted and understood to be male,” Boag said. “We know that people did question his gender, but he was accepted as a man in the community.”
When Monahan was discovered to have a female body upon his death, it became a national news sensation. People sought explanation, though little factual information was available about Monahan’s experience. Though the term “transgender” wasn’t used during that time, many now believe it may have applied to his experience.
Boag explained that one of the reasons we don’t see members of the LGBTQ community in stories of the American West is because their stories have been “sanitized and cleaned up.” With Monahan, a movie based on his life, “The Ballad of Little Jo” (1993) told a story of a woman from high society who becomes pregnant out of wedlock and moves out west and becomes male to escape disgrace.
“The fictionalized version made it easier for people who don’t understand, easier for people to palate someone like Joe — ‘She got in with the wrong man, she had no choice,’ ” Boag said. “It completely obliterates the reality of these people’s lives.”
The talk is part of a series of lectures hosted by the Latah County Historical Society that explores common myths about the American West. On March 26, Philip Stevens will present “American Indian Education and Contested Power,” and April 16 Katrina Eichner will present “Women’s Work in the West.” Each talk will be held at 6 p.m. in the Arts Workshop in the 1912 Center.
The lecture series is presented in connection with a collection of photographs of the gay rodeo circuit by Blake Little on exhibit now through April 30 in the University of Idaho library.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: Alternative Masculinities in the Old West, a talk by Peter Boag
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 19
WHERE: Arts Workshop, 1912 Center, 412 E. Third St., Moscow