Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys from Montana to Mexico

Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys from Montana to Mexico

Lazy Nerd Explainer: Gay Cowboys in the Queer Wild West and Beyond...

Introduction to the Shared Life of Gay Cowboys

Gay cowboys, cowgirls and all the queer folks in between make for fascinating subjects. Merely by existing. Riding across the intersection of LGBTQ+ cultures, these figures from the not too distant past are still challenging traditional notions of masculinity and heteronormativity today, because of course the Wild West was queer af. What's queerer than leaving a tired life behind for the freedom to be whoever you want? Including yourself, at last...

A symbol of queerdos everywhere, the cowboy, girl, however you identify is an enduring archetype for LGBTQ+ folks... because so many reasons. Which is why I'm diving deep into this treasure trove of references and patchy historical documentation. To examine all the gay / queer outlaws and farmhands and Wild Westers I could find (within reason) so you can get a look-see at their historical context, representation in media, and modern-day experiences... helping all us queer folks piece together the many-colored legend of, perhaps, our favorite Villager? But seriously, the legend of cowboys matter to queer folks. Beyond fashion and film, they're an honest and true part of our history.

Ready to ride?


DISCLAIMER I: So much queer history has been lost to history. Not deemed worthy enough to record. Not regarded important enough to preserve. The rare instances of queer history being recorded and preserved are few and far between. And so we find ourselves back at the beginning of this disclaimer, but with fresh insights and a plan...

DISCLAIMER II: Sexuality as we understand it today wasn't seen the same way in the American West. Long story short: homosocial and homosexual are quite different.

Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys From Montana To Mexico

Historical Context

Unspoken Norms of the Wild West

The Myth and Reality of the American Cowboy

In the landscape of our collective consciousness, the cowboy stands as a rugged emblem of individualism and self-reliance. This emblem, shaped by hard work, adventure, and a taste for freedom, resonates with the spirit of America's frontier days, doesn't it? Reflecting a deep-rooted admiration for those who thrive on their own terms.

As you ponder this imagery, you may wonder: is it truly the manifestation of rugged individualism? Delving into America's frontier days, we find the cowboy remains an integral part of the country's broader historical narrative. However, the real-life cowboy's existence was nowhere near as romantic as history books and mainstream cinema would have you believe.


Strange Way of Life: Tough, Resilient, Dependent but Roaming 'Free'

Cattle Drives

Cattle drives were a significant aspect of cowboy life, involving long journeys from ranches to railheads — transporting cattle to Northern meat markets and such.

Cowboys worked long hours and faced extreme weather conditions, such as heat, cold, and intense blowing dust. They had limited diets and irregular supplies, making their work dirty and unglamorous. The terrain was rough and inconsistent, with cowboys riding between ten and twenty miles each day. The cattle drives required careful control and care of the "remuda," a herd of tamed, physically fit horses that the cowboys rode.

Threats and Dangers

Cowboys faced numerous threats and dangers during cattle drives. Some of these included:

  1. Stampedes: When cattle would run through the darkness in a mindless throng of hide and horns, cowboys had to mount their horses and try to turn the herd to prevent them from scattering for miles.
  2. River crossings: Crossing rivers with cattle was particularly dangerous, as the leader of the cattle could be distracted or disturbed by floating debris, causing chaos and potential drowning.
  3. Conflicts with Native Americans: Encounters with Native Americans, especially in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), were notoriously deadly.
  4. Weather: Cowboys had to endure extreme weather conditions, such as heat, cold, and intense blowing dust.
  5. Disease: Cowboys were at risk of contracting diseases during cattle drives... often far from the nearest town and who knows if there was a doctor there.
  6. Accidents: Pure accidents were also a common, recurring danger.

Daily Life

Cowboys on cattle drives often spent 14 hours in the saddle, which explains why many older cowboys were bowlegged. They also suffered from a few hours of restless sleep and exhausting, possibly dangerous work chasing and rescuing strays. On most cattle drives, there was one cowboy for every 250 cattle, requiring constant vigilance for a monthly pay of $30 to $40. Cowboys had to guard against predators (both two- and four-footed), straying cattle, and stampedes at night.

Survival and Resilience

The life of a cowboy was a testament to survival and resilience, as they had to endure harsh conditions, threats, and dangers while working on cattle drives. Cowboys needed a sense of humor, an adventurous spirit, and a lot of strength and courage to survive on the trail. The same lands they loved for the promise of wealth and freedom also brought threats from every direction. Despite the challenges, cowboys carried on, improving their skills and adapting to the ever-changing conditions of their work.

Cooperation with Law Enforcement

Contrary to popular belief, cowboys were not living in a lawless world of their own making. The idea of the cowboy as a lone ranger, operating outside the law, is a myth that has been carefully crafted by popular culture. The reality is, cowboys often had to cooperate with law enforcement agencies to protect their cattle and livelihood.

