Rodeo: Real Gay Cowboys and Brokeback Mountain – Patricia Nell Warren
Just as Brokeback Mountain hit movie theaters in early 2006, The Learning Channel cable network launched Beyond the Bull, a reality-based series dedicated to profiling world champion bull riders as regular guys who were belt-buckle deep in wives, kids, girlfriends, and groupies. Was Beyond the Bull a propaganda move timed to counter Brokeback’s gay cowboys? Especially twenty-year-old Jack Twist, the gay rodeo rider played by Jake Gyllenhaal?
Rodeo is one of our most American sports, with roots as deep as baseball’s. As an action-packed extreme sport, rodeo lends itself easily to TV and is now routinely covered on ESPN. The sport reached exhibition status at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and even had its own TV reality show—Cowboy U–which aired for four years on Country Music Television.
The film Brokeback Mountain, based on the short story by Annie Proulx, became an overnight cultural icon—and the film also kicked up a political dust storm. After all, right-wingers view the cowpoke as a core symbol who embodies the purest in heterosexual family values. One Christian blogger screamed, “Now they’re out to destroy the American legend of the cowboy. God help us, and John Wayne forgive us!” In Congress, Senators from sagebrush states pushed a resolution to declare the fourth Saturday of each July the “National Day of the American Cowboy.”
Meanwhile, some contestants on the rodeo scene assured the media that, in all their years around the arenas, they’d never met a real-life Jack Twist.
I had to smile at all this denial. I grew up on a historic Montana cattle ranch that was steeped in cowboy tradition. Few occupations in America’s history have been more conducive to secret man-to-man love than cowboying. Indeed, frontier men may have gravitated to this job so they could enjoy the company of other males.
If gay cowboys have never been visible in professional rodeo, it’s because the sport has become so conservative that it makes the NFL look like the ACLU. Judging by what we know of other sports, there must be a few closet cases among the world champions of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association (PRCA) and Professional Bull Riders (PBR). But so far no one has dared to come out.
Dirty Dangerous Work ~ Rodeo is said to be “the only sport that grew out of an industry”—meaning the vast nineteenth-century livestock business that flourished west of the Mississippi, from Mexico north to Canada. To find the roots of gay rodeo riders—and gay rodeo itself—we have to dig in this soil of the Old West.
Already in colonial times, cattle and herders dotted the English-speaking east coast and the Spanish-speaking southwest. But after the Civil War (1861-1865), with native tribes being slaughtered or swept onto reservations, millions of square miles of grassland in the Western interior were suddenly open to grazing. The livestock industry exploded. By the 1880s, there were millions of cattle on the prairies and plains. Beef was suddenly abundant and cheap, and Americans rushed to eat it.
To handle these millions of cattle, the professional cowboy proliferated, too. He might have been called a cattleboy, cowpuncher, cowpoke, drover, wrangler, vaquero, buckaroo, ranahan, rannie, or waddie, but he was a skilled working stiff—the horseback equivalent of an autoworker or coal-miner. Ethnically he might have been white, American Indian, Mexican mestizo, Hispanic, Creole, African, or Canadian Metis—or mixtures of the above. “Boy” referred to his menial status, whereas the word “cowman” designated a rancher.
Cowboys did all the dirty, dangerous work that made millionaires of cattle kings like my great-grandfather, Conrad Kohrs. And they did it at a time when there were no unions, worker’s comp, industrial safety regulations, pension plans, or health insurance. Since there was no mandatory retirement age, a cowboy might still be working at seventy. An outfit’s youngest rannie—usually called “the Kid”—might be fifteen or sixteen, since there also were no child-labor laws.
Often a cowboy had a “past”—army deserter, former slave, criminal on the run from the law in another state. Nobody asked questions. All that mattered was whether he could be trusted with a horse and a lariat. A cowpuncher was usually poor—he owned his clothes, horse gear, rope and bedroll, maybe a harmonica or a Colt .45. He did have pride in his person—his clothes, boots, and gear were good quality. His hat varied in shape—a wide Spanish brim in sun-fried Texas, a narrow brim on the windy northern plains. But the horses he rode usually belonged to the boss. Well into the twentieth century, his wage was $40 a month and board—less if he was black or Mexican.
Some cowboys banked their wages for decades, aiming to homestead somewhere and live out their sunset years in comfort. But many a cattleboy blew his pay in the nearest honky-tonk—alcohol and gambling addictions were common. He might have had chronic health problems—bronchitis and rheumatism from sleeping on the ground in cold rainy weather—not to mention old aches and pains from wrecks with horses. When he got too old or broken-down to work, he sometimes wound up homeless. Suicide was not unknown among ailing elderly cowboys who didn’t want to wind up in a bed at the county poorhouse. Because there was no welfare or Medicare, many ranches (including ours) took care of indigent ex-employees until they died.
