What crossdressing lumberjacks teach us about gender and settler colonialism

Between 1889 and 1920, the Minneapolis/Saint Paul era, home to the Dakhóta Oyáte, Ojbwe people, and other Indigenous nations, swelled with European immigrants. Many very employed in lumber, grain, and mining industries, all jobs that employed almost exclusively people assigned male at birth. Most of these workers were unmarried, creating a unique social environment we call homosocial.

The homosocial environment of the Minnesota lumber camp created both unique opportunities for queer and trans expression – and intense social anxieties and attempts at social control. In this post, I’ll discuss the implications of this labor arrangement for a group of people one might not expected to find in the history books: crossdressing lumberjacks.

In lumber camps, the white patriarchal male-headed household family structure was nowhere to be found. Nonetheless the domestic work that was typically assigned to women still needed to be done. Meals still needed to be cooked, the camps needed to be cleaned, and this provided a unique opportunity for non-normative gender expression.

One camp inspector remembered being surprised to visit a camp with a women cook. His surprise subsided, however, when he came to believe that the cook in question was assigned male at birth and wearing women’s clothing.

The same official also reported another cook whose gender could never be determined to his satisfaction (a harmful desire, to be certain). He reported, “There was another cook at the horse camp of the Virginia Rainy Lake Company east of Cusson who dressed as a man while cooking, but when the men met him in town, he [sic.] was dressed like a woman, and they never did know if he [sic.] was a man or a woman” [Queer Twin Cities, 47].

I know of no source that records either of these people’s understandings of their own gender. That may be lost to history. But we can learn something about how gender operated in these environments, nonetheless.

Because these lumberjacks fit into the homosocial structure of the lumber industry, they were able to violate white, patriarchal norms about gender and the family with few consequences. Cooks were among the highest paid members of the camps, suggesting that these two cooks enjoyed relative power and security.

The homosocial environment of the lumber camp also provided limited space for same-sex relationships. Because lumberjacks were understood to be hypermasculine workers, it was said that the “only companion and confidant can ever be another oversized, tobacco chewing, bean farting, fanny kicking lumberjack.” Some lumberjacks had companions who were given sexualized nicknames, suggesting relationships [Queer Twin Cities 48].

In light of this evidence, we can surmise that the homosocial environment of the camps allowed men to have sex with each other, live with each other and even have lifelong companions without raising eyebrows. Some lumberjacks were also able to find a similar freedom to dress as women.

It’s tempting to assume that lumber camps were spaces of freedom, calling to mind romantic images of Western settler colonialism. However, the truth was far more complicated. Whiteness allowed some lumberjacks more freedom. While many pastors, bosses, and local officials were keen to enforce “moral” behavior, there were limited prosecutions for homosexuality, sodomy, and crossdressing.

However, as the Black people arrived in Minnesota as a part of the Great Migration, they rapidly became targets for policing. Black sex workers, many of whom serviced white lumberjacks, are over-represented newspapers and police records. The west was hardly free for everyone.

What can we learn about from this history? I’d like to suggest that the slivers of freedom enjoyed by white queer and trans people often comes at the direct expense of Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color.

I’ll continue talking about that dynamic next month when I discuss early anti-crossdressing laws and urban development.

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