Recently on a Noted Scottish Blog we were discussing stories of our grandparents in the comments. I wrote a little bit about about my mother’s family during World War II in Oklahoma. That discussion got me thinking about another story from Oklahoma, a story about how people in that community thought about sexuality and gender. You see, their town had an anomaly in dire need of an explanation, Mae, the janitor at the movie theater.
Mae wasn’t like other women in town. She wore men’s clothes almost exclusively. She wore a dress only twice a year, Christmas Eve and Easter, the only two days she went to church. Mae lived on some land at the edge of town with her daughter, who was a few years older than my mom. A few months of the year another woman lived in that house too. She worked in seasonally in canning plants as far away as Wisconsin during the summer and fall.
I think we all know what’s going on here, but it took a while for my mother to figure things out. At first, nothing seemed strange at all. When you are four or five, almost everything is strange and new, so nothing is really strange. But as the years went by my mother noticed that people sometimes wanted to talk about Mae, but they were holding back or speaking indirectly the way adults do when children are around.
My mother was a bit of a snoop back and managed to gather more information on Mae and her life, sometimes by pretending to be napping when adults were talking. But however much more she learned, none of it made sense until much later because she had no framework for putting all the facts together.
So how did the upstanding folks of my mother’s town explain Mae, an obvious gender-nonconforming lesbian? Here’s where the story gets even more interesting. Mae had a twin brother. This brother was a “Hairdresser in Tulsa”. My mother didn’t understand why this fact was considered so relevant and certainly did not understand what secret it represented, but the way the adults said it, she knew it was code for something.
So later on my mother was able to figure out that Mae was a lesbian and what it meant to be a Hairdresser in Tulsa. She was also able to figure out the kind of causal hypothesis the folks of her town had about Mae and why information about her twin brother was so relevant. They thought Mae was a human freemartin. A freemartin is a female calf with a male twin that develops abnormally due to exposure to testosterone from the fetus of her twin brother.
Of course, this hypothesis has some problems. Mae had a child, and freemartins are infertile. But it’s an interesting example of how people in small town Oklahoma back in the 1940’s thought about gender conformity and sexual orientation. They thought Mae and her brother influenced each other with hormones before birth, making Mae into a butch lesbian and her brother into a hairdresser.
I think this story is interesting and I would like to hear any unusual theories of gender and sexuality you may have heard, or even believed, when you were growing up. Please leave a comment. The weirder the theory the better.
ADDITIONAL REFERENCE NOTES:
Here is a video of the closest thing to a Scottish cowboy that I could find explaining freemartins. What is his accent? I can’t place it. TW: If you squee over baby cows you will squee over this video.
The cowboy attributes all the effects on freemartin calves to hormones, not cell line chimerism. I think he’s probably 100% right even though the Wiki article suggests otherwise. This is the sort of thing I trust cowboys about.