Towards a new Obituary for Gayle Starr
Gayle Starr died sometime around 1969 in rural Montana. She had been working as a waitress. My old colleague, Heather Branstetter, found the initial report of her death, as a dateless and contextless newspaper clipping in a file, while doing historical research on rural Idaho, and commented that today “we would probably write a different narrative for Gayle Starr’s obituary.” I did a little more digging and found a few more articles and details of Gayle's life, but still not enough to give her a proper obituary. Still I keep thinking about her, guessing about her life, wondering about it, sorta amazed by it.
Gayle was around 50 when she died, and was born in 1919, although I can find no clue as to where, or who her family were. However, we do know that Gayle was assigned as male at birth and given the name Herbert C. Upton. Gayle's upbringing and youth are unclear too. But by the age of 42, in 1961, Gayle was an ex-convict who had done time in both the New Mexico and the Michigan State Prisons on convictions of larceny, forgery, and fraudulent checks. In 1961, Gayle lived in Flathead County, MT and worked as a barmaid, in Essex, MT. Essex is a tiny train stop on the edge of Glacier National Park, with few amenities mostly for tourists passing through. Even the county seat of Kalispell isn't exactly big. She was living successfully as a woman for at least 9 months. In one version of the story, she was arrested by the county Sheriff “after a tip by an area resident that things were not what they seemed where 'Gayle Starr' was concerned.” This arrest made it into the local paper, the Kalispell Daily Inner Lake, and she was held pending a psychiatric hearing. Another version of the story, has her being arrested after “area residents filed complaints of disturbances and threats with the sheriff's office” but the real problem emerges when Gayle “was growing a beard today in the county jail while awaiting arraignment for vagrancy and possibly other charges as yet unspecified.”
She was sent to the State Hospital for “psychiatric examination.” But the State Hospital “failed to find” "insanity to warrant commitment,” and further “previous charges were dropped on the basis of the psychiatrist's report.” Gayle was released back to Kalispell, a month after arrest, a free person, albeit one whose conviction record and birth name had been revealed in the local paper of the county of 30,000ish.
|Downtown Kalispell 1974|
By 1969, Gayle was living in Mineral County, MT, at the Guy Ghilheri Ranch in Haugan, MT. That county had only 3000ish people. Gayle had worked at the West End cafe as a waitress for over a year, at the time of her death. According to reports Gayle wore women's clothing, used heavy make up, and none of the locals had a clue that Gayle was given a male name at birth. The title of Gayle's obituary is “Death Reveals a Masquerade” and it assumes that Herbert C. Upton was the real person who died, and was male, and that Gayle Starr was merely the “feminine name” that “he” used. The file my old friend found the 1969 clipping in was historical notes marked “Residents of Shoshone Co” (a county in rural ID, that borders Mineral county, MT and had about 20,000 people in 1969), so odds are that Gayle lived there too at some point.
|The Silver Bar, Haugan, MT in the 1960s|
Yet Gayle certainly lived publicly as a woman, for months or years at a time, over the course of at least 8 years. Despite the name Gayle Starr getting negative publicity in nearby Kalispell, that was the name that she choose to use for herself over the following years. That sure sounds like it was a genuine identity for her, rather than merely an alias of convenience. The only Herbert C. Upton in the 1950 or 1940 census (near as I can tell, this could be my limits as a researcher) is a significantly older fellow living in Mass. So the person named Herbert C. Upton at birth, probably wasn't going publicly by that name already by the age of 21. It would have been easy for the psychiatrist at Montana's state hospital to have Gayle committed, that he didn't probably means he thought Gayle was a threat to no one, and also wasn't delusional. Similarly, the Sheriff could probably have sent Gayle to prison again for forgery. Given that Gayle's previous convictions included forgery and fraudulent check writing, it's tempting to guess that Gayle had previously attempted to live a publicly female life, and got caught and had the book thrown at her.
The picture that emerges from these few scattered reports, at least in my imagination, is a person who struggled their entire adult life to live in an identity and gender other than the one given them at birth. Someone who paid dearly for this, doing multiple stints in prison, and then living as an ex-con. Yet someone who kept being Gayle Starr, whenever she could, in a culture that definitely did not understand or approve of this. Living humbly as a barmaid and waitress, in the fading mountain west. Moving from small town to small town occasionally, probably looking for work, but also trying to start over again and again when their secret was revealed. Humble, brave, and relentlessly true to themselves despite real dangers, that's a mix I can respect.