Still, cowboys knew how to make their stark lives bearable—even fun and entertaining at times. After supper, in the bunkhouse, the boys might swap yarns, play cards or dice, and howl with laughter as they played practical jokes on one another. Even on roundup, with all hands tired and busy, there might be a little storytelling at the campfire. During the daylight hours, the boys could find a few minutes for spontaneous sport—like roping a wolf for the hell of it. As Annie Proulx wrote, “When you live a long way out, you make your own fun.”
Nonetheless, one has to ask how this hard and thankless life ever got so romanticized. In the 1800s, novelists like James Fenimore Cooper were already gilding the frontier lily. But the big romantic job started after 1900, when the art of Western artists Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington was popularized on calendars sold across America. The figure of the lone cowboy silhouetted against a Western sky exerted a deep appeal, and provided nostalgia value as the Old West disappeared. Cowboys were also mythologized in bestselling pulp novels cranked out by Zane Grey, Max Brand, and others.
But it was Hollywood who recast the hard-drinking, rough-living nineteenth-century hired hand as a twentieth-century hero. Played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, Roy Rogers, and others, the cowboy became a symbol of “manly clean living” and “family values.”
Hang and Rattle ~ An ungentled horse was called a bronc (from the Mexican Spanish word bronco, meaning “rough” or “unpolished”). On most ranches, horses weren’t ridden until they were full-grown at five or six years old. The first few rides were an athletic contest—a man matching his wits and reflexes against those of a half-ton of horse.
You ran one of those wild things into a corral. You roped him, hobbled his feet so he couldn’t kick you in the nuts, and slapped a saddle on his quivering back. Then you took a deep breath, climbed on, and yanked the hobble-rope loose. Naturally, the horse thought you were a mountain lion on his back. So he frantically tried to unload you in any way he could think of. Cowboys had colorful names for these moves—hogging, sunfishing, highrolling, frogwalking, corkscrewing. The horse might slam you against the corral fence, even throw himself backwards to try and mash you. If you “hung and rattled” (stayed on), the horse tired of the fight—and finally figured out that you were harmless. From then on, he was a dependable mount.
Sometimes, though, the horse won, and stayed an incorrigible bucker. Every big outfit kept one or two of these hellions around for entertainment and sporting value. Not every cowboy could ride them. It took a real buckaroo (from Spanish vaquero) to be a “bronc stomper.” After the Civil War, these little ranch competitions began to be organized into public sporting events called “stampedes” or “roundups.” Eventually the new sport adopted the Spanish word for roundup—rodeo.
In 1885, Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show put bucking and roping contests on the program, along with choreographed Indian fights and stagecoach holdups. When Wild West shows disappeared in the early 1900s, rodeo stayed. By World War I, many a Western community was building its facility for an annual rodeo—equivalent to the baseball stadiums and football fields that dotted the Midwest and East. Around the arena was a high fence strong enough to withstand direct hits by broncs. Behind the arena, corrals held the bucking and roping stock. Facing the grandstand was the dramatic row of side-release chutes for the bucking events.
Rodeo Gets Creative ~ Through the early 1900s, rodeo mostly stuck to the traditional work-based events—roping and bronc-riding. You paid an entry fee for each event. Everybody’s fees went into a prize-money pot, sometimes with added money from the rodeo committee. You could win the “day money” for the best performance on that day’s go-round in your event. Or you could win “best all around champion” if you swept the go-rounds in several events. In addition to the prize money—twenty-five or thirty bucks in those days—you got a trophy belt buckle with an inscription on it.
Rules were written. Timekeeping was introduced for the roping events—the fastest roper won. For bronc events, you had to stay on the horse for eight seconds. The judges scored how well you rode, and how well the horse bucked.
But around 1920, one new event made rodeo history. This was Jack Twist’s specialty—Brahma bull-riding. Across the southern U.S., those hump-necked, droopy-eared Brahma cattle had been imported from India for crossbreeding. Inevitably, some creative promoter put a cowboy on a droop-ear’s back and discovered that Brahmas and Brahma crossbreds were astoundingly athletic. A bull might weigh a ton, but he could jump the arena fence like a deer if it suited him. Limber as a gymnast, he could unleash high kicks, vertical leaps, belly rolls, dizzying spins, neck-snapping feints and turns.
