Gay Weddings Before 1950?

 A new exhibit at the San Francisco Public Library gathers the stories of pioneering LGBT people who disguised their gender and legally married the ones they loved. 



 Marietta Cook Thelma Jane Walter x100 (San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library) |

Thelma Walter and
Marietta Cook were former University of California,
Berkeley, roommates whose seven-year courtship
culminated in a church wedding in 1947 as Mr. and Mrs.
David Warren. “We couldn’t figure out
any other way to live,” Cook -- who assumed the male
gender and the name "David Warren" -- is quoted
as saying. “Under our code, we decided that
marriage was the only course. We considered living
together very improper.” After marriage, David raised
chickens, rabbits, and chinchillas on their Sonoma
farm while Thelma taught at the local high school.
They were discovered when FBI agents investigated
David Warren for failing to register for the draft. Charged
with perjury involving false information on a marriage
license, conspiracy to outrage the public decency, and
impersonation in marriage, the couple spent
Thanksgiving 1947 in jail.

In newspaper
photographs, the Warrens appear as a debonair
butch-femme couple. David said that she had wanted to be a
boy from the age of 5 and mused
that, “Doctors told us that someday surgeons
might work such a transformation.” Their case was
dismissed after Thelma resigned her teaching post and
they both sought psychiatric care.

The only weakness
of this exhibition is that Karam offers no follow-up
research on her subjects, some of whom may still be living,
and many viewers will want the rest of the story. Did
Thelma and David drive off into the sunset? Did
Elizabeth Nunes, who was 18 at the time of her 1941
marriage to movie-set carpenter Frances
“Richard” Orlando, go on to have a long
lesbian life? And what became of Mickey Higgins, arrested
for forgery in Los Angeles in 1938 and discovered at
the jail to be biologically female? Newspaper accounts
dry up at a tantalizing moment, when Higgins is
transferred to doctors and anaesthetized for a physical
exam to determine whether medical science can
“restore the feminine instincts to a
24-year-old girl who has masqueraded as and prefers to be
a man, who shaves twice a week, who likes to work as a
mechanic, wear men’s clothing, and has been
‘happily married.’ ”

Tags: Art