It must have been that part of me as a journalist that made me eager to see for myself Justus Township, that area called a sovereignty by the Montana Freemen just outside of Jordan, a small town in eastern Montana that at one time was known as the vaudeville center of the West and had a bustling bar scene with drag-queen shows.
It was in the fall of 1996 that I headed there to hunt antelope, the fleet-footed ruminant that populates the high plains in great numbers. The 81-day-long armed standoff between the anti-government militant “Christian patriot” group and U.S. federal officers was over, the leaders sitting in jail cells awaiting trial.
Rain stopped me from camping that first night and I checked into what I believe was the only motel in a town whose population was under 400 people. I read a small placard on the inside of the door informing me that Sam Donaldson, the legendary ABC television journalist, had slept there.
Another hand-written sign warned occupants against skinning animals in the room. Who would do such a thing, I wondered. Then I thought of those people who pronounce “government” in two syllables.
A cursory glance at the telephone directory seemed to suggest something about a town with only four listed surnames, perhaps that the dating pool offered only first cousins as prospects.
I had a burger and a beer at a keep-your-back-to-the-wall bar on Jordan’s main drag. The other customers’ reactions to a stranger in their midst prompted me to think that the feds had not rounded up all of the Freemen. That same thought came to me when, the next morning, I encountered locked gates blocking access to public lands.
I failed to get an antelope.
The feds and the media seemed to be the only ones who cared much about the Freemen. The ragtag group of armed militants looked, in retrospect, to be the models for the Proud Boys and other 1/6 insurrectionists. I read the stories and watched the television reports with enough interest to tell my out-of-state friends that the Freemen were something of an anomaly in the Last Best Place. We, after all, tend to be individualists with a “live and let live” attitude toward all that surrounds us.
That attitude, I fear, is changing. Montana’s political scene saw us turn a deep red from its longtime standing as purple. This is a state that gave Congress Jeannette Rankin, who in 1917 became the first woman to hold federal office. Almost three decades later, Mike Mansfield, a progressive Democrat, began his Congressional tour that lasted thirty-four years.
A few legislative sessions ago, a Libertarian lawmaker introduced a piece of legislation that would make it illegal for women to wear leggings. Talk about overreach.
Now we have a right-wing roster of elected officials who have pledged their allegiance to Donald Trump: Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Ryan Zinke, Rep. Matt Rosendale, and Gov. Greg Gianforte, each of whom seems irrationally obsessed with the southern border. Our legislature features a Republican super majority that is trying its level best to strip Montana men of our right to cross dress. They also want separate bathrooms for every known kind of Montanan—men, women, girl singers, trans, etc. It’s almost as if none of them have ever used an airplane toilet.
All of this seems frivolous during a time with serious issues facing us.
The Repubs have targeted the LGBTQ+ community for its right to live normal lives and went so far as to censure Zooey Zephyr, a transgender representative from Missoula.
But it’s their opposition to drag queens that bothers me most. As disgusting as it might sound, men dressing as women dates back to the beginning of time. Nero’s costume of the day looked decidedly feminine. Shakespeare’s theatre troupe was all male but there were plenty of women in his plays. Milton Berle and Bob Hope frequently appeared in drag. Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis cross-dressed in the Billy Wilder’s 1959 film “Some Like It Hot.” (For the record, the classic movie was banned in Kansas.) Robin Williams played “Mrs. Doubtfire,” as well as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
Deplorables every one.
The Republican super majority wants to ban drag queens from putting on shows and reading to children, the latter of which I didn’t even know was a thing. (My friend, Lisa D. Snow, is hosting the Livingston Pride Coalition’s “Drag Story Hour” at Wheatgrass Books on Saturday, May 20 at 11 am. Geared for children, all are welcome.)
Considering our history of cross-dressing—there are stories of women dressing as Union soldiers during the Civil War—the Repubs should not throw stones at the glass house. J. Edgar Hoover, who ran the FBI from its beginning until he could no longer feed himself, frequently dressed in drag. Mamie Eisenhower found him to be repulsive.
And look at Lindsey Graham, the senator from South Carolina. If ever there was a drag queen, he is the one to put on the sequined gown, the ruby red lipstick and smoke using a bejeweled cigarette holder. I see it in his eyes. There are other closeted drag queens in Congress. Matt Gaetz, Mitch McConnell, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Kyrsten Sinema, and the 89-year-old senator Chuck Grassley top the list. We’re still on the fence about Kevin McCarthy, and God-only-knows what’s up with Joe Manchin.
Or any one of them could be. And who cares?
I don’t know about you, but I could not care less than I do about men dressing as women to put on a show or read to children. I also don’t object to any department store Santa Claus.
Photo illustration by Courtney A. Liska
This was one of the most requested appetizer at my restaurant, Adagio, for most of the 12 years I was open.
(8-10 mussels per serving)
Sauté medium chopped shallot in 1-2 Tbs. butter over low heat for 5-7 minutes. Add 1 tsp. cracked black pepper and add mussels. After a minute or two, add ½ cup of white wine and cover pan until mussels have opened.
Arrange mussels in a circle atop a handful of fresh spinach.
To finish sauce, add a tsp. or so of deli mustard, capers, fresh basil and cream to the cooking liquor. Pour over mussels and serve.