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Frances Orlando (aka Richard T. Orlando) and Elizabeth Nunes

Welcome to the "Girl Who 'Wed' Another Girl" website, a web area for the San Francisco Public Library exhibit by Dr. Nicoletta Karam. The purpose of this website is to make the information in the exhibit available to a wider audience, in the pursuit of equality for LGBT couples.

Pre-1950 GLBT Married Californians

Summary: This SFPL exhibit examines the early 20th-century history of GLBT marriages in the United States by exploring anatomically-same sex California couples who wed and lived as husband and wife in defiance of legal and social conventions.

Most San Franciscans are aware of the recent California Supreme Court decision allowing same-sex California couples to wed legally. What Bay Area residents may not know is that many gay, lesbian, and transgendered couples wed in the United States prior to 1950. This SFPL exhibit draws attention to a few of these California couples.

Thelma Jane Walter and Marietta Cook (aka David Warren)
(exhibit documents: two photos, two newspaper articles, marriage certificate)

On June 29, 1947, teacher Thelma Walter and farmer David Warren obtained a marriage license in Sonoma. Eight days later, Rev. Leighton Nugent married them at Trinity Church in San Francisco. The husband and wife lived together happily, raising chickens, rabbits, and chinchillas on their 10-acre farm East of Sonoma. Their domestic bliss was interrupted when the FBI began investigating why David Warren failed to register for the draft. The couple was arrested when the FBI learned that Warren was an anatomical woman, born Marietta Cook. In 1947, there were no laws against same-sex marriage, so Sonoma District Attorney Charles McGoldrick was unsure of whether the couple could be charged with a crime. In a November 28, 1947 newspaper article, "Two Girls Who Wed Must Face Court Today," Warren/Cook describes her decision to marry Walter, after a seven-year courtship that began when both were co-eds at the University of California, Berkeley: "We couldn't figure out any other way to live… Under our code, we decided that marriage was the only course. We considered living together without being married very improper." Due in part to newspaper coverage of the marriage, Walter lost her teaching position at Sonoma Valley Union High School. Eventually, Cook and Walter were charged with three felonies. After a San Francisco psychologist interviewed the couple, he recommended to the DA that all charges against Mr. and Mrs. David Warren be dropped because no laws had been broken. Their marriage license was never voided by the court and is still on file at the Sonoma County Courthouse.

The marriage between Thelma Walter and Marietta Cook/David Warren shows that in California, people of the same anatomical gender sometimes obtained marriage licenses and wed in churches as husband and wife. Newspaper articles on Walter's and Warren's marriage also raise interesting questions about the cultural construction of gender. Some feminist theorists might view Walter and Cook as a lesbian couple, living as husband and wife in response to a patriarchal world. Transgender activists might suggest that Warren was in fact a pre-operative transsexual man since he assumed a male psychological and cultural identity and publicly discussed his hope that in the future, surgery might turn his body from female to male.

Elizabeth Nunes and Frances Orlando (aka Richard T. Orlando)
(exhibit documents: two photos, two newspaper articles, marriage certificate)

On some occasions, Bay Area couples who shared the same anatomical gender married in Nevada. In an October 9, 1941 article, "Female Husband of Girl Held," the SF Examiner relates how Los Gatos native Frances Orlando posed as a man and married Sacramento resident Elizabeth Nunes in Minden, Nevada, on September 1, 1941. Shortly thereafter, Orlando was arrested in Culver City, Nevada, where photos show her posing defiantly with her new bride. Throughout her life, Orlando led an unconventional life, and she was the frequent subject of newspaper articles. In a December 22, 1927 story, "Truck Driver Held, Proves to Be a Girl," the Examiner describes how Orlando escaped from the Sonoma Eldridge Home for Girls, assumed a male identity, and worked as a truck driver for the Richmond-Chase pottery company in San Jose. When she was arrested in 1927, she described how her only regret was that "being in jail kept her from keeping a date with an usherette." Other newspaper articles chronicle her arrests and delineate her various broken engagements to "unsuspecting" women seduce by "that female Lothario."

Other anatomically same-sex couples lived for years as husband and wife, avoiding discovery until their deaths. In many cases, married or widowed GLBT people avoided obtaining life-saving medical treatment to conceal their anatomical genders and protect their marital status.