The cowboy had to ride him bareback, with one gloved hand wrapped tightly into a rawhide rope cinched around the bull’s midsection. The rope was rosined to help his grip. The eight-second rule applied.
Bulls could be more dangerous than broncs. Once a bull threw you, he might go after you on the ground with those horns of his. Cowboys called this type a “headhunter.” Worse—if your hand got hung up in that rope when you bucked off, the bull kept spinning and sunfishing with you attached. So you were flung around by one arm like a rag doll, possibly even trampled horribly, before you could be freed.
As bucking bulls quickly became the climax event of every rodeo—and the apex of machismo in the sport—rodeo producers had to contract for a whole string of “rough stock” that would buck reliably. Contestants drew their rides out of a hat, so each could have a fair shot at a money ride. This created a new business—the rodeo stock contractor—and a steady market for misfit horses and bulls with an attitude about humans on their backs.
The most unrideable animals became celebrities. They were worth a lot of money, and lived long lives with good veterinary care. Some bulls knew their jobs so well that they were actually quite gentle, except for that eight seconds in the arena, when they turned into hoofed hurricanes. The minute the whistle blew or the rider was off their back, they trotted calmly to the gate. Cowboys called them “union bulls.”
Serious injuries and deaths did happen to rodeo stock. Humane societies complained about rodeo, so the sport finally became more concerned about animal welfare.
Rodeo was hard on humans, too—not just injuries, but crooked judges who took payola and crooked promoters who embezzled prize money. Blacks and American Indians were often denied the chance to compete. In the 1930s, outraged contestants formed a grassroots union, the Cowboys’ Turtle Association, which later became the Rodeo Cowboys Association and, in 1975, the professional PRCA. The Association took control of world-championship competition and enforced fairness (except toward women, who were barred from professional competition in the 1930s).
Gay Cowboys—Yes or No? ~ Closet love between cowboys grew out of the loneliness and hardship in that job.
In the 1800s, a fall roundup or an eight-hundred-mile trail drive meant being away from civilization for weeks or months. For heterosexual cowboys, female companionship was scarce. Ranches didn’t want the boys fighting over women, so most had no women employees. You had to wait ‘til Saturday night, or the end of the season, to visit the whorehouse in town. But town sex could also give you syphilis and gonorrhea—not curable in those dark days before penicillin. Like men in the army or on ships at sea, even the hetero hands may have turned to each other for sexual relief when the boss wasn’t looking.
Across the northern U.S., the winters were long and harsh, so employment lasted only from May to October. Fall roundup was the finale of the work season. In the early 1900s, when my family’s ranch still had a big operation in eastern Montana, with 75,000 cattle ranging on free grass, we might need fifty men and five hundred horses for the roundup. After we got some 15,000 steers loaded on trains and shipped to the Chicago stockyards, we paid off most of the boys, keeping a skeleton crew through winter. The rest had to find a warm burrow somewhere ‘til spring.
These circumstances tended to discourage most cowboys from marrying and settling down. Most were itinerant bachelors, “saddle bums,” who drifted from ranch to ranch. Most ranches had a bunkhouse where the boys slept and ate and hung out together. On our ranch, the 1880s bunkhouse still stands—a long log building, with woodshed, washroom, kitchen, dining room, and dormitory room with narrow iron beds. When I was a kid in the 1940s, it was still operating in the old-time way. The place was snug but Spartan, heated by wood stoves, with a table and chairs for card games. A vintage AM radio provided news and music. Chaps and other gear hung from hooks along the log wall. Each man kept the rest of his few possessions in a box under his bed. The latrine was outside, fifty feet away—a long walk on a cold night.
To combat the loneliness of this life, male-male friendships sprang up like spring grass. Even heterosexual bonding tended to be strong. In frontier times, Western men used the word “partner” for these bonds. Two single males would pair up, living in close association, sharing everything, maybe starting a business together.
There was also an economic reason for partnership: the low pay. In those days, society expected a man to own a house and to demonstrate his ability to support a family before he got married. But a dirt-poor cowboy could hardly afford to feed a wife and kids on $40 a month. Typically, a pair of men operated on the old adage that “two can live as cheap as one.” They’d work the ranches for years, getting themselves hired as a team. They’d save to file on a homestead or buy a little ranch, own it as joint tenants, and maintain visibly separate sleeping quarters. Often a “kid” paired up with an older guy so he could learn the ropes with an expert.
Traditional cowboy songs often revealed deep grief over the death of a partner in a shooting or roundup accident. In one old song, “Utah Carroll”:
In the land of Mexico in the place from whence I came,
In silence sleeps my partner in a grave without a name.
