LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Margret Fennell

Title

LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Margret Fennell

Subject

Queer Omaha Archives
Sexual minorities -- Nebraska -- Omaha
Interviews
Oral Histories (document genre)

Description

Audio for this interview is coming soon. 

Ms. Margret Fennell, retired Union Pacific worker and LGBTQ+ advocate, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on December 9, 2019 in Omaha, Nebraska. Fennell shared information about her upbringing in Gordon and Omaha, Nebraska, her involvement in the Catholic church, early exploration of her gender identity, working for Union Pacific for 30 years, her marriages and children, and being a member of River City Gender Alliance (RCGA).

Biographical Sketch 

Ms. Margret Fennell, born in Gordon, Nebraska in the 1930’s, is a white trans woman, retired Union Pacific conductor, and LGBTQ+ advocate. Fennell grew up as the oldest of six children in rural Gordon and Hyannis, Nebraska, before moving with her family to Omaha at the age of five in 1941. Fennell attended St. Cecilia Grade School (1941-1950) and St. Cecilia Cathedral High School (1950-1954). After graduating in 1954, Fennell briefly worked for Rubin Distributing before entering the Dominican Order as a Lay Brother (1955-1960). Upon realizing this profession was not suited to her, Fennell worked for Railway Express (1961-1968) before joining Union Pacific (UP) in 1969, where she worked as a switchman and conductor until her retirement in 1999.  

Fennell was one of the founding members of River City Gender Alliance in the late 1980’s, one of the oldest and largest transgender and gender non-conforming support organizations in the country. Fennell is also a long-term member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), where she attends multiple weekly meetings and supports others in their path to recovery.  

As of December 2019, Fennell lives in Omaha with her wife, Valerie. 

Interview Summary 

Ms. Margret Fennell, retired Union Pacific worker and LGBTQ+ advocate, was interviewed by Luke Wegener on December 9, 2019 in Omaha, Nebraska. Fennell was born in Gordon, Nebraska in 1936 and grew up as the oldest of six children. Fennell’s father Thomas was a businessman and ran a hardware store in Hyannis, Nebraska. Fennell’s mother Helen was a stay-at-home mother who doted on her children. Both of Fennell’s parents were originally from St. Joseph, Missouri.  

In 1941 at the age of five, Fennell’s family moved to Omaha and she began attending St. Cecilia Grade School (1941-1950) and St. Cecilia Cathedral High School (1950-1954). For the most part, Fennell got along with her peers and enjoyed her classes. She was a devout Catholic, altar boy, and pontifical server. 

During her time in grade school, Fennell saw a movie poster at a risqué theater on 14th and Douglas depicting a “half-man, half-woman.” This was her first exposure to any kind of gender-nonconformity. Around 6th or 7th grade, Fennell began sneaking into her mother’s closet when her parents were gone and dressing up in her mother’s clothes, though she had no idea what this meant. In 8th grade, Fennell saw news coverage of early transgender icon Christine Jorgensen, but knew she had to keep her own feelings about her gender identity a secret. 

Fennell began dating in high school and would ask her dates to wear nylons, dresses and heals so that she could use their clothes to “dress herself in her mind.” After graduating in 1954, Fennell briefly worked for Rubin Distributing before entering the Dominican Order as a lay brother (1955-1960). During her time as a lay brother, Fennell worked in Illinois, Minnesota, and Iowa. Upon realizing this profession was not suited to her, Fennell moved back to Omaha in 1960, began working for Railway Express (1962-1969), and married Leona McGrath, with whom she had four children. After Railway Express went out of business, Fennell joined Union Pacific (UP) in 1969, where she worked as a switchman and conductor both in Omaha and North Platte, Nebraska, until her retirement in 1999. 

In her early years at UP, Fennell got sober and joined an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) support group in North Platte, Nebraska. She eventually began attending a gay AA group in Omaha, where she was allowed to explore more of her identity and find acceptance from fellow members. In the 1980’s, Fennell went to Omaha’s gay nightclub The Max, where she met and befriended a person who appeared to be a “man in women’s clothes.” From then on, she began to explore more of her own gender expression, started going out with her friend wearing women’s clothes, and chose to sometimes use the name Margret.  

Fennell’s circle of trans and gender non-conforming women continued to grow, and she attended crossdressing conventions put on by Tri-Ess (Society for the Second Self) in Chicago, Illinois and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. After this, Fennell and her friends started their own group, River City Gender Alliance (RCGA), and began regularly meeting in motels across Omaha. In the 1990’s, University of Nebraska at Omaha Professor Dr. Meredith Bacon joined RCGA and helped the group grow considerably. 

Leona, Fennell’s wife, knew about her wearing women’s clothing, and was not supportive of her identity. After Leona’s passing in the late 1990’s, Fennell met her second wife, Valerie, through Omaha’s Metropolitan Community Church. Valerie was accepting and affirming of her identity as Margret, and they married in 2009. 

As of December 2019, Fennell lives in Omaha with her wife, Valerie.   

In this interview, Fennell also discusses her relationship with her children Thomas Jr. and Madaline, and her decision to live as both Tom and Margret.

Interview Notes 

The narrator of this interview is comfortable going by both her chosen name, Margret, and given name, Tom. Because of generational differences and changes in terminology related to gender identity and expression, Margret uses the term crossdresser and trans woman interchangeably. She explained to Luke that she would have lived full-time as Margret if it had been accepted in her generation, but this was not an option. 

Date

2019 December 9

Creator

Luke Wegener

Publisher

University of Nebraska at Omaha Libraries

Relation

LGBTQ+ Oral History Collection finding aid available at https://archives.nebraska.edu/repositories/4/resources/604

Interviewer

Luke Wegener

Interviewee

Margret Fennell

Duration

1:06:18

Files

asc-contentdm-128.jpg

Citation

Luke Wegener, “LGBTQ+ Voices: Interview with Margret Fennell,” Queer Omaha Archives | UNO Libraries, accessed September 18, 2021, https://queeromahaarchives.omeka.net/items/show/3316.

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