Gay Weddings Before 1950?

By Regina Marler

Originally published on Advocate.com December 04 2008 1:00 AM ET

Mrs. Adelle Best
of San Mateo, Calif., died at age 71 in 1940, 10 years
after the death of her third husband. A former neighbor
recalled her as “a wonderful person,”
and added, “we knew she was different, somehow,
from other women, but all were very fond of her.” She
was different, all right. She was a man.

Known as an
“excellent cook and housekeeper,” Mrs.
Best’s secret came to light only on her
deathbed, when a well-meaning doctor finally forced an
exam on the ailing widow. Her case is one of six included in
a small but remarkable exhibition, “Girl Who
'Wed' Another Girl: Pre-1950 Gay, Lesbian, and
Transgender Marriages in the United States,” at the
main branch of the San Francisco Public Library
through December 18.

The newspaper
clippings and period photographs in the exhibition -- which
convey all the scandal of sex deviance, as well as
surprisingly tough and defiant quotes from some of
these gender outlaws -- were gathered by Dr. Nicoletta
Karam, mostly from resources at the San Francisco History
Center. Her accompanying notes point out that these
marriages defy simple gender categories. Would we
consider Mrs. Best transgender if she lived today?
Perhaps the Bests were just a crypto-gay couple -- two men
finding a way to spend their lives together without
arousing the suspicion of their rural neighbors.

The couples
included in this exhibition married before there were laws
against same-sex marriage. “Nevertheless,”
Karam explains, “many of them were arrested for
transgressing gender boundaries and marrying a GLBT
spouse.” It’s hard to know whether Dr. Eugene
Perkins of La Jolla, Calif., considered himself a man
when he married his wife, Margaret Curren, in 1908.
But when he died soon after her, in 1936, he gave a
shock to mortuary workers and his death certificate was
amended to “female.”

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

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.’ ”