Some famous cowboys who worked closely with law enforcement include Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, and Pat Garrett. A group of ironic law lovers who each became legendary figures in American history and culture. Memorialized in numerous books, movies, and the cowboy boots of many a star.

Relationship Between Cowboys and Law Enforcement

In the late 1800s, U.S. marshals and their deputies served as authorities between the native Indian population and white settlers who were moving westward. Cowboys and lawmen often had to work together to maintain peace and order in the frontier towns. In many of these places, the marshals were the only kind of law available. As a result, cowboys sometimes assisted lawmen in apprehending outlaws and maintaining order in the frontier towns.

Roles and Responsibilities of Cowboys and Lawmen

Cowboys were responsible for herding cattle, maintaining ranches, and participating in cattle drives. They often had to deal with hostile Native American tribes, bandits, and other dangers while performing their duties. On the other hand, lawmen were responsible for enforcing the law, protecting citizens, and apprehending criminals. They often faced dangerous situations such as gunfights and encounters with outlaws.

In some cases, cowboys transitioned into law enforcement roles. For example, Bat Masterson served as a buffalo hunter and scout before becoming a sheriff, deputy marshal, and city marshal in various cities. Similarly, Bass Reeves, a former slave, became a legendary U.S. deputy marshal who worked in Indian Territory under the jurisdiction of "Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker.

Moreover, cowboys were subject to various regulations that governed their activities, further dispelling the image of every cowboy as an outlaw. The picture of the lone cowboy battling against injustice and operating outside the system, while enticing, is often far from the truth.

Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys From Montana To Mexico

Reading Between the Ranches: A Glimpse into the Queer Wild West

Historical records from the 19th century are often cloaked in secrecy. Hinting rather than openly acknowledging queer individuals among the rugged cowboys, hardy lawmen, and notorious outlaws of the American Wild West. Nonetheless, the clues are there, scattered trails for those who are patient enough to follow. The fact of the matter is: there have always been queer folks. Everywhere. And that's as true for the Wild West frontier as it is for any other period in history. Period.

The Presence of Homosexuality in the American Frontier

The American Frontier, often romanticized as a realm of rugged individualism and cis hetero morality, was in fact a space where the boundaries of sexuality were not as strictly drawn as we might imagine. The vast expanse of the frontier, with its sweeping landscapes and sparse agrarian settlements, nurtured a unique social milieu, particularly among cowboys, where homosexuality and homosociality were not just present but, in many instances, accepted.

19th Century Cowboy Culture Was a World Saturated with Masculinity

The iconic figures of the American West were predominantly male, spending extended periods in male-dominated environments, isolated from women. The isolation and unconventional nature of frontier life fostered a sense of freedom in various aspects of life, including gender and sexual freedom. The fierce western ethos to live free and unfettered applied as much to gender and sexual freedom as it did to other areas of life. The Old West was indeed a frontier in many ways, especially sexually, as men and women went West for various reasons, including escaping their pasts and creating new identities. Emerging research in sexual orientations in the Old West increasingly indicates that homosexuality was far more common than previously thought. but it's crucial to understand that these relationships were not always strictly sexual. Homosociality, the preference for members of one's own sex in social and leisure activities, was also prevalent.

Beyond Cowboys, Other Male-dominated Communities Such as Loggers, Miners, and Sailors, Likely Experienced Similar Dynamics

The harsh and isolated conditions of these occupations necessitated close-knit, cooperative communities where traditional societal norms could be more flexible. Miners and cowboys often settled into convenient partnerships called "bachelor marriages". When miners in Angel Camp in northern California had dances, half the men would dress as women and dance with the other half.

What Does the Cowboy Mythology Tell us About this Iconic Figure, and How Does it Shape Our Perception of American History?

The 19th-century American frontier was one of the gayest periods in the country's history, sexually speaking. And the intimacy inherent in camp life transcended racial differences, as white men amicably shared tents, food, and economic responsibilities with Chinese, African American, and Latino miners.

The frontier experience also allowed for the exploration of gender non-conformity. Historian Peter Boag discovered numerous cases of individuals living as the opposite gender in the Old West, showing that both female-to-male and male-to-female gender non-conformity were more common than previously acknowledged. The frontier provided an opportunity for people to escape the growing rigidity of gender roles and societal expectations in the East.

Little Hard Evidence, Still Plenty to Ponder

Writer and historian Gregory Hinton has dedicated much of his work to exploring the contributions of the LGBT community in the history and culture of the American West. He has written about the history of gay rodeos, Buffalo Bill’s friendship with French artist Rosa Bonheur and author Oscar Wilde, and other topics related to the LGBT community in the West.