We rode the trail together and worked cows side by side,
Oh, I loved him like a brother, and I wept when Utah died.
You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in sociology to realize that some of these rawhide partnerships extended into discreet sexual intimacy. As long as two partners were circumspect and did their jobs, many livestock owners very likely viewed gay cowboy love as an unavoidable result of the circumstances. Such partnerships made the loneliness and hardships more bearable.
But as the West modernized, as it filled up with towns and churches, this old-time tolerance slowly vanished. After 1900, the fencing of public lands made it impossible to swing the big herds. Ranches downsized and switched to more intensive methods of producing beef. Agriculture was mechanizing by then—fewer horses and men were needed.
During World War II, the trend accelerated. Many a young puncher came home from driving a tank or jeep across Europe only to find that the newest farm machine had put him out of a job. By 1950, the bunkhouses were closing everywhere. At the CK, we closed ours in 1958. For fall roundup, we only needed three or four hands.
Rodeo Heterosexism ~ It’s no coincidence that rodeo went big-time and commercial during the same postwar period. As ranch jobs vanished, many cowboys drifted to rodeo—it was one of the few niches left in America where cowboys could still earn with their skills.
You could get into rodeo for just a few bucks. To rope or wrestle steers, you didn’t have to own a horse. You could buy rides on somebody else’s horse. To ride bareback broncs or bulls, all you needed was your riggin’ and a gunny sack to tote it in. You didn’t even need a new wardrobe. The plain workday chaps and the conservative white or Pendleton cowboy shirt were fine for the arena. Not to mention the re-soled Justin boots and last year’s XXXX “beaver” Stetson. A rodeo cowboy might be broke, but he still wore good clothes to work.
The changing attitude towards cowboy relationships must have hit hard in rodeo. Indeed, I think that the raw heterosexism of today’s rodeo, with its groupies, flag-waving, and pumped-up parading of family men, is the sport’s effort to leave behind that time when a cowboy might be more interested in his “pard” than the cute little gal in town.
The Brokeback story of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar fit this historical trend like a horseshoe fits a hoof. By 1963, the year that the story starts, real cowboy jobs on cattle ranches were so scarce that Jack and Ennis wound up herding sheep. Ennis not only felt compelled to deny his love for Jack—he also felt he had to prove his masculinity by getting married. The story describes Ennis’s grim struggle to support a family on the few rural jobs available in Wyoming.
Jack had an option that Ennis didn’t. He had rodeo. As Proulx wrote in the original story: “He was infatuated with the rodeo life and fastened his belt with a minor bull-riding buckle, but his boots were worn to the quick, holes beyond repair.” Jack often finished out of the money. One year he earned $3000, along with a collection of sprains and broken bones that would have crippled a city dude.
Still, and more importantly, Jack had social opportunities on the rodeo scene. Though he was no Hollywood cutie like Jake Gyllenhaal (“Jack seemed fair enough with his curly hair and quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buck teeth, Proulx wrote), he had enough going for him to snag a rodeo queen from a well-to-do Texas family. So Jack moved up the social ladder a little. He had money to travel—not only to rodeos, but to Mexico for gay sex. But he was ready to give up all this comfort if only Ennis would come live with him on their own little place.
But Ennis knew this old-time strategy for closet “partners” was now risky. So he said no.
Rodeo Today ~ Today, pro rodeo is radically different from those cow-country contests of 1869. Fewer contestants are country kids now—the “urban cowboy” rules. City kids can overcome their fear of animals and learn bull riding in special schools, even in college courses. Contestants train hard like Olympic athletes. The familiar cowboy hat, which offers no protection against being kicked in the face, is giving way to a protective helmet with face mask.
Bull riding has gone so big that it’s international, often a stand-alone event. Its association, Professional Bull Riders (PBR), is owned and operated by the ever-prickly contestants. Today’s Jack Twist gets on the plane to ride bulls in Brazil and Australia. In his designer duffle bag, the bull rope and rosin are packed with a suit and tie. He has business cards and a website, and his bulletproof bull riding vest is plastered with sponsor logos. Top contestants can win $250,000 a year, with a few individuals topping $1 million.
Despite efforts at safety, there are still catastrophic injuries, even deaths—captured on footage that gets aired on Real TV and Sports Disasters. In 1994, for example, five bull riders were killed—a bad year. Because of this, women are still barred from competing in the roughest pro rodeo events.
