It was 10 years ago that television writer Tracy Dawson met with studio executives, sharing the shows that resonated with her and where she could see herself writing. The response was not what she expected: they had hired out spots for female writers and were not in need of more.
“It’s a crazy thing to be told to your face, that there are jobs but not for you,” she says.
Dawson didn’t know it yet, but this would be the catalyst for her book, “Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren't Supposed to Do.” Published in 2022, she profiles women throughout history and industries who had the talent, the knowledge and the ability, but they were the wrong sex in society’s eyes. Each story showcases how they defied cultural norms, some by wearing men’s clothing and others by using male pseudonyms.
The queer author shared that the original iteration of “Let Me Be Frank” was a television show — each episode in the anthology would be devoted to a woman in history. However, it proved to be too expensive to produce, especially accommodating for different time periods.
“I had done all this research and I thought, ‘I don’t want to let these women go.’ I felt so connected to them,” Dawson says. “When I came up with that title I was like, ‘I have to write this into something, I can't let this title go to waste, it’s so great!’”
Dawson pivoted to books and after writing a few chapters, she shopped it around to literary agents in New York, one of whom jumped on the idea and pitched it to HarperCollins. In May 2022, “Let Me Be Frank” hit bookshelves, spanning centuries of time from Joan of Arc to today’s Iranian women dressing as men to cheer on their favorite soccer teams.
While not all the women in the book might be considered LGBTQ — society’s own definition has changed over the centuries — Dawson says that queerness is “baked” into the book. She references the quote by author Bell Hooks to make her point: “‘Queer' not as being about who you're having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but 'queer' as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and that has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
“The common theme of the book is defiance,” Dawson explains. “Women who wouldn’t accept ‘no’ for an answer, and I think I am one of those women.”
The author picked a few women she featured in the book to whet our appetite.
Rusty Kanokogi (1935–2009)
It was in 1955 that a friend showed Kanokogi how to do a judo throw, changing her life trajectory forever. She entered a YMCA competition, but cut her hair and taped down her breasts, as women were not allowed to compete. Even though Kanokogi won, it was discovered she was a woman and she was forced to return her medal. For the rest of her life, she fought for women to be able to practice and compete in judo, and in 1988 sued the Olympic Committee to include women’s judo. It was entered as a category, and she served as the team’s coach. Kanokogi was the first woman allowed to train at the Kōdōkan, Japan’s judo headquarters; the first woman to earn a seventh-degree black belt; she was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun; and her tomb in Japan, where she is buried with her husband’s clan, reads “American Samurai.”
“She’s one of my favorite people that I discovered on this journey,” Dawson says, adding that when Kanokogi’s chapter was featured on Wisconsin public radio, Kanokogi’s daughter tuned in and told Dawson the episode “made her cry” happy tears.
The First Drag Kings: Annie Hindle (1840s-1904) and Florence Hines (1860s-1924)
These two women are considered some of the earliest drag kings, taking to the stage dressed in men’s attire in minstrel shows, cabarets, and variety shows. It’s said that many people didn’t even realize Hindle was a woman, her act was so convincing. She was married multiple times to both men and women, and in order to marry her wives, she donned her drag king attire and signed her name as Charles Hindle. Hines was a major headliner in the entertainment biz, and not only was her act a showstopper for its gender-bending themes, but also because she defied racist stereotypes of Black people by dressing in dapper tuxedos fit with a top hat and tails and singing songs like “For I’m the Lad That’s Made of Money” and “A Millionaire’s Only Son.”
“I wanted to include them because it was the late 1800s. This was innovative, this was iconoclastic. Nobody had done this before,” Dawson says. “They made people’s jaws drop.”
Dr. Mary Edwards Walker (1832-1919)
The only woman in the United States to receive the Medal of Honor and the second woman in the country to graduate with a medical degree, Walker was turned away by recruiters during the Civil War. Instead of serving as a medical officer, she used her surgical skills instead as a volunteer and was even imprisoned by Confederate soldiers for four months. She refused to wear the women’s clothing provided to her — growing up, her parents advocated for “dress reform,” believing that their daughters did not need to be confined to corsets and skirts and had them wear more practical, comfortable clothing. At her wedding to a fellow doctor, she wore pants under the wedding dress. After the war, Walker advocated for women’s rights, including dress reform, the right to vote, and running unsuccessfully for Congress twice. She was arrested multiple times for wearing pants. In 1916, she was stripped of the Medal of Honor as she was deemed “ineligible,” but it was reinstated by President Jimmy Carter.
“She was probably considered a pain in the ass, but those are my people,” Dawson says.
You can purchase “Let Me Be Frank: A Book About Women Who Dressed Like Men to Do Shit They Weren't Supposed to Do” from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and your other favorite booksellers.
This is a part of a special LGBTQ History Month project. View more stories by visiting outsfl.com/lgbtqhistorymonth.