Historian Peter Boag from the University of Colorado has pointed out that society did not really designate people as homosexual or heterosexual through most of the 19th century, and it was not until the 20th century that those identities crystallized. However, emerging research in sexual orientations in the Old West increasingly shows that homosexuality was far more common than previously thought. Even for men who wouldn't have identified as queer. In the absence of women, especially in certain remote parts of the West, same-sex relationships often served as a pragmatic solution to loneliness.

Moreover, the influence of Native American cultures cannot be overlooked. Sources suggest Native Americans viewed homosexuality in a much more positive light, and we know many nations and tribes embraced two-spirits as integral parts of their societal dynamics. One of the most well known instances of an out gay man at the time, Sir William Drummond, highlights the alluring possibility that two-spirits may have influenced queer culture in the Wild West, because Drummond's long term partner was a French Canadian-Cree hunter, and would likely have understood the power and purpose of two-spirits within Native American tribes and communities.

Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys From Montana To Mexico

The Role of Isolation and Companionship in Cowboy Culture

Isolation and companionship played significant roles in cowboy culture on the Western Frontier. The Wild West was a place where traditional social norms and conventions were often discarded in favor of practicality and survival. The long periods of isolation, coupled with the need for companionship, created an environment where homosexuality could exist, even if it wasn't openly discussed.

Cowboy historian Jim Wilke has pointed to several elements of cowboy culture that might support this idea. One such tradition is the all-male stag dance, which was a common form of entertainment among cowboys. These dances would often involve men dancing together in the absence of women. While this may have resulted from the simple necessity of a lack of female companions, it could also be seen as an indicator of a culture that was more accepting of same-sex relationships.

Another indication of possible acceptance of homosexuality in cowboy culture is the common practice of sharing bedrolls. When traveling or working on the range, cowboys would often sleep in close quarters, with two men sharing a single bedroll for warmth and comfort. This practice, known as "rolling up," could potentially foster close physical and emotional connections between men.

It should be noted that definitive evidence of homosexuality in cowboy culture is difficult to find due to the taboo nature of the topic during that period. However, the few accounts and anecdotes that do exist, combined with an analysis of the cultural environment, suggest that homosexuality may have been more accepted and prevalent among cowboys on the American frontier than is often believed.

Queer Cowboys Got 'Married'

Beyond pragmatism, terms like "bachelor marriages" or "Boston marriages" hint at homosexual relationships being an accepted part of life in the queer Wild West.

The term "Boston Marriage" originated from Henry James' 1886 novel "The Bostonians" and was used to describe arrangements between two single women living together, independent of men, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These relationships were common and generally accepted by society, and they could involve a combination of business partnership, artistic collaboration, sex, romance, friendship, or ideological alliance.

In the Wild West, men engaged in same-sex activities were not necessarily seen as homosexuals. The frontier life was one of isolation in wide-open spaces, where the constraints of civilization were not felt on one's day-to-day life. In this environment, unconventional characters, lifestyles, and differing types of behavior became more common and acceptable. The strong belief in living independently and unencumbered by societal norms could be applied as much to sexual freedom as anything else.

In the Old West, cowboys and miners sometimes settled into same-sex partnerships, which were referred to as "bachelor marriages". These relationships were not discouraged or frowned upon, and they often led to more intimate relationships. The wild west was a frontier in many ways, especially sexually, and men and women went West for various reasons, including escaping pasts and creating new identities. Sometimes those identities crossed genders and included stunning subterfuge and incredible incognitos that were maintained for entire lifetimes.

Love Poems and Queer Couplings

The cowboy poet, Charles Badger Clark Jr., penned a touching poem in 1895 titled "The Lost Pardner". His words, tinged with an aching longing for a departed cowboy companion, suggest a relationship that transcends mere friendship. His verse stands as one of the most poignant indicators of the existence of queer relationships during the frontier cowboy era.

Historian Clifford Westermeier found a limerick that alludes to homosexual intimacy between cowboys, suggesting not only the presence of homosexual intimacy in the frontier west but also a greater culture of sexual ambiguity.

As we journey through the rugged landscape of the Wild West, we come to understand that this was a world as diverse and colorful as any other. The legacy of the queer cowboys serves as a powerful reminder of this diversity, a testament to the resilience of individuals who dared to defy the norms of their time. Their stories, once shrouded in secrecy, now shine brightly, illuminating the truth of the Wild West: a place where anyone could make their mark, no matter who they loved.

Charles Badger Clark Jr. and "The Lost Pardner"

Charles Badger Clark Jr. (1883-1957) was an American cowboy poet and the first poet laureate of South Dakota. He was born in Albia, Iowa, and briefly attended Dakota Wesleyan University. Clark spent time in Cuba and Arizona before settling near his family in South Dakota. He is known for shaping the poetry of the Old West with striking impressions of the cowboy life. "The Lost Pardner" is one of Clark's most famous poems, written in 1895. The poem mourns the death of a cowboy's partner and expresses a depth of emotional intimacy that suggests a romantic relationship.

