Was the West Gay? – Sex in the Wild West

Were there queer folks in the Wild West? We address comments made by actor Sam Elliot about the “evisceration of the American myth” by the new Western film The Power of the Dog, and take a look at the hard evidence for queer folks on the frontier.

Don’t forget to subscribe, rate, and review. Support the show on Patreon at www.patreon.com/btnewberg. Research, writing, editing, and production by B. T. Newberg. Logo Design by Rachel Westhoff. Additional credits, references, and more at www.historyofsexpod.com.

Transcript

[clip: The Power of the Dog trailer]

Were there gay folks in the Wild West? Well, that’s a silly question. Of course, there were. It’s just a matter of how secretive they had to be.

But that silly question was ignited last week in a Twitter firestorm over the 2021 film The Power of the Dog, from the trailer of which we just heard a clip.

The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch as a ranch cowboy in Montana in 1925. The plot revolves around tension between Cumberbatch’s tough, hardened, masculine character and a young, thin, somewhat effeminate boy played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. The film raises questions of what it meant to be a man in the American West, and what desires were and were not allowed there. The film won three Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor.

But last week famed Western actor Sam Elliot went on Marc Maron’s podcast and gave a slightly different take:

[clip from WTF with Marc Maron]

Marc: Did you see Power of the Dog, did you see that movie?

Sam: Yeah, you wanna talk about that piece of sh–? 

Marc: You didn’t like that one?

Sam: F— no.

Whew! Yup. And Elliot goes on to drop no less than 21 f-bombs in describing this film. He laments its homoerotics, quoting a critic:

Sam: There was a review, not a review but a clip, and it talked about the ‘evisceration of the American myth.’ And I thought, what the f—.”

The critic in question, Monahla Dargis, was actually praising the film with that phrase, but Elliot takes it in a decidedly different direction:

Sam: The evisceration of the American West, I mean they made it look like… What are all those dancers in New York that wear bowties and not much else? Remember them from back in the day?

Marc: Oh, the Chippendales?

Sam: Yeah, that’s what all these f—ing cowboys in that movie looked like.

Marc: I think that’s what the movie’s about.

Sam: Yeah, well…

Huh. Okay.

So, these comments ignited a Twitter firestorm, with some folks calling Elliot homophobic and others saying no, he’s just being honest. You can probably guess which side I’m on in that fight, but I’m less interested in condemnations and more interested in what the guy even means by these comments, and what that means for our perceptions of the Wild West.

Because, first of all, seriously, I don’t know where Elliot gets this Chippendales thing. I thought the film’s homoerotics were relatively subdued by 2022 standards. I don’t wanna give anything away, so I’ll just leave it at that, but I don’t know what he’s talking about.

Anyway, I’m more intrigued by this critic’s phrase the “evisceration of the American myth”, what Elliot thinks that means, and why depiction of a homoerotic relationship might be so eviscerating that it causes him to drop 21 f-bombs.

Because if he means unfaithfulness to what the West was really like, that’s one thing. That’s history. We can look at historical records and see if there really were folks who loved others of the same sex.

But if he means what he says – the American myth – well, I tell you what, he’s kinda got a point. Because the American myth, in which modern American masculinity is rooted, is that the wilderness of the West toughened a guy up and made him a man, specifically a straight man. Yet this movie shows a tough-as-nails cowboy in the rough Montana wilderness who nevertheless does not fit that mold.

Yes, Mr. Elliot, that is the evisceration of the American myth. If that’s what you mean, then you and the critic you were quoting, well, you have a point.

But also… sorry to break it to you, Mr. Elliot: yes, the West was gay.

How gay was it? What was it like for men who loved other men, or for women who loved other women? That’s what we’re talking about in today’s episode.

I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.

[music]

I’d like to thank our Patreon patron Amy Schmelzer for making this episode possible.

Hey folks, this is part of our ongoing series Sex in the Wild West. I’ve been hard at work on our installment looking at the West from Native American perspectives, and was planning to run a showcase episode from my other podcast Dead Ideas today, but then I was alerted to Sam Elliot’s timely comments which have been blowing up on Twitter. Thank you to listener and friend Jon for bringing this to my attention. So, I thought it’s time we set the record straight on what the west was really like for same-sex desire.

Now, I did address this in the first episode of our series, where I confessed to having a difficult time finding actual hard evidence of homosexual relationships.

However, since then I have found more. I want to give credit to a great youtuber by the name of Kaz Rowe who did an episode on this and gave some examples I’d overlooked. Also, historian Peter Boag, who we heard from quite a bit in our episode on cross-dressers in the West, catalogs quite a few examples of what could be considered same-sex desire.