Mrs. Adelle Best and His Three Husbands
(exhibit documents: one photo, two newspaper articles)

In a March 6, 1940 article, "Widow, Wed Thrice in 50 Years, a Man," the SF Chronicle relates the story of 71-year old Adelle Best, who was found to be an anatomical male on her San Mateo hospital deathbed. Neighbor Mrs. Righetti describes meeting Mrs. Adelle Best in 1912, when she and her third husband, Albert Best, were living on a ranch in the Berryessa district of San Jose. According to Mrs. Righetti, Mrs. Best was always an "excellent cook and housekeeper." According to a May 6, 1940 article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Adelle and Albert Best went through a formal marriage ceremony. In the early 20th century, when California was less populous, it might have been easier for same-sex couples to live as husband and wife in remote rural areas. Since Adelle Best married and outlived three husbands, it is possible that early 20th century same-sex marriages were significantly more common than many Americans believe them to be.

Dr. Eugene Perkins and Her Wife, Mrs. Margaret Curren Perkins

Mr. and Mrs. Best were not the only couple "discovered" to be same-sex after their respective deaths. A newspaper article from October 25, 1936, provocatively entitled "Man Was a Woman All the Time," tells the story of Dr. and Mrs. Eugene Perkins. This article describes how a San Diego coroner was shocked to discover that La Jolla widower Dr. Eugene Perkins, 67, was an anatomical female. It is unclear whether Dr. Eugene Perkins truly gendered himself as male or merely assumed a male identity in order to work as a better-paid male physician and marry her girlfriend. According to the article, Perkins' wife, Mrs. Margaret Curren Perkins, passed away earlier the same year. Perkins, a native of Buffalo, New York, married Margaret in Florida in 1908 before moving together to California, where they lived as husband and wife. This article shows how GLBT married couples from different parts of the country sometimes crossed state boundaries to live as wedded spouses in California.

Ruben Anderson and Tobe Lawson (aka Lucky Hicks)
(exhibit document: one newspaper article)

Same-sex African-American couples also wed on occasion. Lucy Hicks, an anatomical male, worked for 20 years as a female maid and cook in Ventura County before being arrested for obtaining $900 in army allotments as the wife of Ruben Anderson, who was also African-American. According to a May 6, 1946 article, Lawson was charged with perjury in giving his sex as female in an affidavit. The article never considers whether Tobe Lawson/Lucy Hicks actually genders herself female, using psychological or cultural criteria to define her gender. African-American GLBT couples like Lawson and Anderson confronted the dual challenges of racism and homophobia. This article also shows how same anatomically-sexed married couples were not allowed the same federal economic benefits (like army allotments) as married heterosexual couples.

Legal Implications:

The couples appearing in this SFPL exhibit married before there were laws against same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, many of them were arrested for transgressing gender boundaries and marrying a GLBT spouse. The married couples featured in this historical exhibit defy simple gender categorization. Depending on how individuals or societies define gender, some of the couples in this exhibit might be described as gay, lesbian, or transgendered. There are five competing ways of defining gender:

1) anatomical (gender is what body parts you have);
2) chromosomal (gender is what genes you have, i.e. XX, XY, XXY, XXY, XXYY, XO);
3) hormonal (gender is what hormone levels you have);
4) cultural (gender is how you behave in society); and
5) psychological (gender is who you think you are).

Each of these competing approaches to gendering has its complications. For example, some Americans (like David Warren or Dr. Eugene Perkins) might be anatomically female but psychologically and culturally male. Others (like Adelle Best and Lucy Hicks) might be anatomically male but socially and culturally female. Along with the couples featured in this exhibit, other Americans challenge binary gender classifications. Individuals who are genetically male (XY) but lack testosterone receptors develop into sterile anatomical females. People with endochrine disorders (i.e. the bearded lady in the circus who produces an excess of 'male' hormones) might have conflicting anatomical and hormonal genders. Intersexed people (hermaphrodites) might have intermediate anatomical, chromosomal, hormonal, cultural, and psychological genders, undermining legal approaches to defining gender (or marriage) exclusively in binary terms. Most states still prohibit same-sex couples from getting legally married, and never explain what specific anatomical, chromosomal, hormonal, cultural, and psychological criteria they are using to define gender and prohibit some couples from getting married. If each state develops its own formula for defining gender, the result is a complicated legal mess for many American couples who wish to wed.

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