The Lost Pardner
I rode one day with a comrade, Two brave men, tried and true;
One was a gallant captain, And the other a brave buckaroo.
We were riding to an outpost, To a line that was undermanned;
For the Indians were on the warpath, And we were in hostile land.
We talked of our plans for the future, Of the things that we'd like to do;
We spoke of the joys of the roundup, And the pleasures of the big rodeo.
We rode through a grove of cottonwoods, And the captain rode on ahead;
The buckaroo's horse stumbled and fell, And a bullet went through his head.
I buried him there in the moonlight, On a hill that was far away;
And I wondered why it should happen, And I wondered why I should stay.
I ride alone and hate the boys I meet. Today, some way, their laughin' hurts me so.
I hate the mockin'-birds in the mesquite- They were all his friends, and now, you know.
I got to hate the whole darn country. And everything that's in it, too;
The only place that I ain't hatin' Is just the place where I think of you.
I've got a place where you can sleep, And I've fixed it up like new;
And there's a lantern in the cabin, And a fire that will see you through.
And if you'll only come to me, And let me take your hand,
I'll try to lead you back again, To the Happy Rangeland.
But you'll never ride the broncos, And you'll never rope the steers;
For you're sleeping on the hillside, And you'll never see the years.
And feel his knee rub mine the good old way
He's dead- and what that means no man kin tell.
Some call it 'gone before. Where? I don't know, but God!
I know so well That he ain't here no more!
Clark's poetry often focused on the historic cowboy lifestyle, historical events, and the image of the cowboy both past and present. Cowboy poetry is a form of poetry that grew from a tradition of cowboys telling stories, and it continues to be written and celebrated today.

Sir William Drummond Stewart

Sir William Drummond Stewart (1795-1871) was a Scottish adventurer and British military officer who traveled extensively in the American West during the 1830s. Despite being married, Stewart entered a same-sex relationship with Antoine Clement, a French Canadian-Cree hunter, which lasted for nearly a decade.

Antoine Clement was the son of a French Canadian father and a Cree Indian mother. He was a skilled hunter and a spirited young man. Stewart first met Antoine at the 1833 rendezvous, and they became friends and traveling companions ever since. Their relationship is detailed in Stewart's two autobiographical novels, "Altowan, or Incidents of Life and Adventure in the Rocky Mountains" (1846) and "Edward Warren" (1854).

Stewart returned to Scotland and Murthly Castle in June 1839 with Antoine Clement, and the couple lived in Dalpowie Lodge while entertaining in Murthly Castle. Stewart initially referred to Clement as his valet, then as his footman, to explain his presence.

Their relationship was part of a broader context of homosociality and homosexual engagements that flourished in the Rocky Mountain fur trade during the 1830s. The American West provided a space where men like Stewart could live the lives they wanted without the stigma associated with homosexuality.

Alfred Jacob Miller, an American artist who accompanied Stewart on his travels, included Antoine in several scenes and made at least two portraits during the expedition, one of which was a double portrait with Stewart.

Harry Allen

Have you ever heard about Harry Allen? Born in 1882, Harry was an American transgender man from the Pacific Northwest who lived much of their life openly as a man. A notorious figure in the early 1900s, Harry worked in rough jobs such as a farmhand, bartender, cowboy, and bootlegger. And Allen wasn't an ordinary cowboy. His exploits went beyond taming wild broncos. He was a bootlegger, a brawler, a hard drinker, and an instigator of all sorts. He was the epitome of a rabble-rouser, frequently leaving a trail of chaos in his wake.

Allen was born in Indiana and moved with their parents to western Washington in the 1890s. They gave birth to a son in their early life. Allen dressed in sharp suits, hats, and patent leather shoes and was known for their dashing appearance. They were a skilled barroom brawler, trick shooter, and womanizer, known for having multiple partners at any given time.

At the turn of the century, in the wild landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, Allen's reputation reached its peak. Newspapers frequently covered Allen's exploits, both loving and hating them. In March 1902, Allen was arrested after a young woman of respectable parentage committed suicide after discovering that "Harry Livingstone" was a woman. More stories about them appeared in the Seattle Star, Bamberg Harold and Yakima Herald, amongst others. Allen's notorious persona seemed to capture the very spirit of the wild, unbridled western frontier.

In 1908, The Seattle Sunday Times conducted an interview that would shock the region and challenge societal norms. Allen revealed, "I did not like to be a girl; did not feel like a girl, and never did look like a girl… I conceived the idea of making myself a man.” Allen's coverage in papers across the country sparked a frenzy from region to region. Local reporters and readers alike were utterly fascinated by the frontiersman defying gender norms.

