Larry Goodwin was a man’s man in almost every respect – Vietnam War veteran, former rodeo cowboy, power plant operator, and aircraft mechanic. And he had the build of a linebacker. But one characteristic separated Goodwin from most other men in his hyper masculine home state of Wyoming. Amidst the big belt buckles, blue jeans, and cowboy boots, Goodwin donned frilly petticoats, peasant blouses, and colorful hair bows.
For much of his life, Goodwin was mystified by this need to dress in feminine clothing. All he knew was that it wasn’t a choice. It was essential to his mental health. Later in life, therapy sessions led him to attribute this compulsion to a turbulent childhood of physical and mental abuse by his stepfather and mother. Somehow women’s clothing created a better sense of security for him.
Sissy’s story became a family one when he married Vickie Jones in 1968. The couple settled in Douglas, Wyoming, where both were raised. Vickie knew her husband cross dressed. She had known it since he confessed it to her during their engagement. At first, he kept it private. But in 1972, severely depressed, he concluded that he must be true to himself and go public. It was a test for his relationship with Vickie and later their children. Yet his wife and kids stood by him. After all he was a “wonderful husband, a devoted father, and a loving grandfather and great grandfather” as his family described him upon his death from brain cancer on March 7, 2020.
The anomaly of a cross-dressing man in the Cowboy State, attracted media both inside and outside of Wyoming. His story has been covered since the 1990s in news sources that include the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and the television series Dateline.
The national coverage brought Sissy to the attention of Los Angeles playwright Gregory Hinton, producer of the national education initiative, Out West and co-founder with the AHC of “Out West in the Rockies,” a regional LGBTQ+ archive of the American West. Gregory’s forte is crafting verbatim plays, meaning that he takes participant’s spoken and written words to weave together a story, many times related to an LGBTQ+ theme. Sissy’s story was one he knew he had to tell.
With other projects in the hopper, it took Gregory until 2020 to contact the Goodwin family. He was shocked to learn of Sissy’s death and considered abandoning the project. But talking to Vickie assured him there was plenty of material for a play. His relationship with the AHC led him to request that I conduct an oral history with Vickie. 22 hours of interview time later, Gregory had more than enough to write his play.
“A Sissy in Wyoming” debuted as a playwright’s reading in October 2021 as part of Casper’s Nicolaysen Art Museum public programming for the acclaimed exhibit “Larry Sissy Goodwin: The Fabric of His Life.” The success of the debut led Gregory, Vickie, and Leslie to realize the play’s message of courage and tolerance could resonate around Wyoming. Thus, a nine city tour of the Cowboy State was born.
The “Sissy” tour was conducted from September 30to October 9 beginning at the University of Wyoming and then in Cheyenne, Sheridan, Cody, Jackson, Rock Springs, Riverton, Casper, and Douglas. Funding came not only from the AHC, but from the Wyoming Humanities, the Wyoming Cultural Trust Fund, the Wyoming Arts Council, and the Wyoming Historical Society. The tour was timed to coincide with National LGBT History Month in October. Performances were free or for a nominal charge to the public at each venue. A Q&A discussion between Gregory and Vickie and audience members about the play’s themes followed each reading.
I accompanied the play for seven of the nine stops. As I expected, the play moved audiences at every stop, to the point that Gregory typically received a standing ovation. Gregory did a wonderful job of humanizing the struggles Sissy faced as well as his love for friends, families, and humans in general as shown in his humanitarian efforts through Veterans for Peace.
Yet it was the post-performance audience discussions that were just as moving. Safe space was created for attendees to ask honest questions and to share their experiences. So many stories come to mind. A trans member of the audience declared that, inspired by the play, they planned to resume a degree in theatre. A father and his transgender child came in dresses to commemorate Sissy. Another father shared a heart-wrenching story of the suicide of his transgender child. A young person wept quietly during Gregory’s reading and later described the strain of helping a transgender partner acclimate to life in Wyoming. A retired power plant operator revealed he is gay and had his partner with him. It was gratifying to know that audience members felt safe to share their joy and pain with us. My hope is that we helped them feel accepted and valued. Vickie Goodwin said she felt Sissy was with the tour in spirit. If so, I think his was a calm and comforting presence.
The “Out West in the Rockies” initiative will continue to be a focus for the AHC in the years to come. We would love to hear from you if you are interested in contributing to the initiative with your personal papers or the records of your organization. Or if you have programming ideas. Please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post contributed by AHC Archivist Leslie Waggener.