Some Americans complain bitterly that today’s professional rodeo is too commercial, too divorced from its roots. But the grassroots rodeo is still out there in many towns, for anybody who wants to find it. The old-time “ranch rodeo” is being revived. And gay rodeo is as grassroots as it gets.
Rainbow Rodeos ~ Jack’s story ends in 1983 with his death at the hands of gay-bashers. By that time, a real-life Jack Twist could have been out of the closet and competing at gay rodeos.
The first gay rodeo in history was held in Nevada in 1976. Reno events producer, Phil Ragsdale, who was also Emperor of the Imperial Court, had come up with the idea of an amateur gay rodeo as a fundraiser for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Local homophobia meant that Ragsdale had no easy time hiring a stock contractor or finding a venue. But finally the event came off at the Washoe County Fairgrounds on October 2. The Court raised thousands of dollars for charity.
Inspired by Ragsdale’s event, visionary LGBT rodeo producers began to emerge in other states, sparking the formation of local rodeo associations across the country and hooking the LGBT rodeo movement together with country/Western gay bars, clogging and square-dance groups, equestrian centers, etc. In short, they created the package that is familiar to gay rodeo fans today.
Gay rodeo continued to grow. At this writing, the International Gay Rodeo Association boasts twenty-eight regional associations and some nineteen rodeos on its schedule in U.S. and Canadian cities. The old Imperial Court connection is still strong. No gay rodeo is complete without high camp—meaning drag rodeo queens and truck-loads of sequins! IGRA also pulls major sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and American Airlines.
Unlike pro rodeo, the rainbow circuit has stayed amateur by choice, so it is open to community participation. The old formula is pretty much the same: the core events, the announcer with his drawly patter, the colorful grand entry, the flags carried by galloping riders—Old Glory and Old Rainbow fluttering side by side. But the gender barriers have tumbled. Women ride broncs and bulls, while men compete in barrel racing, traditionally a female event. Last but not least, LGBT creative minds have created new events for tenderfoots—like “goat dressing,” where you wrassle a pair of men’s boxer shorts onto a goat.
Today, contrary to what some right-wingers say, gay cowboys who competed in mainstream rodeo aren’t hard to find. I’ve been running into them for years as I travel the U.S. on book tours.
Texas produces a good crop of gay cowboys. Example: my good friend Don, who is now a financial consultant in Los Angeles. Born in 1967 on a ranch near Dallas, Don rodeoed seriously during his sophomore and junior years in high school, when he was fifteen and sixteen, and collected his share of trophies and belt buckles.
“Rodeo is part of the culture in Texas,” he told me. “It’s a letter sport in high school. You go out for rodeo like you go out for football. It’s one of those things you do to prove your manhood the Texas way. I was an all-around guy—calf roping, bareback bronc, saddle bronc, and bull riding. Saddle bronc was the scariest, in my opinion. A horse is bigger than a bull and it’s a lot farther to the ground. But the bulls could be bad. I always prayed to draw a bull with no horns.
“My older brother was a professional bull rider, so I would sneak away with him on weekends and go to all the big rodeos across Texas. I loved everything about rodeo—including the partying, everybody drunk and getting into fistfights. I’d come home with black eyes and a split lip. My dad knew what I was up to, but he’d say, ‘Just tell your mother you fell off your horse.’ I wasn’t out yet, of course, but I had a kinda boyfriend through high school.”
Don aimed to follow in his brother’s footsteps—he had to be eighteen to turn professional. But during his junior year, he injured his back playing football. That finished rodeo as his first career choice. Business was second. When he graduated from business school at age twenty-two and got ready to move to L.A., Don finally came out to his parents. They took it in stride. Don relates: “All my dad said was, ‘Yeah, we used to have guys like you around. They were called confirmed bachelors.’”
A longer version of this article appeared in Warren’s anthology, The Lavender Locker Room: 3000 Years of Great Athletes Whose Sexual Orientation Was Different (Wildcat Press, 2006) and was featured on the site, Outsports.com. Copyright © 2006, 2009 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.
Patricia Nell Warren grew up on the historic Grant-Kohrs Ranch at Deer Lodge, MT. She started publishing short fiction at age 17. Her series of bestselling gay novels, notably The Front Runner, started in 1974. In her 2006 title, The Lavender Locker Room, she turns to nonfiction. In recent years she also writes provocative op-eds and blogs on many issues. Wildcat Press is her independent publishing imprint, with website at www.wildcatpress.com.
Photo credit: “Shadows, Phoenix Rodeo” © Greenbroke/Will, 2009. Used courtesy of Creative Commons License.