Howdy Partner: A Brief Overview of America's Queer Cowboy
By Keshia Mcclantoc
Picture this, it’s 2005 and America flocks to the theatres to a see the newest neo-Western film. It stars two of Hollywood’s most dashing beaus, and the all the trailers make it seem like its going to be a thrilling tale of male friendship between two tough and manly cowboys. Until those two cowboys start having sex…
Though we now admit that Brokeback Mountain has its problems, like casting straight men to play gay characters, falling into the ‘bury your gay’ trope, or so many other complex issues, it’s hard to deny that the film was a turning point for queer representation in cinema. Its story, about the two cowboys who turned from enemies to lovers was thrilling and heartbreaking. There wasn’t just innuendo or allusion to queerness, there were raw proclamations of love and explicitly gay sex scenes, an emotional tale of a tragic love story spread through decades. Hollywood ate it up. Brokeback Mountain was nominated and won an incredible number of accolades at all the biggest award shows and started so many conversations about what queer representation could mean in film, television, and so many other forms of media.
The truth is, however, that the queer cowboy is so much more than its this one simple film, and other iterations of it (like the most recent award show darling, The Power of Dog), could portray. Cowboys in America have always been and still are queer as hell. And I think it’s time they’re given some long over-due, less problematic attention.
While the many most popular Western movies of the American canon make it seem as if it was only filled with rugged, tough men who were aggressively straight, this was not always the case. It turns out queer cowboys have been around since the earliest American cowboys. Or, as Bommersbach says in “Homos on the Range” – “the most surprising thing about homosexuality in the Old West is not that it was rare in the rugged, macho world of the cowboy, but that it was so common and so not a big deal (Bommersbach). The Old West was a place of loose morals and even looser heteropatriarchal dynamics, as Bommersbach further notes, “without the presence of women, the always unstable line dividing the homosocial from the homosexual…became even more blurred. As traditional notions of ‘normal’ gender roles were challenged and unsettled, men could display both subtly and openly the erotic connections they felt for other men” (Bommersbach).
This breakdown of traditional norms was not only inviting for exploration of a variety of sexualities, but also a variety of gender expressions as well. In “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West,” Sabrina Imbler notes that Old West cultivated a vast landscape for reinvention, “particularly available to people assigned female at birth who lived their lives as men” (Imbler). It was not uncommon for those who were assigned female at birth to dawn some men’s clothing and make it big in the cowboy lifestyle. While some might say these were simply women trying to escape gendered oppression, many trans peoples living in the Old West lived as their preferred gender their entire lives; often “a trans person’s assigned sex was most likely to be discovered upon death or serious illness” (Imbler).
Of course, in historical notions of both queer sexuality and queer gender expression, it’s important to note that much of the language we use to signify queerness in our contemporary times quite literally didn’t exist during the Old West. Just as much as America should undo its romanizations of the Old West as an overtly cis-heteronormative time period, we need to undo our notions that non-normative expressions of sexuality and gender must always be explicitly marked as queer in order to be understood as queer. And while we’re at it, let acknowledge that the Old West wasn’t just a place for white expressions of queerness, but a diverse landscape of individuals living outside of normative measures. In fact, most records indicate that nearly 40% of cowboys were Black, many others were Mexican and Native American, with white cowboys only there to round out the remains. The Old West was queer as hell, and just as that queerness was not defined typical notions of gendered and sexual norms, neither was is defined by typical racial norms of the time either.