In 1912, Portland police arrested Allen and Isabelle Maxwell, a known sex worker. Suspecting Allen's involvement in white-slavery, which was recently criminalised. Federal officer Charles Pray recognized Allen from a past encounter. Upon hearing Pray use his birth name, Allen confessed, "I am not Harry Allen. I am Nell Pickerell, and I've lived as a man for over 12 years." A revelation that shocked local authorities who remarked that Allen's male disguise, complete with a deep voice and masculine gait, had been flawless. While federal charges of white-slavery were dropped, Allen was convicted of vagrancy for cross-dressing and sentenced to 90 days in jail .

Throughout their life, Allen was in and out of jail for various offenses, including theft, vagrancy, bootlegging, and brawling. And Harry's life was far from ordinary. Filled with scandal and intrigue as they wooed ladies, bit cops, and made sure their side of the story was seen and heard. His existence challenged society's perceptions, and despite the challenges they faced, Harry Allen lived a life that defied societal norms and laid the groundwork for modern trans icons to live their truth. They died of syphilitic meningitis in — an untimely death at just 42 years old.

Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys From Montana To Mexico

Racist Fantasy of the Straight, White Cowboy

The idea of the cowboy as a symbol of virile white masculinity is problematic for several reasons. First, it perpetuates the stereotype of the American cowboy as a straight, white man in Hollywood movies, which helped reinforce the justification for westward expansion — preserving systems of white supremacy. And besides, this image is far from the historical reality, as cowboy workforces were racially diverse, with African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans making up significant numbers. The melting pot of various ethnicities and races in the cowboy workforce is crucial to differentiate between the symbols created by popular culture and the genuine human experience that shaped the cowboy's collective identity.

Cowboys were once the outcasts of Victorian American society. Historically, cowboys tended to be poor nomads, so ranch work and cattle drives attracted many Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and Chinese residents of the American West. The first cowboys were Spanish vaqueros, who introduced cattle to Mexico centuries earlier. Historians estimate that between 20 to 25% of cowboys in the American West were African American. African American cowboys played a significant role in the development of the West, as many had gained skills in cattle handling during the slavery period, and continued to use those skills as freedmen after the end of the Civil War. Many participated in long cattle drives from Texas to the railroad depots in Kansas and beyond. However, popular films and literature often fail to convey the diverse nature of the Western Frontier, leading to a skewed perception of the cowboy image.

The image of the cowboy as a symbol of virile white masculinity also perpetuates toxic masculinity and white fragility. The cowboy myth has been used by politicians to promote the image of the cowboy as truly American: tough, male, and white. This image has been used as a symbol of power and exclusion, signifying who is a "real" American and who isn't. The Aryan cowboy image is part of the rise of both segregation and anti-immigrant racism, making it a dangerous heritage.

African-American Cowboys: Unrecognized Champions of the West

The African-American presence in the cowboy narrative is significant yet often overlooked. Historians estimate that one in four cowboys were black. With a substantial percentage of black folks working across the rest of the ranching industry. Why? After the Civil War, many African Americans turned to cowboy life as a means of economic sustenance. And you can understand the appeal. Being a cowboy was one of the few jobs open to men of color.
The cattle industry was booming in Texas, and the growth had been supported in great measure by enslaved labor. Black cowboys played a pivotal role in shaping the cattle industry, despite grappling with discrimination and segregation. Many former enslaved folks were hired onto cattle ranches in south Texas, becoming drovers or cowhands. Terms referencing those who herded cattle, which predate the term “cowboy”.
Though the industry sometimes treated black men equally to white men in terms of pay and responsibilities, discrimination persisted, of course. To a lesser extent than in other industries, but black cowboys continued to face racism while traveling — prevented from eating at restaurants and particular hotels, for example. However, among fellow cowboys, they usually found equality and respect not experienced by other African-Americans of the time.
Black cowboys were essential to the cattle industry. Plus they found solace among their own communities and gained respect within their crews. They played a significant role in shaping the American West, and their stories inspire to this day.

Indigenous Cowboys: The Horsemen of North America

During the 19th century, cowboys worked in proximity to indigenous populations and many adopted and adapted indigenous practice.

Animal Husbandry

Cowboys were responsible for herding and driving cattle to market, a task that required knowledge of animal husbandry. The cowboy tradition of ranching was inherited from the Spanish and Mexican vaquero, who introduced cattle to Mexico centuries earlier. The need to cover vast distances led to the development of unique techniques and tools, such as the lasso, which were used to catch and control cattle.

