Nell Pickerell was infamous in various Seattle publications during the early 1900s due to her preference toward dressing like a man in public.
She cut her hair short and wore fashionable suits, often mistaken for a very handsome man. She was a notorious heartbreaker and in-and-out of jail all through her later life because dressing as a man was illegal for women at the time.
Pickerell died in 1920 from syphilitic meningitis; the Seattle Post-Intelligencer referred to her as a “man-girl” in the headline announcing her death.
Pickerell is one story represented at The Henry Art Gallery’s exhibit, “Trans Hirstory in 99 Objects,” presented by the Museum of Trans Hirstory and Art (MOTHA).
The exhibit included a slideshow of old articles in the early 1900s from papers like the Seattle PI, depicting all the headlines about Pickerell.
Organized by MOTHA Executive Director Chris Vargas, the exhibit details the history, lives and experiences of transgender people within the Pacific Northwest, focusing heavily on Seattle.
According to the Henry Art Gallery website, “MOTHA is … a framework that openly questions how a history of transgender individuals, communities, and culture might be organized, while also exploring the relevance of constructing a history around an identity category that is evolving and often contested.”
It’s difficult to find a comprehensive history of the transgender movement. Since histories are written most often when people rise to influence or come out victorious, before figures like Laverne Cox appeared on the scene, transgender people didn’t have much public representation the way other equality movements do.
While many may have heard of activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Harvey Milk, “Trans History in 99 Objects” sheds light on less known figures such as Christine Jorgensen, one of the first American transgender women to have a successful sexual reassignment surgery.
The exhibit attempts to educate the general populace and give a voice to figures in local transgender history that otherwise may have flown under the radar.
Cases of photos browning with age at The Henry exhibit display men and women like Pickerell, dating back to the 50s and 60s. Brightly painted faces and giddy laughter streak the photos.
Many of these photos were taken at clubs or bars throughout Seattle. At the time, it was dangerous for LGBTQ people to go out and express themselves, especially at night, so a police payoff system was initiated by certain bars and clubs to create a safe space for them to hang out.
A number of these bars resided in the Pioneer Square neighborhood.
Not only does the exhibit give a voice to past transgender figures in Seattle, but it also gives recognition to important events in local transgender history.
In 1979, the Ingersoll Gender Center was founded in Seattle by Marsha Botzer, making the city an early hub for transgender activism.
The center is a non-profit, all-volunteer organization that aims to support and educate transgender, gender variant and genderqueer people, as well as their loved ones. Ingersoll is still going strong today.
Despite the growing visibility of the transgender movement, transgender history is still relatively unknown to the average person. Even present-day statistics lack concrete data accounting for transgender history.
According to a Washington Post article based on various studies, the estimated number of transgender people in America is fairly unknown — the most frequently cited number, from UCLA’s Williams Institute, puts the transgender population at around 700,000 in the United States.
The United States however, doesn’t put transgender options on the census — only male or female, creating difficulty in keeping count on a broad scale.
The Williams Institute found that, nationally, 78 percent of transgender students who had endured sexual or physical violence also attempted suicide.
As reported by the Washington Post in “8 critical facts about the state of transgender America,” transgender people are unemployed at twice the rate of the general population.
One-fifth of transgender people who responded to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian task force said that they had been homeless at some point.
MOTHA’s exhibit suggests the time to talk about transgender issues is now.
The more visibility transgender people get from exhibits like MOTHA’s, from activist groups, from news articles and from discussions through media, the sooner their history will be told.