The frontier of the US Old West saw cow "boys" living in a different gender to the one assigned at birth. Their lives and other stories from history provide inspiration for the world premiere of Cowbois.

If you've ever seen Doris Day don a pair of chaps as "Calamity Jane", you'll be familiar with the story of Martha Jane Canary, a real-life frontierswoman who lived in the American Wild West of the late 19th Century.

Known for her supposed habits of wearing male clothing, smoking cigars and engaging in apparently masculine pursuits such as hunting, sharp-shooting and heavy drinking, the life of Calamity Jane is the subversive calling-card for the Cowboy genre. Immortalised on film, the celluloid "Calam" journeys from tomboy to dress-wearing "lady" in 100 minutes. But historians say it's impossible to be certain how much of her story is factual, and how much is Hollywood fiction. What is clear is that pictures of Martha Jane wearing male clothing have survived, and research is uncovering ever more stories of rich and diverse gender expression.

There are many more, less well-known, examples of gender nonconforming and transgender people throughout history, dating right back to the most ancient of civilisations.

Mary Jane Canary "Calamity Jane", c. 1880s
Imprint by C.E. Finn © Public Domain Browse and license our images

Transgender is a broad term, coined in the 1960s, which can be used to describe people whose gender identity is different from the gender they were assigned at birth. Gender nonconforming is a term given to people who don’t observe the gender norms that are expected of them. Being gender nonconforming doesn’t necessarily mean you’re transgender. 

The Hijras of South Asia, who today are recognised as a third gender, are a transgender people whose identity evolved in the 13th Century, but who are documented centuries before that. The Roman Emperor Elagabus (d. 222 AD) enjoyed wearing makeup and wigs, preferred to be called "Lady" and is said to have offered vast sums to physicians researching early versions of gender reassignment surgery. 

Gender diversity existed in ancient England too: the grave of a 4th Century AD Gallus priestess was found at Cataractonium, a Roman Settlement in North Yorkshire. Galli were born male but chose to live their lives as women in honour of the goddess Cybele.  

In medieval Britain Eleanor Rykener, born John, began presenting as female when she started an embroidery apprenticeship in London. Her story appears in court records from 1394 after she was arrested for prostitution. For Eleanor’s trial the court notes were written in Latin, which was uncommon for the time, but allowed for the proceedings to continue without the male or female pronouns frequently required by English or French. The court was aware of Eleanor’s assigned gender at birth but seemed unable to decide on which pronouns to give her in the records, and thus, used Latin.  

In 18th Century France Chevalier d’Eon, a celebrated soldier, diplomat and spy employed by King Louis XV, lived openly as a man and as a woman in France and England at different stages of their life. The Chevalier d'Eon was so famed that a series of prints depicting them were produced in their lifetime.  

Around the same time, John Taylor, born Mary Anne Talbot, joined the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s and spent many years at sea living as a man. In 1797 John was seized by a press-gang and was forced to reveal their gender at birth, then returned to England but continued to dress as a sailor and drink with former messmates. And Fanny and Stella (Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton) were a Victorian upper-class couple who frequently and proudly dressed in women's clothes. 

Chevalier d’Eon was officially recognized as a woman by King Louis XVI
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Frederick Park and Ernest Boulton, also known as Fanny and Stella, were a Victorian couple who were arrested in 1870 for "abominable crimes"
Frederick Spalding © Public Domain Browse and license our images
John Taylor, born Mary Anne Talbot, is said to have served as a male sailor and soldier during the French Revolutionary Wars
This file comes from Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. © Creative Commons Browse and license our images

Back in the Old West, historians say a variety of reasons led to the frontierspeople defying traditional gender norms. Many chose to dress as the opposite sex for practicality; a woman was able to earn money and have more freedom when presenting as a man. 

And the wildness of the West made it a very popular location for people to start a new life due to its scattered and transient nature. People were able to reinvent themselves, take refuge and live freely as any gender in the remote landscape.

Charlie Josephine’s upcoming production Cowbois is a rollicking queer Western that explores themes of gender expression. Read more about Cowbois here.

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