My dad’s side of the family is filled with bona fide cowboys, ranchers and farmers, their established lives out west going back to the late 1840s when my great-great-grandfather converted to Mormonism and took his young bride to the Promised Land. He became a High Priest in Salt Lake City, was a choir master, landed more than one wife–several were his sopranos–a whole lot of land for sheep, and established our family’s Western roots.
One of my uncles was the President of the National Rodeo Association and hermits his days out on his sprawling Wyoming ranch. Another uncle and his wife (goat roping and barrel racing queen, I thank you) have their quiet ranch with all of their animals out in the Unitas. Their lives have been anything but easy–managing land and animals never is–but they’ll be the first to tell you how those moments of solitude astride a horse who trusts you is one of the great things in life.
I say all of this because when I told my dad–who grew up on a farm/ranch in the middle of nowhere, Utah and remembers watching his dad get double back-hoofed right in the chest by a pissed off bull–that I was writing about gay cowboys (well, mesteñeros) who lived back in the 1800s, he laughed and said there weren’t any.
Welp. That’s not true.
Before he could start to argue, I asked him if he knew who Badger Clark was. Of course! No self-respecting feller from Out West doesn’t know the preeminent Cowboy Poet of the 19th Century. Why, even Sarah Palin says she quotes his “Cowboy Prayer” to herself every night, and pardon me while I gag over the wholesome, pure, God-n-Country manufactured horsepucky idea of who cowboys have always been and how Palin (like most others) don’t really understand what cowboys were back in “the good ol’ days”.
That Hollywood idea of a Wild West cowboy couldn’t be more wrong, first of all. Cowboys were the low end of the work force, by which I mean it was a shit job. You rode behind the cows literally eating manure as it blew. (Hence the bandana and the hat real low.) People didn’t strive to be cowboys, you just sort of started out as one or ended up that way and kept at it. But that’s not to say that men (and some ladies who passed their whole lives as men) didn’t find joy out on the open range, because they certainly did. And sometimes in the arms of the same sex, to boot. (Pun 100% intended.)
And that beloved American Icon of all things cowboy, Badger Clark, even wrote a tender, loving poem to his dead, gay lover.
I read part of “The Good Ol’ Way” to my dad–this is from Sun and Saddle Leather, by the by.
One look before his eyes begun to blur
And then the blood that wouldn’t let ‘im speak!
And him so strong, and yet so quick he died,
And after year on year
When we had always trailed it side by side,
He went and left me here!
We loved each other in the way men do
And never spoke about it, Al and me,
But we both knowed, and knowin‘ it so true
Was more than any woman’s kiss could be.
The range is empty and the trails are blind,
And I don’t seem but half myself today.
I wait to hear him ridin’ up behind
And feel his knee rub mine the good old way.
His response? “…is that what that means?” Yeah, Dad. It does.
And cowboys were rough guys, drunks, in debt, on the run, desperate. They weren’t these ride into town to solve a problem, old schoolmarm-swoonin’, hat-tipping easy fellers a la John Wayne. They just weren’t. But boy, that sure built up a heck of a market for movies, shows, and lots and lots and lots of tie-in merchandise, didn’t it? It also whitewashed and straight-washed the whole culture of what a cowboy was. First off, they most likely weren’t white. They were probably black, who made up 40% of cowboys in the 19th century, or they were Mexican-mestizo. Native Americans and whites rounded out the remains.
Another thing the John Wayne/Roy Rogers and Dale Evans-job did to cowboys was purify how beyond the rules they were. Hell, half the appeal of taking on a rotten job like a cowboy’s was to be free of scrutiny, of laws, and especially of the church. I’m not saying that every cowboy was a drunken gay criminal instead of a pastel, be-fringed singing Boy Scout. (Ha.) But it sure was easy to take your pardner to the Ram Pasture (what the bunkhouse was actually called) and let off a little steam, maybe end it in a cuddle. That’s far more likely and legitimate to the actual life of a cowboy than the smiling guy in an electric blue suede jacket, aww-shucksing to the local school marm who Roy Rogers tried to claim as being Authentic.
Young cowboys had a great fear
That old studs once filled with beer
They’d throw on the saddle
And ride them on the rear.
The joke about the “turn in the barrel” exists for a reason, and it existed anywhere men were with other men for long periods of time. More importantly: No one really cared. Men were seen as sexual beasts with needs (ahem) and that was better than getting someone pregnant and having to marry them. There went your freedom, after all.
