Gay Cowboys, or the Brokeback Mountain Question

by Jacqueline M. Moore, author of Cow Boys and Cattle Men: Class and Masculinities on the Texas Frontier, 1865-1900.

Were there gay cowboys on the Texas frontier? The answer is probably, though we will likely never have documentary proof.

There are several books out there including, most notably, Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys, that have made a cottage industry of reading homosexual behavior into sentimental poetry, contemporary literature, and photos of men dancing. Indeed I have one such photo in my own book. But to be historically accurate we have to look at these cultural artifacts in their own context, not from our Post-Freudian twenty-first century perspective.

The photos of men dancing are easiest to explain. There simply were not enough women around on the frontier (or as Susan Lee Johnson shows in Roaring Camp, in mining towns,) and some of the men simply “took the heifer brand” rather than not dance at all. But while they joked about the men who did so, it was friendly teasing rather than an assumption that the men were, in the term of the day, members of a “third sex.” Indeed there are enough cases of clearly heterosexual men (more on that term later) dressing up in women’s clothes for fun or to tease a buddy that the context for such behavior was one of bawdy cow town humor, not sexual orientation.

As for the poetry and language men used about each other there is also a different historical context. Most popular writing in the nineteenth was very sentimental, and cowboys, not typically original writers, often borrowed sentimental poems from the cards that came with candy boxes to woo girlfriends. They sang sentimental ballads about their mothers and spoke fondly about returning to God’s Country (back home with their families). The cow outfit was a substitute family, and buddies were especially close (and often shared bunks as did most Americans in this period) Thus it is not surprising that when they did speak of each other they did so in the same sentimental terms, in part imitating the models they saw around them.

Moreover the sort of stories cowboys were likely to have read as boys, including dime novels and the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper, spoke stirringly of the relationships between male friends in a heroic vein. These men loved each other fiercely and loyally. Male friendships were on an altogether higher vein than those relationships with women, precisely because there was not any sex to bring them down to a sordid level. Thus there were lots of discussions of pure hearts beating beneath manly breasts. In this context why wouldn’t the cowboys speak of their buddies in similar terms?

But lastly, the problem with interpreting cowboy poetry and language as being homosexual, is that in the late nineteenth century homosexuality (which did not even exist as a term) was something completely different. While there were certainly men and women with same sex preferences, so-called heterosexual behavior (again not a term until the 1910s) varied considerably from what we think heterosexual behavior is today. As George Chauncey has shown in Gay New York, much like in prison today, working men did not necessarily consider having sex with another man as impugning their masculinity, as long as they were the do-ers and not the do-ees. Men often slept in the same bed as other men, even at inns where they did not know each other. And middle- and upper-class men considered sentimental language and sentiment itself as marks of higher culture and civilization. It was only in the late nineteenth century that sentiment faded from favor as the province of women.

So much for reading into poetry, photographs and literature. But what about real evidence? The truth is there is complete silence in the documentary evidence. Texas court records show only a few sodomy cases, and since the state defined sodomy as sex with animals or children, or oral sex, most of these cases do not involve men, and I have found none that involve cowboys. There are no lovers’ journals, sex scandals or even bawdy songs (of which the cowboys knew a lot) that deal with the issue. Whatevere else, it is clear that homosexuality was a very private matter than men did not discuss. Perhaps that was partly because, like the military or a sports team, in an all-male environment, such talk would threaten their own masculinity, or the familiarity of the outfit.

So why do I say probably? I am sure that those men who were attracted to other men saw the cow camp as a unique opportunity to be around other men without suspicion. The frontier was a good place for many people who did not fit the norms of society to live life without supervision (see the many cases of cross-dressing women). Moreover, statistically it just makes sense. But it was not something they talked about, even in unguarded moments, and it was certainly nothing they wrote about. If you would like to know more, I have a discussion and one of the longest footnotes ever on this subject, in Chapter 4 of Cow Boys and Cattle Men.

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