Cowboy Museum looks at gay and transgender folk in the wild west

Timothy Kincaid

December 16th, 2009

autryThe Autry National Center of the American West is a cowboy museum. In fact, it was founded by one of the country’s best known Hollywood cowboys.

The Museum of the American West, formerly known as the Museum of Western Heritage, was co-founded by Gene and Jackie Autry and Monte and Joanne Hale. With the opening of the Museum in 1988, Gene Autry realized his dream “to build a museum which would exhibit and interpret the heritage of the West and show how it influenced American and the world.”

A museum dedicated to keeping alive the image of the cowboy and the lore of the wild west is not the first place you’d think to look for an exhibit on the LGBT community. But the West was wild enough that gay folk and transgender folk could avoid the close scrutiny of ‘civil society’.

And so the Autry is going to spend 2010 looking at the way in which gay and trans people fit into the American West. (LA Times)

The series is the first of its kind hosted by a Western-heritage museum, say people associated with the Autry. It consists of a gallery tour, panel discussions, lectures and performances to be rolled out in four installments over the course of 12 months. Dates for future events are being finalized.

The impetus for the series was a exhibit of props which included wardrobe pieces from recent western movies such as “Unforgiven” and “Pale Rider”. It also included the two shirts from Brokeback Mountain.

This seemed to have unexpectedly caught the attention of those who attended the museum.

Public interest in the shirts was one of the main motivations for producing “Out West,” according to those involved with the project. If “Brokeback Mountain” helped to open the frontier’s closet door, the Autry is taking the next step by rummaging through the closet’s contents and sharing what it finds with the public.

And perhaps not surprising to those of us who know that gay folk have always been around, it turns out that west had its fair share of gay folk and transgender folk, some – to their surprise – already a part of the Autry collect. And now the fans of the cowboy life will learn of its broader and richer history.

Richard W. Fitch

December 16th, 2009

I have heard the legend that the song, “Frankie and Johnnie Were Sweethearts”, is actually about two men. Can anyone verify that? Even in recent decades, TV shows, such as Gunsmoke, held an underlying premise that the likes of Miss Kittie were gender renegades. And to think that the movie “Brokeback Mountain” helped to seed this set of events at the Autry!!


December 16th, 2009

This looks amazing.

This sort of history just fascinates me. Kudos to the museum for going there!

Lynn David

December 17th, 2009

I remember from back in the 80s, one of those old cowboy stars, on one of those shows similar to ‘Death Valley Days’ or some such show, talking about William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, as…. well, it wasn’t very good terms, I remember something about being a back-shooter, maybe whining, little…. and ending with queer. That sorta thing sticks with you. I remember thinking to myself, how did he know that? Then deciding he was just calling ‘the kid’ whatever he could to denigrate him. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t refering to this William Bonney.


December 17th, 2009

Transgender folks in the ‘wild’ west. C’mon, let’s be serious folks. I seriously doubt anyone went ‘under the knife’ to change their sex in the mid to late 19th century. Transvetites, yes, of course. Unless the word ‘transgender’ is now being used to classify anyone who even cross dresses. Sorry, but I’m not up on my gay vocabulary.


December 17th, 2009


Of course there wasn’t gender reassignment surgery. The idea isn’t about the reassignment, it is about the experience of finding yourself in a body that doesn’t match your personal experience of gender.

Dressing and acting as the other gender – sometimes to the point of actually spending your life passing if you could get away with it, is hardly new, and with the rigid social and gender roles back East, it is hardly a surprise to find that people who chose (for whatever reason) not to fit in headed West.

For that matter, it has long been documented that some Native American cultures accepted members of their tribe who chose to live as the other gender.


December 17th, 2009

Jafuf – You’re thinking strictly of Transsexual. Transgendered means anyone who crosses traditional gender boundries (though often, when used, means specific groups). So, yes, cross dressers (straight men who dress as women) and transvestites qualify under Transgendered.


