A FILM about two cowboys who ride horses, drive pick-up trucks and fall in love with each other has delighted Hollywood and sent a shiver of horror through America’s religious heartland.
But real-life gay cowboys and Wild West historians say that the plot of Brokeback Mountain — an Oscar favourite after topping the Golden Globes nominations — is nothing new. And in a claim that is likely to outrage many rural conservatives, they say that homosexuality was an unspoken norm on the American frontier, where men were close and women were scarce.
“There they were, a couple of men, alone together in isolated frontier country, for weeks or sometimes months at a time,” said Randy Jones, 53, who was the stetson-wearing, lasso-throwing gay cowboy in the Village People pop group and who was an adviser on the film.
“The thought must have passed through their minds, even if they didn’t act on it, because men are sexy animals. If that wasn’t the case, there wouldn’t be so much homosexual sex in prison.”
There is growing evidence to support the theory of Mr Jones, who grew up in the 1950s on a tobacco plantation in North Carolina. 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,” said 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’.” Mr Wilke also pointed to the tradition of the all-male stag dance, where cowboys could be found entertaining themselves with polkas, waltzes and quicksteps.
According to Mr Wilke, homosexual acts betweeen young, unmarried cowboys were euphemistically known as “mutual solace” in the 19th century.
In a 1948 study of rural homosexuality by Alfred Kinsey, the 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.
Although the depiction of gay cowboys in popular culture may not be entirely new, times have changed since 1969, when the pop artist Andy Warhol released Lonesome Cowboys, which featured cowhands performing ballet exercises at the hitching post.
During the shooting of the film, Mr Warhol was put on surveillance by the FBI. He was also investigated, but not charged, for transporting obscene material. During a screening in Atlanta, Georgia, the movie reel was seized by authorities after it replaced Gone With the Wind, and the manager of the cinema was arrested.
In spite of these cultural changes, being gay in rural American can still be hazardous. The original story of Brokeback Mountain appeared a year before Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was beaten and killed by two men. During their trial the assailants used the “gay panic defence”, arguing that they were driven to temporary insanity by the victim’s alleged sexual advances. Both men received double life sentences.
Meanwhile Mr Jones, of the Village People, said that Brokeback Mountain was encouraging “red [Republican] state” gays to come out of the closet. He added that the advice he gave to the actors Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, when they questioned him about the love scenes, was to “keep their hats and boots on in bed. The boots are for traction.”
But not even Brokeback Mountain is entirely true to gay cowboy life. “It’s a Hollywood movie, y’know?” Mr Jones said, laughing. “I mean, they’re not really cowboys anyway, they’re sheep herders.”
THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UNSPOKEN
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.
Unnamed poem written in Texas in the 1880s and recorded by Charlie Siringo, a cowboy in the 1870s
Copyright 2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.