Gays and the Old West

Last night, the topic of my c.ass was the settling of the American West.  I always enjoy punching up my lectures with something interesting and though many people find the Wild West fascinating, most of what they find fascinating is mere cowboy mythology.  Lecturing about the invention of barbed-wire and the massacres of Native Americans can get a little tedious (not to diminish the importance of either topic, but…).  The fact is, you can only talk about Chinese prostitution just so much to make it interesting.  Though I am a nineteenth century US historian, I have never found the history of the Wild West that exciting.  So after my lecture tonight, which did go surprisingly well for a topic I am not that interested in, I decided to do a little research into the homosexual past of the Wild West, which is certainly something that can make the topic more interesting.

Say the words “gay cowboy” and chances are the conversation will turn to “Brokeback Mountain,” the 2005 film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and based on the Annie Proulx short story.  The Oscar-winning drama, which is set in the 1960s to ’80s, highlighted a long-submerged facet of frontier culture. But  homosexuals and transgender individuals had a more interesting history in the American West is much older than the movie might lead you to think. It is, in fact, almost as old as the West itself.

The Autry National Center is the first major American museum to recognize the contributions of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community to the American West and has created the Out West series. The museum presents a series of programs featuring Western scholars, authors, artists, politicians, musicians, and friends of Western LGBTs in discussions and gallery talks at the Autry.

“With Hidden Histories, the Autry National Center weaves the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community into the rich tapestry of the American West,” said GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios. “It is so important for Americans to hear stories that reflect the diversity of the LGBT community and our presence throughout our nation’s great history. GLAAD is proud to endorse Out West.”

It seems that LGBT community has a long history in the West. Take for instance the tale of One-Eyed Charlie, who was a stagecoach driver known for his hard drinking and itchy trigger finger. Charlie worked for the California Stage Co., where he earned his reputation as one of the best drivers in the wild West. He traveled between Oregon and California and, the story goes, got his nickname when he lost an eye while attempting to shoe a horse.

But Charlie kept a secret that was revealed only after his death in 1879. When his body was being prepared, a coroner discovered that One-Eyed Charlie was actually a woman.  It turns out that Charlie, nee Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, had passed much of her adult life as a man. The discovery of her true gender became a local sensation. And her story still fascinates U.S. historians, some of whom believe that she was the first woman to have voted in a presidential election, long before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

As far back as 1882, the Texas Livestock Journal wrote that “if the inner history of friendship among the rough and perhaps untutored cowboys could be written, it would be quite as unselfish and romantic as that of Damon and Pythias.”  In Greek mythology, Damon offered to be taken hostage by the despot Dionysius I so that his condemned friend, Pythias, could make a final visit home. When Pythias returned to be executed, Dionysius was so impressed by their trust that he spared both their lives.

“There have been gay cowboys for as long as there have been gay people,” says Brian Helander, a 51-year-old nurse from Arizona and president of the International Gay Rodeo Association. “It’s always been a part of the western frontier lifestyle that wasn’t talked about. It was just there.”

Jim Wilke, the cowboy historian, agrees. “Many circumstances contributed to personal closeness on the ranch and trail,” he wrote in a 1997 article. “Cowboys commonly bedded in pairs, sharing bedrolls with their ‘bunkie’.”

Wilke also points to the tradition of the all-male stag dance, where cowboys could be found entertaining themselves with polkas, waltzes and quicksteps. He says homosexual acts between young, unmarried cowboys were euphemistically known as “mutual solace” in the 19th century.

In a 1948 study of rural homosexuality by Alfred Kinsey, the controversial zoologist, it was noted that “there is a fair amount of sexual contact among the older males in western rural areas.”  His report added: “It is a type of homosexuality that was probably common among pioneers and outdoor men. Today it is found among ranchmen, cattlemen, prospectors, lumbermen and farming groups in general. These are men who … live on realities and on a minimum of theory. Such a background breeds the attitude that sex is sex, irrespective of the nature of the partner.”

He also noted that these homosexual acts rarely interfered with heterosexual relationships and that the cowboys themselves were often deeply homophobic and “quite without the argot, physical manifestations and other affectations often found in urban groups.”