December 17th, 2009

Well, I said I wasn’t up on the latest ‘gayspeak’. Words change meaning so often these days, I wonder how anyone can keep up. In my day, we were all ‘queer’, but that seems to have lost all gay connotations these days.


December 17th, 2009

Not really. Queer is still used to encompass all the non-heteronormative, including the more specific groups. So, we’re still all Queer.

Jason D

December 17th, 2009

Jafuf, transgender is not exactly new, it was popularized in the 1970’s and become something of an umbrella term in the 1980’s.

Bruce Garrett

December 17th, 2009

If you ever get your hands on William Dale Jennings’ book, The Cowboys, give a scan to the absolutely fascinating “Western Glossery” he attached to the end of it. Jennings, himself a pioneer in the modern gay rights movement, clearly did a lot of research and picked up on things that perhaps heterosexual historians of the period were either blind to, or just didn’t want to notice. Here’s one entry, just to give you a taste:

Bunkie, or Bunky: Bedmate. Possibly related to “bunky”, a horse that pitches. Though which came first is the question.

Beyond the notice of terms that could clearly be taken as homoerotic double-entendre when you looked at them more carefully, there are a lot of delightful western slang terms such as “Coffin Varnish” for whiskey and “Live on the jawbone” for living on credit and “Ankle Express” for when circumstances force you to walk rather then ride. You’re told that “Eating grass” is one of 31 terms the cowboy had for being thrown from a horse. The book is vastly better then the John Wayne movie made from it, mostly for all these little details of cowboy life.


December 17th, 2009

Transgender people (even people going under the knife) have been around for thousands of years. Eunuchs. Hijras. It makes sense for transfolk to have manifested in the Wild West where there was lots of alone time and not worrying about what culture thought, not to mention no cross dressing laws. Transpeople will thrive where cultural taboos are weak.


December 17th, 2009

From the referenced LA Times article:

But, [James Pluth (active in gay rodeos)] said that straight rodeo groups sometimes engage in Christian activities, such as group prayer and Bible study, that may make some gay participants feel uncomfortable.

That’s making an assumption all Christians are anti-gay and all gays are anti-Christian doesn’t it?


December 17th, 2009

Yup, Pardner, it sure ‘nough does

John Trudell

December 17th, 2009

Jim’s comment in the article uses the words “sometimes” and “some”, not “always” and “all”.

So no, there isn’t an assumption that all Christians are anti-gay and all gays are anti-Christian .

Timothy Kincaid

December 17th, 2009

That’s making an assumption all Christians are anti-gay and all gays are anti-Christian doesn’t it?

Not necessarily. As a gay Christian, I would probably feel uncomfortable in a rodeo group’s Bible study. This is a pretty conservative community (cursin’, carousin’, drinkin’ and cheatin’ notwithstanding) and I think that if social issues arose in such a setting that I would either have to bite my tongue or get confrontational.

People who are otherwise friendly and polite can find themselves feeling perfectly justified in saying the most offensive things if they they are in a religious setting.


December 17th, 2009

My experience with gay/straight rodeos can be rather stereotypical. Sometimes you have to defend doing barrel racing (which is strictly a female event at “normal” rodeos) but I was proud to know our one-time champion bull rider (and local sheriff/forest ranger) was a petite woman. There aren’t many in the main-stream rodeo circuit who know we have steer-wrestling for both genders. If I get any flack from anyone I just introduce them to Debbie.

[Tip hat] mikekSF

Oh…okay John T. maybe it was a bit implied.

John Trudell

December 17th, 2009

If it was implied, it wasn’t implied by Jim.

A lot of what was said during the interview didn’t make it into the final copy.

We have many Christians on the Ultimate Brokeback Forum where Jim is a member.

It’s a topic we’ve been discussing for 4 years.


December 17th, 2009

Unknown to most, the real cow “BOYS” were Black men fleeing slavery in the south and going west. Blacks were often called “BOYS” thus the word cowboy. A more historical museum would be to visit the Black Cowboy Museum in Denver, Colorado. (Not sure if that is the correct name) fascinating place and probably depicts the real cowboys better.

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