the queer frontier: american cowboys & LGBT subtext

Written by Jacob Dagit, Staff Writer

Illustration by Madeline Happold

Illustration by Madeline Happold

The Old West was an untamed and dangerous wilderness that we know from Western films to be the playground of masculinity, where men could defeat the villain, rescue the damsel and ride off into the sunset to save the next town. However, was this really the life of the American Cowboy? While we view this archetype as a loner, the historical counterpart is more of a partnership between two men than a vagabond vigilante. The Lone Ranger and Tonto, Butch Cassidy and Sundance, Django and Dr. Schultz, Ben Wade and Dan Evans are all examples of men who foster intimate bonds together, mirroring the intimate partnerships between historical cowboys that introduce the potential for homoerotic relationships to blossom.


The American West had LGBT people just as there have been throughout history, many casually living the life they desired with little interference from the community around them. These relationships survive in our image of the cowboy and frontiersmen that is shown in Western media today, but are straight-washed as historical LGBT people typically are.

Courtesy of Chisholm Trail Heritage Center

Courtesy of Chisholm Trail Heritage Center

To understand the cowboy, you first must understand his place in the cow towns along the Chisholm Trail from Texas to Kansas and on the ranches which employed him. On the ranches, they were kept in line with constant reminders of their class status by the distinction between cowboys and cattlemen. cowboys were essentially those who worked the ranch while cattlemen were those who employed the cowboys and owned the ranch.


Consequently, cowboys were automatically denied status of manhood by their superiors while still constantly trying to prove their masculinity amongst themselves through “their ability to perform their work, to control their own lives, and to respect other men who did the same” (Moore). The cattlemen and other Capitalists of the frontier such as saloon owners and politicians had very different ideas of masculinity than their lower-class counterparts. “Their brand of masculinity emphasized responsibility, and restrained behavior within proper boundaries,” relying on a female presence to encourage the development of “stable family life” and “all the social niceties that came with what they referred to as the feminine touch” (Moore). 


The was a clear disconnect between the relationships that cattlemen tried to encourage by example and the relationships that cowboys preferred. Cowboys valued “fraternity” and “fidelity” above all else and would form lifelong relationships with their trail companion or “Pardner, Compadre.” Cowboy partners would often share bedrolls, leave ranches together to find other employment, seek out a priest for a “ritual blessing of their connection... [becoming] part of the extended family, at times even closer than blood relatives” (Moore).


Relationships such as this were seen to be common across 19th century America. Women in more urban environments often entered into “Boston Marriages.” However, boys who had developed these romantic friendships were “ change with adulthood and marriage” (Rupp). Yet caught in a state of prolonged adolescence, the cowboys were free to express their affections if they remained working as ranch hands and didn’t move on to a heterosexual marriage.


The issue with addressing homosexuality in late 19th century frontier America is that so much is left to lie within the subtext. Even with such devout and affectionate relationships, improvised marriages and flexibility within gender roles being clearly recorded, historians remain skeptical of any homosexuality taking place. Jacqueline More writes in her book “Cow Boys and Cattle Men,” funded by Southern Methodist University, that “There is no record of sexual relationships between bunkies, although the situation may have created opportunities for them” (Moore). 

One historian quotes Alfred Kinsey, saying “It is the type of homosexuality which was...found among ranchmen, cattlemen, prospectors, lumbermen, and farming groups in general” (Benemann). 


“The Lost Pardner,” an old Cowboy poem by Badger C. Clark originally published in 1915 in the collection Sun and Saddle Leather, mourns the loss of his partner Al.


“We loved each other in the way men do
And never spoke about it, Al and me,
But we both knowed, and knowin' it so true
Was more than any woman’s kiss could be…
I wait to hear him ridin' up behind
And feel his knee rub mine the good old way."


Even more aggressively denied was the presence of trans identities in the Old West. Moore recounts how at the hoedowns there was an extreme gender imbalance between men and women, so some cowboys we wear an apron or bandana around the arm to signify them as “women,” and would be referred to as “ladies fair” or “she” for the duration of the dance. 