The wild, loose, and open Old West eventually died out (though American romanizations of seem like they’re never going away), but the cowboy remained, and so did the queer cowboy too. In National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo, Luke Gilford documents the lives of contemporary queer cowboys, a subculture in rodeo and other cowboy centered activities that both thriving and exciting. In particular, Gilford focuses on the International Gay Rodeo Association, an organization that first began in 1976 in Reno Nevada, which focuses on holding inclusive and safe rodeos for “the LGBTQ+ cowboy and cowgirl communities in North America” (Gilford). IRGA holds rodeos across the United States, which of focused on creating space for queer folks, but are also open to all supporters and allies because as their website says, “you don’t have to be gay to compete” (IRGA.com). Gilford says that “participants often travel hundreds of miles to be there since most live in communities without resources or opportunities for queer people to connect with one another. The IGRA offers structured educational programs and rodeo competitions for men, women and trans people to hone their athletic skills, openness, connection and care for animals, personal integrity, self-confidence and support for one another” (Mattioli). All it takes is just a few glances at Gilford’s photos to understand that the queer cowboy community is absolutely alive and thriving in America.
More important than just the sheer, unabashed queer cowboy joy at these rodeos is the way they move beyond conceptions of what queerness can be in America and breaks down the many divisions present within contemporary America. As Gilford notes:
“One of the great powers of the queer rodeo is its ability to disrupt America’s tribal dichotomies that cannot contain who we really are — liberal versus conservative, urban versus rural, ‘coastal elite’ versus ‘middle America.’ It’s incredibly rare to find a community that actually embraces both ends of the spectrum. National Anthem celebrates the typically invisible queer bodies living their lives, discovering themselves and falling in love within rural landscapes. These subjects expand what it means to be an American as well as what it means to be queer in both subtle and profound ways” (Mattioli).
More than ever, I think we need this type of power that the queer cowboy holds. Right now, anti-LGBT+ laws, especially anti-trans laws, are making their way across America. More often than not, these laws are being pushed through in states where the majority of the populations are rural. While electoral dynamics might have people believe that these states are simply right-leaning, homogenous wastelands where there are no queer individuals at all, research tells a different story. According to a 2019 by the William’s Institute, 35% of the nation’s LGBT+ lives in the South, while 20% lives in the Midwest – the geographic locales in the United States with the highest concentrations of rural areas (Williams Institute). These numbers are even more significant when we consider queer PoC. According another 2019 study, by the Movement Advance Project, “PoC, including those in rural areas, are more likely than white people to identify as LGBT+. PoC comprise 42% of the national LGBT+ population, compared to 36% of the total U.S. population. LGBT+ PoC generally live in the same rural areas as other PoC do” (MAP). As more and more of these laws come into play, the less protections these queer folks have.
We shouldn’t dismiss these places, nor we should argue that marginalized populations simply leave rural areas for perceived urban utopias. If the queer cowboys and cowgirls in both past and present have anything to say about it, it’s that America’s rural landscape has and always will be a landscape of queerness. The story of the queer cowboy is important because it’s a story of the America that we should be striving for, for a world that no matter where a queer person lives, that they are free and open to live as queerly as they wish. Let the queer cowboy be a lesson in possibility.
References Not Linked in Text
Bommersbach, Jana. “Homos on the Range: How Gay was the West?” True West Magazine. 2005 November 1. https://truewestmagazine.com/old-west-homosexuality-homos-on-the-range/
Gilford, Luke et. al. National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo. Damiani Publishing. Print, 2020.
Imbler, Sabrina. “The Forgotten Trans History of the Wild West.” Atlas Obscura. 2019 June 21. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/trans-history-wild-west
“International Gay Rodeo Association: Breaking Stereotypes.” 2022. https://www.igra.com/
Mattoili, Sofia. “These striking photos celebrate rural America’s queer cowboys.” I-D: Vice. 2020 October 14. https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/y3za35/luke-gilfords-photos-celebrate-rural-americas-queer-cowboys
“New Report Offers Look at Lives of LGBT People of Color in Rural America, Shattering Stereotypes of Life in Rural Communities.” MAP: Movement Advancement Project. 19 September 2019. https://www.lgbtmap.org/release-2019-rural-lgbt-poc
“The LGBT Divide: A Data Portrait of LGBT People in the Midwest, Mountain, and Southern States.” The Williams Institute. 2019. https://williamsinstitute.law.ucla.edu/lgbtdivide/#/ethnicity