But say, if you could get that good stuff from a fella, and then you didn’t have to stop being free of responsibility (that a wife and family brings a lone wolf like a ranch hand or cowboy), then hell, why not?
My lover is a cowboyHe’s kind, he’s brave, he’s trueHe rides the Spanish ponyand throws the lasso, tooAnd when he comes to see meAnd our vows we have redeemedHe puts his arms around meAnd then begins to sing:Oh, I am a jolly cowboy,From Texas now I hail,Give me my saddle and ponyAnd I’m ready for the trail.I love the rolling prairieWhere we are free from care and strife,And behind a herd of long-horns,I will journey all my life.~Poem sung by cowboy Charlie Siringo, 1880s.
Even better was that it wasn’t seen as being “homosexual”–a term that didn’t even come into play until late in the 19th Century, more solidly in the 20th, anyway–to help a pal out in times of need. So not all guys engaging in homo-sex were gay, but it sure helped the guys who were gay live pretty free, all things considered.
San Francisco got its reputation for being a gay haven during the 1840s Gold Rush where men were blatant in their same-sex activities, which led to an English reporter calling the town (then called Yerba Buena ) “The Sodom By The Sea.” I mean, that was guys hanging on each other on the streets, making out against buildings in broad daylight kind of stuff. In the mid-1800s.
But nope, no gays living a gay life in the Wild West!
This post is pretty heavily focused on men, but trust: there definitely were women loving other women openly (some might say far more openly, since women are allowed to be openly affectionate with one another). And transgender? Hooboy, there are some amazing stories of folks living as the gender they truly were, and not the gender assigned them at birth. And that’s not even to touch on how in the majority of Native American tribes, there commonly are more than two genders (in some cases, four and five). The common terminology today that is accepted is “Two-Spirit.”
These folks existed. They lived full lives. Not everyone, of course, but not every straight person lives a full life either, do they? But it’s important we undo the straight-washing of the past. Instead of elevating these historic figures of the American West to unrealistic ideals, they’re far more fascinating when they get to be their accurate selves.
I’m no expert, but I’m a huge believer in research. While this is in no way meant to be complete, a “be-all, end-all” list of resources, here’s a short reading list of books, websites and resources I’ve pored over as I wrote Bitter Springs, one you might find enlightening, as well. Stars indicate particular favorites of mine:
- *A Queer History of the United States, Michael Bronski
- *Homo History, the ultimate visual source for vintage LGBTQ images
- Anything on Transcendentalism of the 19th Century (read: coded language)
- *The Autry Museum, which has a dedicated LGBTQ section and an outstanding online archive
- “Mutual Solace”
- The Other Side of Silence: Men’s Lives and Gay Identities: A Twentieth Century History by John Lowery
- This picture from 1872 by Nahl, Sunday Morning In The Mines
- Queer Cowboys, Chris Packard (I found this to be 2.5 out of 5 stars. Lots of suppositions and retelling of readily available information about Walt Whitman, and reads like a thesis paper to be honest. The value comes in photographs and the extensive bibliography, and not much else)
- *Out In All Directions, a series of personal tales and an anthology of LGBTQ folks in America’s past and present.
- *Paradise of Bachelors: The Social World of Men in Nineteenth-Century America
- *Every word D. Michael Quinn has ever put to paper, especially regarding the Mormon Church’s early lack of concern for homosexual tendencies among males. (The LDS church excommunicated him for it, after granting him unlimited access to every bit of history and church data they have squirreled away in SLC.) I’m currently reading Same-Sex Dynamics Among Nineteenth Century American: A Mormon Example, and find it fascinating and impeccably researched.
- Gay Men & Women who Enriched the World, by Thomas Cowan (I read this on Google Books, a tremendous resource for hard-to-find research info, btw)
- *Patricia Nell Warren on Real Gay Cowboys (she grew up on a massive cattle ranch in Wyoming.)
- VOICES WEST: SEX IN THE WEST COWBOY-RELATED DOCUMENTS
- Beloved Women: Lesbians in American Indian Cultures, by Paula Gunn Allen
- The Virginian, by Owen Wister. Hmm, the movie’s pretty homoerotic, too, come to think of it. 🙂
- New: 1/26/16 There Are No Closets In Tipis, talk with Cree Two-Spirit motivational speaker, Jack Saddleback