Musing and Questions on Gayle Starr
1969 was the year that the Stonewall Riots happened in New York City. The contrast between the queens and transvestites of the big city, and the wandering rural trans folk is poignant to me, as a trans person that has never lived in a real city, or felt a part of trans community.
Evidence suggests that the vast majority of trans folk choose to move to large cities, and large cities have been centers of trans culture throughout the 20th century and still today. Yet, I'm stayin' here in Terre Haute, which is a bit bigger that Kalispell, MT, but has far more in common with Kalispell or Wallace ID, than it does with New York, San Francisco, or Quebec. I often wonder how life is different for rural or small town trans folk, than it is for big city trans folk. I think there may be advantages to being small town trans as well as disadvantages. It's hard to find kindred spirits. But people are polite to me here, even when their eyes suggest they disapprove. I suspect the anonymity of the big city takes that away ...
Did Gayle know anyone else in a similar situation to her? Was Gayle a natural drifter, or did she feel forced to move? Was there really no one in Mineral Co, who heard about Gayle's publicity in Flathead Co. a few years earlier? Or did some folks know and simply not mind, and not want to make trouble for her?
Why did the state psychiatrist choose not to have Gayle committed for Transvestism, which was certainly in the DSM at the time? Why did the Sheriff decide not to press any charges, including transvestism, or forgery? Were there authority figures who were covertly trying to create space for trans people to be themselves in the 60s despite the laws of the time?
Gayle's forgery and fraudulent checking charges, were those just punishments for trying to live as a woman, or had she done more than just provide cover for herself? Were charges like that regularly used to punish trans people? If we looked back through the fraudulent checking and forgery convictions would we find lots of cases where the only fraud someone was guilty of, was trying to be themselves? Were there other techniques that were used to backdoor punish trans folk, while trying to obscure what was really going on? Or maybe everyone back then knew that fraudulent checking sometimes meant kiting checks, and sometimes just meant trying to open a checking account under a non-birth gender and getting caught. The mafia famously owned lots of gay bars, including the Stonewall Inn, was organized crime helping trans folk create fake IDs, perhaps?
How did Gayle think of herself? Did she understand herself as a “female impersonator,” as a “queen,” as a “transvestite?” Several of the newspaper blurbs use the term “masquerader,” was that a technical term of the time? Would Gayle have thought of herself in those terms? Christine Jorgensen was a sensation in 1952, when Gayle was 33. Did Gayle think of herself as transsexual? Did she dream of surgery? Hormone therapy became available in the US during the 50s and 60s, but was pretty tightly controlled. Did Gayle know about that? Did she apply for it? Was she rejected? There is no mention of hormone pills in any of the news stories about her.
Who outted Gayle to the Sheriff and why? What all am I missing from Gayle's story? What would it be like to be gender non-conforming in your heart in the 20s, the 30s, the 40s, the 50s, the 60s? I've meet folks from the 70s and 80s and on. But in the 50s, even open minded experts like Kinsey or Benjamin were barely wrapping their head around transgenderism. Did the queer folk in the streets, or drifting from town to town, have a better understanding of their own situation from up close? Or were they lost, trying to make sense of themselves with old categories that barely fit? Did Gayle have experiences that haven't even been hinted at in the few articles I've found? What did she do during WWII, for example? She'd have been 22 or 23 in 1942 when the US entered the war, but perhaps she was already living as a female by then. Did she have long term relationships during her life? Kids? How did she relate with her family?
There are so many things I don't know about Gayle Starr and her life, and she's probably not my kin or anything, but I keep coming back and musing about her life, and how people adapt to their times ... The Chevalier D'Eon is just a storybook character to me, but Gayle Starr seems like a person I can almost but not quite relate to, like a great-aunt. Someone from before Stonewall, but after Jorgensen. Everyone else has been thinking about Ferguson and Selma recently, and I certainly see why, but I keep drifting back to thinking about this waitress from Montana I never met ...