This Cowboy Ain’t Found the Right Woman Yet
“John Wayne and Will Rogers, they made real cowboy movies. They portrayed us like we are. There ain’t no queer in cowboy and I don’t care for anyone suggesting there is.”
– (Heterosexual) Rancher Dave Miller, to The Telegraph
When we think of “the cowboy,” we envision Old West or the Wild Wild West. “Rugged America.” Ranch Hand Nobility. Tobacco-Stained Chivalry. Guys who were tough, but fair. We think of heroes. We think of—well—men’s men.
In the States, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers became popular studio-cowpokes, wearing white hats and sweetly singing nostalgic, lonesome songs, wailing to the desert sky in a series of B-movies from the 30s and 40s. “Happy Trails,” anyone? “‘Until we meet again?”
Even Good ol’ John Wayne sang a rare cowboy song, playing the role of Singin’ Sandy Saunders (“Riders of Destiny,” 1933). Somehow, singing cowboys were not seen as effeminate—just dreamy. The trope became popular and took hold worldwide. So much so, inspired Italian/European directors began recruiting American actors to film their own “spaghetti westerns” overseas.
All this is to say that it’s hard to separate the engrained stereotypes from the reality that carries through to this day, and once established, tropes, metaphors and stereotypes therein can leave lasting impressions in others’ minds about how they think things were versus how they truly are. Masculinity, when contextualized in the world of cowboys, incorporates entirely new meanings when you include LGBTQ experience in the mix—this includes modern-day trans* men and women who, living in rural areas and on farmland (or close to it) embrace rodeo/cowboy culture and lifestyle.
“There have been gay cowboys for as long as there have been gay people…. It’s always been a part of the Western frontier lifestyle that wasn’t talked about. It was just there.”
– Brian Helander, for the International Gay Rodeo Association
As for cowboys, the most often looked-to idea in the Old West, the lyrical romanticism of Ang Lee’s brilliantly crafted film “Brokeback Mountain,” begin to build a bridge to speak to LGBTQ desert/rural/migratory experiences, but that too veered toward the tragic, therefore dropping one stereotype to pick up another (gay romance and agreed-upon rules in relationships don’t always have to end in tears).
Interestingly enough, world-famous country musician Willie Nelson’s soundtrack work on Lee’s film (“He Was a Friend of Mine”) and his cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other” (the first LGBT-focused mainstream country song by a major label artist) brought the idea back into our consciousness beyond the Gay Rodeo circuit.
Gay Rodeo culture represents our (still) unsung heroes: the underground men and women athletes and community made up of the unofficial historians who’ve always cherished this way of life, and who’ve shared it for generations.
Cowboys Never Kiss And Tell
“I’m…a heterosexual guy without any apparent sexual hang-ups. I say that so you know where I stand. Gay people don’t scare me. They don’t repulse me. And they sure as hell don’t offend me. I know that there are gay athletes. There were gay cowboys…. Greeks took homosexuality to whole new levels, as do some Middle Eastern cultures…. Homosexuality is not new, it is not strange. It is also not going away. So why the fear and backlash over a movie? Easy. Men are cowards. They are also more confused and uptight than they should be.”
– Doug Brunell, for “Film Threat”
“There is a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in western rural areas.”
-Alfred Kinsey, from a 1948 sexuality study
Picture gay cowboys—or even lesbian nuns—having more than a platonic relationship. Do the words “know duh” come to mind? Not when it comes to cultural constructs, facades and fears. In a world so tethered to binary/compartmentalized thinking, it can be challenging to look back retroactively and tease out more accurate versions of the truth.
Of course not all man-man and woman-woman situations are queer-only. Neither are they heteronormative only. Such is the case many historians make, and oftentimes we need pictures and additional documented evidence to firmly believe in the truth of it, even for ourselves. And we need to see and experience not only one image or piece of evidence, but several. It still seems somewhat otherworldly. Unbelievable. As we begin to hear the stories and to bear witness, then the truth begins to unfold itself to us so that we can accept to be true in our souls.
“In These Here Cowboying Circles:” No More Secrets
Geographically, the Old West is image and ideation most often dreamed of and seen. But of course, cowboys and gals rode the open range and worked on ranches from California to Montana and beyond.
More and more urban cowboys and cowgirls as well as out gay country stars help to modernize our imagery and understanding. They continue to sing, share, reveal our stories, letting those of us who are in-community write and experience our own narratives.
Just as we (LGBTQIA persons) are everywhere, so are cowboys and cowgirls who are “especially fond of one another.” Euphemisms are still used for literal survival (to avoid violence or shame-based thinking or incidents). Small-town gay and lesbian bars, any cow-town dance-halls in remote or rural areas, community centers near sprawling green pastures and wide open spaces, that’s where folks folks reside. So, that’s where love, lust and all good things in between will reside. So of course, that’s where queer cowboys work and play, and reside.
Coming full circle: just a handful of years ago, the Autry Cowboy Museum took an in-depth look at gay and trans* cowboy culture via their Out West exhibit. They continue to study queer culture and to blog about it. (See: http://blog.theautry.org/tag/brokeback-mountain)
To check out a gay cowboy movie in a post-Brokeback world, click on over to watch the Rom-Com “Adam and Steve” (featuring Parker Posey, no less!) and have a laugh on us. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=970IMbt9JkE
And to you queer theory and gay film elitists out there, sheep herders (Jack and Ennis from “Brokeback”) can also be called cowboys. Did you follow them around all day and night? Did you pay their well-earned wages? We thought not.
A “Brokeback Mountain” opera will premiere in 2014. Even if you’re not into opera, aren’t you curious?