North America's indigenous populations carry a heritage steeped in profound connections with nature and animals. Among them, several tribes excelled in horse-riding and cattle tending, mirroring the traits we now associate with cowboys. And while it is challenging to determine precise numbers, many Native American cowboys worked in the industry either part-time or as full-time ranch hands. The Plains tribes, in particular, became known for their exceptional horsemanship and cattle handling skills.

Survival Skills

Cowboys had to be hardy and self-sufficient, with the skills to take care of themselves with little resources and scarce food availability. They had an intimate knowledge of what the wilderness had to offer and often passed this knowledge down through the generations. Basic survival skills such as fire-making, shelter-building, and hunting were essential for their survival.

The Comanche tribe, in particular, was renowned for their equestrian prowess. Their capability to raid swiftly on horseback made them a formidable force, etching their legacy in the annals of North American history. But the Comanches were not just horsemen but also strategists, tactfully deploying their skills for territorial gains. They represent the convergence of tradition, skill, and survival instincts, embodying the essence of cowboy culture before it became mainstream.

Local Knowledge

Cowboys had to navigate the rugged terrain of the American West, which required knowledge of the land. Indigenous populations had lived in the area for centuries and had developed a deep understanding of the environment. Early Spanish missionaries trained Native Americans as cattle herders, leading many indigenous peoples to adopt ranching into their way of life.

Spiritual Beliefs

Cowboys were often depicted in popular culture as glamorous or heroic figures, but the reality was far from glamorous. The myth of the cowboy is only a small part of the story. Frontier life was one of isolation, wide open spaces, and a fierce ethos to live free and unfettered, which applied as much to gender and sexual freedom as it did to other areas of life. While homosexuality among whites arose from quiet acquiescence and sometimes necessity, Native American cultures enthusiastically embraced alternative genders.

Two-Spirit Culture

Two-spirits have been documented in over 130 Native American tribes in every region of the continent. Representing a unique spiritual and societal concept of gender diversity and fluidity.

The Dinéh (Navaho) call them nàdleehé, one who is ‘transformed’. The Lakota (Sioux) know them as winkte. The Mohave call them alyha. The Zuni, lhamana. The Omaha, mexoga. Aleut and Kodiak: achnucek. And the Zapotec call them ira’ muxe, while the Cheyenne know them as he man eh.

Far from being marginalized, two-spirits occupied essential roles in tribal societies. And while it would be inappropriate to assume that I fully understand the essence of two-spirit life from an outsider's perspective, we can still observe (and marvel at) the way native communities lauded individuals with unique gender identities. Serving as healers, seers, and caretakers of the tribe's cultural memory.

It is plausible that the versatility and flexibility embodied by two-spirits permeated into the cowboy culture, influencing their lifestyle and attitudes.

Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys From Montana To Mexico

So... Why do Queer Folks Share Such a Love for Cowboys?

The enduring appeal of the cowboy archetype for LGBT people can be attributed to several factors:

  • Cowboys are inherently queer with a wild history — spending time away from wives with wranglers and ranchers, going on cross country adventures through the wilderness, and all while being dusty pioneers clad in leather... so not a typical straight male lifestyle.
  • Cowboys engaged in homosexual sex while maintaining their masculinity and status. The emotional companionship and mutual consolation found with other men on the road lead to intimacy and comfort from saloon to countryside. Often blossoming into sexual relations that were not seen as earth shattering events or threats to traditionalist values.
  • The acceptance of queer cowboys in counterculture seems to be a middle ground between the hyper-masculine image of cowboys and the more effeminate image of gay men.
  • The mythos of the American Old West, with its aura of ruggedness, danger, and adventure, has appealed to many people over the years, including gay men.
  • Their impact on the LGBTQ+ community has been profound, giving us heroes who stood tall in the face of adversity while defying societal norms.

Masculinity and Gender Roles

The cowboy archetype has long been associated with ruggedness, strength, and masculinity, which are qualities that many LGBTQ+ people have had to embody to survive in difficult times. Also... sex. Duh. Cowboys are hot, obviously. But historically speaking, cowboys were often isolated from women and lived in close-knit, male-dominated communities, which may have led to the development of male-male sexual relationships that were borne out of 'necessity' as much as a biologically driven desire for men. Then there's the cowboy's clothing and lifestyle, of course, which often included leather, tight jeans, and plenty more time with other men. All big draw cards for LGBTQ+ folks buoyed by rugged charm.

In the context of gay rodeos, the cowboy archetype allows gay men to embrace their masculinity and challenge the stereotype that queer men lack strength and ruggedness. Meaning these "icons of masculine style for gay men" extend far beyond fashion. Into spaces where the masculine cowboy is celebrated, and the interplay between the normative masculine cowboy and the subversively homosexual one creates a uniquely queer environment.

