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Creighton alumnus returns to talk hobos and gender in Oct. 23 event

In his senior year at Creighton University, Nathan Tye, BA’11, led a Service & Justice Trip to the Siena/Francis House homeless shelter just a few blocks north of campus.

As a history and theology major who immersed himself in Civil War research and always felt most at home in archives and library stacks, Tye said he approached the service opportunity thinking he was simply doing some good for his community. He didn’t expect to find the gateway to what has now become his academic life’s work.

“After being there for a few days, I felt myself asking the question, ‘Why does a place like the Siena/Francis House exist?’” said Tye, now a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “I wondered how the impoverished had come to rely on a place like this, how they seemed to have developed a network between such places. I wondered what the history of movement among people living in poverty looked like.”

Tye returns to Creighton Oct. 23 at 4 p.m., in Room 105 of the Skutt Student Center, to present a talk adapted from his in-process dissertation titled “She Went 14,000 Miles as a Boy: The Queer Lives of Hobo Girls.” The talk will center on gender roles perform by people living as transients — or hobos — in the late 19th through mid-20th century, and how those roles adapted to various geographical and social settings.

Following his Creighton graduation, and moved by his work among the homeless and indigent in Omaha and on other service trips in Latin and South America, Tye spent a year in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps overseeing a homeless shelter in New Mexico.

“It was a job for which I was eminently unqualified,” he said. “But I discovered some of the same questions still circulating as when I had been at the Siena/Francis House. And I came to realize that all of the people who came through the homeless shelter had a story.”

Tye felt himself being pressed not only toward serving the homeless, but also recounting their lives through the long history of migrating homeless populations. Embarking upon his graduate studies, Tye has since carved out a niche as a “hobo historian.”

The store of resources and archival materials for studying the American hobo are far from legion — “probably the most elusive and irritatingly hard-to-find people in the archive,” Tye said — but the people he has found have spurred him on through the research.

“Hobos were the punk rockers of the 1890s,” he said. “They wore torn clothes, listened to rebellious music.” Looking into the different gender roles performed by hobos — mostly women dressing and passing as men while riding the rails or nestling in a hobo campsite, known popularly as “the jungle,” Tye said it’s been an intriguing look at a marginalized group within a marginalized group.

The hobo life, generally, came in for scrutiny during a period defined by binary gender and sexual identities. Tye said one of the first medical textbooks to explore homosexuality included an entire chapter on hobos.

“They are broadly known and studied in queer subculture,” he said. “And if you look at the women-passing-as-men phenomenon, what was happening was what we consider today to be transgender men. They didn’t have a vocabulary for it back then, but you can see similar stories as what we see today. There were misunderstandings at home, people who wanted to escape dangerous situations. They took to the road and they found, for the most part, an accepting group in hobo culture. As long as you brought something to the campfire in the jungle, it didn’t matter how you wanted to live. You were accepted. Life on the road provided a space for these individuals to flourish in an otherwise hostile environment.”

Through painstaking combs through archives and other studies, Tye has found more than 100 cases of female hobos living as men. Many of them lived as men for years, some getting married.

Most cases he’s found, however, document a phenomenon known as “men on the road, women in the city,” in which women living as men on the transitory hobo rails and highways are forced to live as women when they reach urban areas or places where there might be more scrutiny over their lifestyle or even the possibility of arrest for the audacity of transgressing gender roles.

“In studying hobo life, it’s been fascinating to me to see how, again and again, different people enter a society that provides a space for them to be who they are,” Tye said. “It’s interracial, it’s respective of gender fluidity. How that all comes together around mobility and community continues to interest me and there’s a lot there to speak to our moment today.”

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