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Gay Weddings
Before 1950?

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.

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."

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.' "

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