Although anti-sodomy laws were common in the Wild West, they were selectively enforced. In 1896 a man from El Paso called Marcelo Alviar was charged with sodomy and his bond was set at $500, the same as it would have been for murder. And in 1901 an Idaho detective hid in the ceiling above a public lavatory in an attempt to catch homosexuals in the act. Alas, the bowler hats worn by the offenders made identification impossible.

Samples of California Sodomy Laws:

1801–Though carried out under Spanish law, the last known U.S. death sentence for sodomy occurs in California. Eighteen-year-old Jose Antonio Rosas is shot by a firing squad. 

1850–California’s first criminal code is enacted, and includes a ban on sodomy. The law begins with the preface, “The People of the State of California, represented in Senate and Assembly, do enact as follows:”. However, the law was enacted in April when California still was a territory. It did not become a state until September, and it is unclear if this made the original law invalid.

Below is an unnamed poem written in Texas in the 1880s and recorded by Charlie Siringo, a cowboy in the 1870s.

My lover is a cowboy
He’s kind, he’s brave, he’s true
He rides the Spanish pony
and throws the lasso, too
And when he comes to see me
And our vows we have redeemed
He puts his arms around me
And then begins to sing:
Oh, I am a jolly cowboy,
From Texas now I hail,
Give me my saddle and pony
And I’m ready for the trail.
I love the rolling prairie
Where we are free from care and strife,
And behind a herd of long-horns,
I will journey all my life.


A ‘howdy pardner’ could be more than just hello
Gay Cowboys? Sure, Pardner.
Gays in the wild wild west.
‘Out West’ at the Autry examines the history of homosexuals and transgender people in the Old West

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

11 responses to “Gays and the Old West

  • Anonymous

    A subject I’ve always been interested in. It’s rather amazing how homophobic communities have always engaged in gay sex when there is no other kind available. Looking at online photos of drunk frat boys, you’d swear they were dropped on all-male desert island and condemned to stay there for years. *g*I’d heard of other women masquerading as men. I believe one fought in the civil war, though I’ve forgotten her name. Many Western movies were often made with a 1950s sensibility that leads us to assume the west was all-white, all-straight, all the time, with the exception of an occasional Chinese person who played the roll of red-shirt on Star Trek.Btw, did you know that a lot of straight riders participate in gay rodeo these days? Some say they like it for the less macho posturing and more focus on actual ability. Gay rodeo also features drag shows and dancing. You have to have a pretty stiff wrist to ride a bucking bull, gay or straight. *g*I was wondering if you’d read the book Coming Out Under Fire, by Allan Berube? It’s a really fascinating book, based on some letters from gay service people during WW2. It covers not only the phenomenon of straights engaging in gay sex during shortages of opposite sex partners, but the US govt's active vilification of gays after the war.Apparently sodomy laws were more aimed at receivers than givers.Sorry, I’m all over the place. But do tell us more.ciel

  • Ace

    I wrote a paper a few years ago on the idea of homosexuality pre-1900. What interested me the most in my research was that acts of homosexuality and homoerotic behavior was perfectly normal between men and women back then. It was perfectly normal to see two men kissing affectionately and living together while sharing a bed. It simply wasn't talked about.Even in monasteries there was a great deal of homosexual behavior. Many would claim that the chastity vow was only for woman, but other would go on to say that the love of two men was a Godly beauty.Overall, the study of homosexual behavior in the years before it became incredibly stigmatized by researchers claiming it was a mental disorder or deviant behavior is very interesting.

  • silvereagle

    The amazing range of your subjects here continues to amaze me…all the way from ancient Grece, to the cowboys of the "wild west", on up to more modern times.Now, as regards the west, I recall reading over the years of several females who were actual leaders in their various areas of life. They assumed roles traditionally thought of as male, and whatever their sexual inclinations may be questioned, but they did take on the male role.Again, a fascinating article! Thanks

  • becca

    you have amazing range of subjects here and it continues to amaze me…all the way from ancient Grece, to the cowboys of the "wild west. ypu truly are and amazing writer and i love the poem you added at the end beautiful