Symbolism and Cultural Significance

The cowboy has become a symbol of American values and virile masculinity. Often used to define who can and cannot be considered a "real" American. By embracing this archetype, LGBTQ+ individuals challenge these assumptions and create a more inclusive understanding of American identity.

Gay cowboys have also been fetishized in art and pornography, but the queer rodeo community offers an authentic representation of LGBTQ+ individuals living the cowboy lifestyle. This community embraces both ends of the American cultural spectrum, combining the cowboy way of life with queer identity.

Historical Context

The historical context of cowboys and their relationships with other men has contributed to the enduring appeal of the archetype for LGBTQ+ individuals. Some historians have noted that cowboys were often gay or bisexual men who moved from the city to the country to escape persecution. This historical connection between cowboys and LGBTQ+ individuals adds a layer of authenticity to the archetype's appeal.

In conclusion, the cowboy archetype maintains an enduring appeal for LGBTQ+ people due to its associations with masculinity and strength, its cultural significance and symbolism, its representation in media, and its historical context. By embracing the cowboy archetype, LGBTQ+ individuals challenge traditional notions of masculinity, sexuality, and American identity, creating a more inclusive and diverse understanding of the cowboy way of life.

Beyond Brokeback: Gay Cowboys From Montana To Mexico

The Modern Gay Cowboy

The International Gay Rodeo Association

Forget gay bars in Texas. The International Gay Rodeo Association is a testament to the presence of gay cowboys in real life. Celebrating the Western lifestyle while providing a supportive community for LGBTQ+ folks.

A New Frontier: The Genesis of the IGRA

The IGRA was not born in a vacuum. Its inception was a response to the need for a safe space where LGBTQ+ individuals could express their love for the Western lifestyle without fear of prejudice or discrimination. The IGRA's roots can be traced back to the late 1970s, a time when the LGBTQ+ community was fighting for recognition and acceptance in society. In between disco, because priorities.

The IGRA: More Than Just a Rodeo

The IGRA is not just about rodeos; it's about community, acceptance, and the celebration of diversity. It's about breaking down barriers and challenging stereotypes from villages to towns and cities around the USA. It's about showing the whole world that anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, can be a cowboy or cowgirl.

The IGRA Rodeo: A Celebration of Diversity and Skill

The IGRA rodeo is a unique spectacle, a blend of traditional rodeo events with a twist of inclusivity and acceptance. Participants compete in a variety of events, from bull riding and steer wrestling to barrel racing and goat dressing, each event showcasing the skill and courage of the competitors.

The IGRA's Role in Advocacy and Education

The IGRA is not just about rodeos; it's also about advocacy and education. The organization works tirelessly to promote understanding and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community within the broader society. It also provides educational resources and support for individuals within the LGBTQ community.

The Future of the IGRA

The future of the IGRA looks bright. With an increasing number of individuals identifying as LGBTQ+, the organization is poised to continue growing and evolving. The IGRA is not just a testament to the presence of gay cowboys in real life; it's a testament to the power of inclusivity and acceptance in shaping our society.

The Intersection of Rural and Queer Identity

As the frontier way of life faded in the late 19th century, a nostalgia for cowboys soon emerged in American culture. Artists like Frederic Remington and entertainers like Buffalo Bill Cody glorified them through their art and Wild West shows.

By the 1950s and 1960s, movie Westerns featured actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Nearly all of these depictions portrayed the cowboy as white, straight and male. Black and Indigenous cowboys, as well as women riders, gradually disappeared from the national imagination.

The modern gay cowboy often lives at the intersection of rural and queer identity. This unique intersection provides a rich and diverse perspective on what it means to be a gay cowboy in contemporary society.

Personal stories of gay cowboys highlight the challenges and triumphs of being a gay cowboy. These stories provide a glimpse into the lives of individuals who are navigating their identities in a culture that is often perceived as being conservative.

In contemporary LGBTQ+ culture worldwide, the gay cowboy often serves as a symbol of resistance and resilience. Despite facing challenges, gay cowboys continue to carve out spaces for themselves in the Western lifestyle.

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The future of gay cowboys in society and media is promising. As society continues to evolve and become more accepting, the narrative of the gay cowboy will continue to expand and diversify. From their historical presence on the American frontier to their representation in media and influence on pop culture, gay cowboys have and will continue to leave their mark on both Western and LGBTQ+ culture.

The exploration of the gay cowboy narrative is not just about understanding the past, but also about shaping the future. It's about acknowledging the diversity of experiences within the cowboy culture and the LGBTQ+ community. It's about challenging stereotypes and creating a more inclusive narrative. And most importantly, it's about celebrating the resilience and spirit of gay cowboys, who have always been a part of the Western frontier lifestyle.

