Jack Bee Garland was a pioneer on multiple fronts, crossing boundaries of gender, ethnicity, class, and geography.
Born Elvira Virginia Mugarrieta in 1869 in the Russian Hill neighborhood of San Francisco, Garland was the child of an upper-class white woman and a Mexican military officer who became the city’s first Mexican consul. A rebellious tomboy, Garland was sent to a convent school, but escaped by marrying a family friend at age 15, and divorcing a few months later.
Garland began dressing in men’s clothing, and spent the next several years traveling and working odd jobs. In 1897, he was arrested in Stockton, California, for masquerading as a man. Claiming to be mute, and communicating in writing, he gave his name as Babe Bean, and made no attempt to hide that he was biologically female. The authorities soon released him, much to the chagrin of a group of young women who demanded that if he could dress in men’s clothing, they ought to have the same privilege.
Garland, who lived alone on a houseboat in a lake, was hired as a reporter by The Stockton Evening Mail. He was accepted as an eccentric local celebrity. The press often speculated about his gender, referring to him as “the mysterious girl-boy, man-woman.”
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Garland left for the Philippines. Using aliases including Beebe Beam and Jack Garland—and contending with various brushes with authority when discovered to be biologically female—he worked as a Spanish language interpreter, a medic, and a war correspondent. Accounts differ, however, as to whether he ever actually served as a soldier.
While many “passing women” throughout history were butch lesbians who crossdressed in part to legitimize their same-sex relationships, Garland had no apparent romantic interest in women. Preferring the company of male chums, he was somewhat misogynistic (for example, opposing women’s suffrage), but no clear evidence exists that his relationships with men were homoerotic.
After leaving the Philippines, Garland returned to San Francisco. Though at first adopting women’s clothing, he soon resumed crossdressing as a man. Following the 1906 earthquake and fires, he served as a nurse, and volunteered with the Red Cross. By now making a more concerted effort to pass as a man, he worked for the next three decades as a freelance social worker serving homeless men.
In 1936, Garland died from peritonitis resulting from an ulcer. After performing an autopsy, medical authorities announced that he was anatomically female, and his family background was revealed.
Since his death, Garland has been reclaimed both as a passing woman and as a transgender man.
The San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Project’s She Even Chewed Tobacco slide show, compiled in the late 1970s, situated Garland within a tradition of butch woman who identified as female—and often as lesbian—but crossdressed to take advantage of the opportunities available to men.
But in his 1990 book From Female to Male, FTM International founder Louis Sullivan—claiming Garland was a transman, and possibly gay as well—wrote that “his reasons for living as a man were more complex than just his dissatisfaction with the way society expected women to dress.”
Garland’s story illustrates the way understanding of identities can shift over time. From today’s vantage point, it is impossible to know how Garland—who sometimes seemed to straddle the genders purposefully—would have identified.
Liz Highleyman is a freelance writer and editor who has written widely on health, sexuality, and politics. She can be reached care of this publication, or at PastOut@qsyndicate.com.