  • JoeBlow

    Ciel, there were women who fought in both the Civil War and Revolutionary War. It's been going on since the time of the Amazonians. I did not know about the straight riders in gay rodeos, but it certainly makes sense. I have not read Coming Out Under Fire, but I will look into it. Thanks for the suggestion, and as always, thanks for the comment.Ace, I think it is often the case that so many of the things that modern society looks askance at were perfectly normal pre-1900. It's a shame that we can't have a good mix of the two time periods, I guess they were just too worried about other things than to worry about homosexuals and such.Silvereagle, any time in history when women were in the minority, they often had more power and privilege. It's amazing today that women are seen as a minority group because of the lack of equality when they are actually a majority of the population.Becca, I am glad that you find my posts so interesting. I just have a wide range of things that I am interested in, and I enjoy sharing it with my readers.

  • Rylee Strange

    Were there any known young gay affluent southern gentlemen? I'm talking, people with money. Not just gun slingers. I'm working on a story and would love to base it on a real person.

  • Anonymous

    This entire article is a huge stretch. A woman dressed as a man and pretended to be a man her entire adult life, thus she was LGBT? Maybe, just maybe, she lived in a society that rarely allowed woman to do something she had always wanted to do and on the occasion someone hired a woman, they'd pay her half.The song at the end doesn't indicate homosexual relationship at all, either. It could very well be from the perspective of a woman who loves a cowboy. Just because it was written down by a man doesn't mean it wasn't written by a woman. I hate when historians try to force history to a predestinate conclusion. I am not saying there was no LGBT community in the west, just saying stop grasping at straws with non evidentiary nonsense like poems and females pretending to be males.

  • Privateer Turtle

    Well said anon. I've heard this poem all my life and was always from a woman's prospective. And being told it was a long lost family member who wrote it in the first place, I tend to agree there is no homosexual overtone at all. Actually the story goes that my aunt ( of multiple greats ) was a nurse made who fell in love with a drover working for small ranch outside of Raton, New Mexico. She was a very intelligent woman who had a love of the arts and poetry. The cowpuncher she fell in love with was like most of us who push cattle (even now) was rarely home. The poem was her way of sharing that she was in love and willing to wait and understood he was not going to turn away from his Buckaroo life and settle down. Every woman who ever told my dear mom that they loved me, had to sit and listen to that poem. Not a single one has stuck around yet…….

  • William Sommerwerck

    Perhaps the ultimate unanswered question about sex among cowboys is… What, exactly, was the nature of Charles Badger Clark Jr's sexuality?For those unfamiliar with Badger Clark, he's almost universally considered the dean of cowboy poets. "The Lost Pardner", a bluntly homoerotic and misogynistic poem, speaks the grief of a cowpoke when his best friend is thrown and dies (the most-common cause of death among cowboys). Despite its suggestion of a sexual relation between the characters, it remains one of the most-popular and most-often recited cowboy poems (by any writer), probably because it so heart-breakingly expresses the depths of male friendship. If you have never read it, DO SO.But Badger Clark — the well-educated son of a Methodist minister and a working cowboy for part of his life — was a loner, and we know nothing about his sex life. He could have been a strictly heterosexual male who hated women. (There's no question that he hated women, which he made explicit in several poems. He told an interviewer that his short stories included women in romantic situations with men, because "this is what readers expect".) He might have been bisexual or homosexual. We simply don't know.However… You might want to look at his first publsihed short story, "The Man Kind", and ask yourself whether a strictly heterosexual man could have written it. There's also the poem "My Enemy". I've shown it to several hetero friends, and they all agree with my interpretation. Which I will withhold here, to avoid prejudicing the reader.Badger Clark wrote a poem about someone saying farewell to their lover, who's going off to fight in The Great War. When you first read it, you think both characters are men. Then you realize the speaker is woman. This poem has sometimes been passed off as male/male, but it isn't.

  • Charlton Hargrove

    We’re queer and we’re here, and we’re every where

  • Wild Oats

    I mean it’s literally in the wording “Wild West” could it sound any more gay?

    – Wild Wet West
    – Wild Wild West
    – Wild Western Rodeos
    – Wild West Gunslingers
    – Wild West Frontiers
    – Wild West Woody
    – Wild West Strapons

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