In the end, the story of gay cowboys is a testament to the power of authenticity and the importance of representation. It's a reminder that everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation or identity, has a place in the narrative of the American West. And as we continue to tell these stories, we contribute to a more inclusive and diverse understanding of what it means to be a cowboy.

Frequently Asked Questions

Gay cowboy singers have a rich, often overlooked history in country music. Some of the most notable gay country singers and bands include Lavender Country, Ty Herndon, Billy Gilman, and Orville Peck.

Lavender Country, formed in 1972, released the first known gay-themed album in country music history in 1973. The band, led by Patrick Haggerty, faced challenges and ultimately faded into obscurity due to the homophobic environment of the time.

Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman both came out as gay in 2014, marking a significant moment in the country music scene. Other openly gay country singers include Chely Wright, who came out in 2010, and TJ Osborne of Brothers Osborne, who came out in 2021.

Orville Peck, a masked gay country singer, has gained popularity in recent years with his unique style and powerful voice reminiscent of Elvis Presley. His songs often explore themes of love, heartbreak, and the mythic West.

The country music scene has been gradually shifting towards greater diversity and acceptance of queer artists, with more LGBTQ+ country singers emerging and challenging stereotypes.

Some notable gay-themed country songs include "All American Boy" by Steve Grand, "Ride Me Cowboy" by Paisley Fields, and "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)" by Willie Nelson. These songs and artists showcase the growing presence and influence of LGBTQ+ individuals in the country music genre.

Hank Steel, the Real Queer Cowboy, is a fictional character from the song of the same name by the band Dog Fashion Disco.The song, released in 2008, is a humorous and irreverent take on the traditional outlaw cowboy theme, featuring a gender-fluid and openly queer cowboy named Hank Steel. The lyrics celebrate queer sexuality and gender freedom with lighthearted and silly imagery. Although the character is fictional, the song has contributed to the representation of LGBTQ+ individuals in music and popular culture.

Common themes and motifs in queer cowboy art often revolve around challenging traditional notions of masculinity, exploring intimacy and relationships between men, and celebrating queer identity. Some of these themes and motifs include:

  1. Ruggedness and masculinity: Queer cowboy art often emphasizes the ruggedness and strength traditionally associated with cowboys, subverting stereotypes of LGBTQ+ individuals as weak or effeminate.
  2. Intimacy and relationships: Queer cowboy art frequently explores the close bonds and relationships between cowboys, highlighting the potential for homoerotic or romantic connections.
  3. Camp and humor: Some queer cowboy art embraces camp and humor, using playful and exaggerated imagery to challenge traditional ideas of masculinity and sexuality1.
  4. Queer identity and self-expression: Queer cowboy art often serves as a bold statement of identity and self-expression, allowing artists to explore and celebrate their own queer experiences and perspectives.
  5. Challenging stereotypes: Queer cowboy art often challenges and subverts traditional masculine ideals, presenting cowboys as complex and multifaceted individuals who defy easy categorization.
  6. Decolonization and intersectionality: Some queer cowboy art explores themes of decolonization and intersectionality, reimagining the cowboy archetype as a space for diverse identities and experiences.

Artists like George Quaintance and Tom of Finland have contributed to the representation of queer cowboys in visual art, with their work often featuring camp and homoerotic imagery1.Other examples of queer cowboy art can be found in various mediums, such as film, music, and fashion.

Overall, queer cowboy art serves to challenge traditional notions of masculinity and sexuality, while celebrating the diversity and complexity of queer experiences.

Queer cowboy art is a niche genre that challenges traditional notions of masculinity and sexuality while celebrating the diversity and complexity of queer experiences. Some artists known for creating queer cowboy art include:

  1. George Quaintance: An American artist known for his homoerotic paintings of cowboys and other masculine figures.
  2. Tom of Finland: A Finnish artist famous for his stylized and exaggerated depictions of gay men, often featuring cowboys and other rugged characters.
  3. Felix d'Eon: A contemporary artist who creates romantic and erotic illustrations inspired by vintage art styles, including queer cowboy themes.
  4. Toby Leon: Maximalist portraits of imagined queer cowboys (and girls) from the 1930s.

Just off the top of my head, here are some examples of queer cowboy names / characters:

  1. Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist from the movie "Brokeback Mountain".
  2. Hank Steel, a fictional character from the song "Hank Steel, the Real Queer Cowboy" by Dog Fashion Disco.
  3. It's a long bow, but Joe and Brian from the documentary series "Tiger King" were often seen wearing cowboy clothing.

Additionally, some LGBTQ+ country singers who have embraced the cowboy aesthetic include Ty Herndon, Billy Gilman, and Orville Peck. While these names and characters may not be exclusively "gay cowboy names," they represent a range of LGBTQ+ individuals who have been associated with the cowboy archetype in various forms of media and art.