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.