Drag Herstory

History has always included women in drag.
Penthesilea, an Amazon, impersonated a male soldier to fight in the Trojan War, only to be slain by Achilles, who fell in love with her corpse, according to Greek mythology. Joan of Arc, of course, was burned at the stake.

More recently and with less terrible effect, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker dressed in men's clothes while working as a surgeon for the Union Army, meritorious service that brought her the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1865. The award was stripped from her shortly before her death, but reinstated posthumously in 1977, according to the late Lou Sullivan, San Francisco historian and female-to-male transsexual pioneer.

As “men,” women could speak freely, win men's jobs, secure men's wages, travel, walk the streets safely, and fight in wars. “They could also open bank accounts, write checks, own houses and property, and vote,” points out She Even Chewed Tobacco, a slide show on “passing women” created by the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project.

S.F.'s Lillie Hitchcock Coit in the 1850s wore trousers and top hats for evenings on the town (such behavior often landed more impoverished women in jail; pants on women weren't socially acceptable until World War II). And in turn-of-the-century Stockton, the famed Babe Bean lived as a man in hobo camps and on a houseboat, later assumed the name Jack Garland, served as a lieutenant in the Spanish-American War, returned to San Francisco to nurse the poor, and until her death was fondly known as “Uncle Jack.”

In the past decade alone, jazz musician Billy Tipton died and left behind a wife and children. It was only then that it was revealed he was a she.

The transgendered life, it goes without saying, can be an extraordinarily isolated one, but relief in recent times has been offered by San Francisco cultural anarchists like Diet Popstitute, the driving force behind the punk-queer-gender warp of Klubstitute; Popstitute died of an AIDS-related illness on Aug. 21 (a memorial in his honor will be held at the Women's Building, 3543 18th St, 2 to 5 p.m., Oct. 1).

Perhaps even more daunting is any female-to-male transition, says James Green, who himself has survived it, and is director of the support group FTM International. Green took over the post — and the organization's newsletter — after its founder, Lou Sullivan, died of AIDS-related complications in 1991. The support group, says Green, has more than doubled since then, from about 20 to about 50 people. “I think it's just time,” says Green, “for people to break down the barrier of the bigendered structure.”

FTM International can be reached at (510) 287-2646. ETVC can be reached at (510) 549-2665.

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