Another recorded account of cowboys challenging the borders of gender is that of Jake DePuyster noticing his friend sulking at the lack of a woman to dance with. Announcing that he’d be back with a “she-partner” for his friend, DePuyster returned “wearing a red hat with flowers and a green feather, a pink sash tied around his waist with a bow and a pair of bloomers which hung down over his chaps, gun belt, and spurs. Although his buddy was not amused, Jake, by all accounts, became the belle of the ball” (Moore). Another account is of a 17-year-old boy who was found badly beaten and taken in by a cowboy outfit noting that he “never carried arms of any kind; he was more like a girl than a boy and everyone in the outfit loved him” (Moore). 

Rendering of Charlie Parkhurst. No photographic evidence exists of the cowboy. 

Rendering of Charlie Parkhurst. No photographic evidence exists of the cowboy. 

One of the most undeniable Trans presences on the Old West is that of “One Eyed/the whip” Charley Parkhurst, a California Stage Co. driver who was “known for his hard drinking and itchy trigger finger” (Ng). Only after his death was it discovered that Charley had been born a woman, had given birth at least once and is remembered as the first “woman” to vote in a presidential election, 52 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified. Charley’s life has been retold by Fern Hill’s fictional novel Charley’s Choice, recounting Charley’s escape from the orphanage, his passing as both genders to escape capture and eventually passing as a boy to obtain training on how to drive a six-horse coach (Hill). 


In today’s literature and media, the cowboy is portrayed as something completely different than the immature cowpunchers of the late 19th century. The obvious example of queer cowboys is Brokeback Mountain (Lee), but it is one of the only films where rural homosexual love is explicitly, sex scene and all, acknowledged and not left to live within the subtext. This suppression of homosexual affection goes back to Owen Wister’s novel, The Virginian, which is often pointed to as the grandfather of the modern cowboy image (Agnew). This early example is not without homoerotic overtones.

“Lounging there at ease against the wall was a slim young giant, more beautiful than pictures. His broad, soft hat was pushed back; a loose-knotted, dull-scarlet handkerchief sagged from his throat; and one casual thumb was hooked in the cartridge-belt that slanted across his hips. But no dinginess of travel or shabbiness of attire could tarnish the splendor that radiated from his youth and strength… Had I been the bride, I should have taken the giant, dust and all” (Wister).


Chris Packard analyzes the relationships held between the protagonist, known simply as the Virginian, his partner Steve, and the narrator. Highlighting the parables told by the Virginian on an almost comical beachside honeymoon with his new school teacher wife how he wished to be like the animal that could be free to “roll in the sands,” questioning “What’s the gain in being a man?” suggesting the desire to be free from his marital bond as it “disqualifies the Virginian from the Cowboy brotherhood altogether” (Packard). 


Homosexual overtones are riddled throughout the male-dominated genre. Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Robert Redford) were awfully close and seemed to have a distaste for the rigidity of monogamy with their female companion, Etta Place (Katharine Ross). (Hunter) Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight had an explicitly described oral sex scene between the general’s son and Major Warren (Samuel L. Jackson). Even in a satirical Western, there is an undeniable flirtatious chemistry between Sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little) and Deputy Jim (Gene Wilder) in Blazing Saddles (Brooks). 


Cowboys were undesirable, unskilled vagabonds that often couldn’t write much more than their brands of canned food (which they memorized for entertainment), much less their name or any kind of record of happenings (Moore). This left much of the Cowboy culture to be recorded by outsiders like Owen Wister, who immortalized their antics as the pinnacle of masculinity that anxious urban men from the East idolized (Agnew). 

Though some historians may be quick to dismiss assertions of homoerotic romance as having little proof, these relationships exist, hidden in the details between the lines. Owen Wister laments in prose: 


Life’s so indelicate, we have agreed it

must be concealed by fig leaves and by hymns.

Sculpture’s so bare, and painting so illicit, and poets unconventional at best;

Give Art a chance and Art will never miss it; art has a craving to parade undressed. 

Homosexuality might not have been discussed, but stemming from the relationships that Wister had with the cowboys of the West, we leave it to our art for it to parade undressed. 


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