One question I’ve often been asked (and I love it!) is, “Where do the ideas for your stories come from? What’s the kernel? The 4-1-1, as the kids say (if the kids are 33).” For Bitter Springs, I stumbled across something that led me to months of research into actual LGBT history and a proper education of our past, and not the straight-washed “everyone was murderered if they were even kind of homo back in the day” mindset most people hold.
It is my utter delight to show all the ways in which that mindset is incorrect, this idea that every single LGBT person was shunned, that they were hidden away inside attics and broken down sheds at the edge of their family’s farms or basically forced to live their lives in misery until dying from their ‘gayness’, not unlike consumption. Turns out, that’s not true. LGBT people lived long, happy lives with their partners, and often. Not everyone did, religion always messes things up, but enough folks did to make it a Real Thing.
But back to these gay gunslingers who couldn’t bear to be separated even in death…
See that picture up there? We’ll get to it, but I’m pretty sure they were partners in more than just crime. I do not have proof that Frank and Bobby were gay lovers, nightly wrapped in tender congress whether it be on the range, in a Main Street hotel/saloon/tack & feed store, or in their own shared home. I can imagine that, but I do not want to state that it was a fact.
The (very limited) lore around these two is that they did everything together, and they made a point of saying if they went down, they’d both go down together. And this town of cut-throats, failed bank robbers, cattle rustlers, laundrymen, business owners, sex workers, and regular folk just trying to make it in life honored that request. And they did it without question.
I’ve been all over Boothill Cemetery. Not even mothers and their children are in the same grave, and at least one set of them died in each other’s arms. They just didn’t get buried that way. I’m just saying. If you look at this simply and logically, no one cared about what these two men got up to, and they had no issue with having them share an eternal resting place. They didn’t care. They didn’t object. They… they just honored their wishes. In 1882.
So don’t tell me that a happy ending isn’t possible in this setting. (I mean, okay. They died in a shootout. BUT YOU GET MY POINT.) Feel free to check out my (growing) bibliography with all the information you could need to get started on your own journey to see just how many steps we lost when the century turned.
But how did I find this grave? Where the heck did this book idea even come from? Here’s the story. (This appears in the opening of Bitter Springs in my Author’s Note.)
A year before I wrote this book, I took a road trip through the American Southwest, which is a second home to me. Even though I’ve lived there for years, there were a few places I hadn’t seen, so I made a point of stopping off in Tombstone, Arizona. And while, yes, it’s touristy and all of that, there’s a cemetery called Boothill Graveyard that’s fascinating. There’s the ornate (for the spot) final resting place of Quong Hee, who ran the Can Can and was listed as a “Friend to All”, and scores of others.
But in Row 4, there’s one grave — one single grave, mind you — that stuck with me.
Two men are buried in that one spot, Bobby Jackson and Frank Hart. There are plenty of graves here, plenty of men who died at the same time either by hanging or shootout, husbands and wives struck down with dysentery (1882 was a rough year in particular), and mothers and their children. Everyone has their own gravesite. What was it about these two “best friends” that led them to being buried together?
I fell into a wonderful research spiral of the West, aided by the meticulously organized research branch of L.A.’s Autry Museum as well as intensely researched books such as Gay Cowboys and Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality and many, many more. My father’s people are ranchers and farmers from Utah and Wyoming, so I know cowboys. I know the mythos: the ultimate image of masculinity they represent. At least I thought I did. Turns out that the straight, white cowboy who Hollywood loves was pretty uncommon. About forty percent of cowboys were black, first of all. And straight? Sure. Sometimes. Sometimes not.
We in our modern way of thinking often fall victim to the idea that we’re more advanced than our predecessors, that only now are LGBTQ citizens being welcomed with open arms, that we modern folks are who are finally realizing how gender and sexuality don’t always line up in a rigid black and white definition, that all of this is new, particularly in post-19th century North America. That’s not accurate. (And anyone who thinks queer lives were never accepted until now never looked in a history book, quite frankly. We’re here, we’re queer, we’ve been here and queer for many a year, m’dear.)
And if you think about it, what on earth were all those fellas getting up to for months, if not years, at a time without ladies around to “satisfy urges” out there on the prairie, or while building railroads or mining for gold? Why, they were satisfying themselves with each other, and no one looked sideways at them. Oh, sure, you weren’t supposed to be blatant about it, but in the 19th Century, no one was, straight or otherwise. I read a letter — and boy, I sure love museum curators who make research material available online — from a Civil War soldier who was writing home to his sweetheart about a dance the soldiers held to “keep up morale”.
In this letter he detailed how “boys” and “girls” were chosen out of the all-male group, and how his captain fell in love with his “girl”, and all the soldiers knew what they were getting up to in their private quarters. (Hint: sex.) This was 1864 in a letter to a proper young lady. To pretend that homosexuality (or bisexuality or transexuals and transgendered persons) didn’t exist or were incredibly rare cases diminishes those relationships that thrived. Where on earth do you think the term “Boston Wife” came from? Or “Oxford Rub”? Bunkhouses were often called “ram pastures” and the term for two fellas owning up to wanting to get off with each other for a while — typically in a romantic relationship — was called “mutual solace”.
Taking from the commonality of those terms, it should underscore the fact that there were families who knew about their “confirmed bachelor”and his “best pal” or their “old maid” aunt and her”roommate”. There are wonderful photos and love letters of these couples, proof that they were able to have loving relationships, that their families knew about them, and as long as everyone — even the straight folks — kept any salaciousness under their hats, they could keep on keeping on.
Over half of all North American Native peoples believed in more than two genders, in “two-spirits” as the term is commonly referred to today. And in some tribes, there were four and five. We-Wha, a Zuni ambassador to the US Government in the 19th century, was one such person and was welcomed as a man or as a woman, to use the (incorrect) Western binary terms of the time, when visiting Washington DC. In the 1800s! By Congress!
These people existed, and more importantly, they were welcomed in certain societies. It’s important to honor them and it’s important to honor the people in their lives who supported them. Was it everywhere? No, of course not. But there will always be those controlling types, no matter where you go, right?
But they were there.
One thing that has always been important to me in writing LGBTQ stories is to honor the fact that there are families who love and accept one another, even if they can’t understand everything about their family members. They still love each other. We families exist. It’s important for people who may be questioning their sexuality — questioning whether or not to come out, perhaps feeling trapped by the fear that their family might turn their back on them — know that there are families who will love and embrace them.
There always have been these families and there always will be. It’s not always a sad story, and to honor my children, their partners, and their loving relatives, I will always write those stories. They’re important, they’ve always been possible and they always will be.
(And if you’re in need, then you’re welcomed into my ever-expanding rainbow family.) <3