I say “could be considered” only because in the case of historical cross-dressers it’s often unclear what they would have considered their own sex to be. In some cases, they may have been perfectly comfortable with their assigned sex, in others not so much. And in the latter case, would they have considered their relationships same sex or opposite sex? It gets unclear. But that really only becomes a problem if we try to apply our own 21st century lens to an era that didn’t share our same sexual categories. What is ultimately more important is who these folks were and how they lived their lives in the Wild West. So, that’s what we’re going to focus on today.

So, let’s see some of these examples, and discover whether or not The Power of the Dog gets it right, historically speaking, and what that means for the “evisceration of the American myth.”

The Gay West

What was it really like for those who loved others of the same sex in the Wild West?

Well, first off, it is unlikely that it was some kind of gay free-for-all. Sam Elliot’s imagined Chippendales dancer scene was neither in the movie nor in historical reality. Although same-sex desire did exist, one still had to be circumspect.

This is illustrated in our first story, which features an Easterner who travels to the Rocky Mountains and provides us an impression of the attitude encountered there. Historian Peter Boag writes:

“Earl Lind, who sometimes went by the alter ego Jennie June, found ‘the adolescent cowboys and miners of the Rockies the most prejudiced against effeminate males’ he had ever come across. A self-described homosexual from New York City who also took great satisfaction in dressing as a woman, Lind explained that sometime around the turn of the twentieth century, his news-business employers dispatched him to the Rockies ‘to write up an unusual affair transpiring’ there. He traveled ‘in a caravan with fifty men of the roughest type, cowboys, miners, etc.’ Although he went entirely dressed as a man, he could not altogether hide his effeminate nature. Soon his fellow travelers ‘began to heap up insults, particularly taking pains to refer to me within my hearing by the obscene term most often used by roughs for a girl-boy” (Boag, 2011, p. 81).

Lind does not provide what that obscene term was, indicating it was likely a curse word deemed unsuitable for print. So far, this depiction fits with that in The Power of the Dog, as well as with most of Western history in Europe and the Americas, where the primary motive for ridicule was unmanliness, not necessarily un-straightliness. Gender presentation was more important than who you had sex with for most of Western history, and Lind suffers specifically for appearing effeminate.

Nevertheless, after Lind flashed his national journalistic credentials, he was treated with a bit more kindness, but soon found the limits of that respect:

“He eventually befriended one Wyoming cowboy, who claimed to have traveled with the Buffalo Bill show, and who confided all manner of personal information in him. Lind finally felt comfortable enough to confess his sexuality and gender proclivities. Much to his ‘surprise and almost to my death,’ Lind explained, his friend ‘jilted me with an unparalleled display of horror’” (p. 81).

It is interesting here that Lind even considered confiding in the Wyoming man, which speaks to the relative freedom he was used to back in New York as well as the potential freedom he expected to find at least among friends out West. Nevertheless, he miscalculates, and is harshly rejected.

Whether it is specifically the homosexuality or the cross-dressing that incites horror is not clear, as the two are lumped together in Lind’s account. In general, the American West was one of the last eras where sexuality was an act, not an identity, and presenting masculinely was more important than who you slept with. However, modern sexual identities were already being formulated among sexologists in Germany and England in the late 19th century, precipitating a shift in public perception as the era of the cowboy was drawing to a close at the turn of the century.

Regardless, same-sex love among men did take place, and one notable example is the one mentioned in our first episode. William Drummond Stuart, a Scotsman who traveled the American West extensively in the 1830s, commissioned a pair of buffalo-themed wooden chairs which are now on display at the Autry Museum. The chairs likely commemorate the intimate relationship he enjoyed in the American West with French Canadian Antoine Clement (Ng).

Another story of note regards Joseph Gilligan of Denver, reported on in 1895. When Gilligan became the subject of a burglary and forgery investigation, authorities discovered in his hotel room a wardrobe of women’s clothing and accoutrements, as well as a certain booklet:

“The police uncovered a booklet kept by Gilligan containing the names of prominent Denver men and tell-all letters of a sexual nature. The press quoted from the letters, specifically pointing out the ‘endearing terms’ contained therein and that were exchanged between men” (Boag, 2011, p. 82).

Of particular interest is an additional comment made in the papers:

“‘Gilligan is very girlish in his actions and his talk but does not appear to worry over the publicity of his life and seems to gather sympathy from the fact, as he tells it, that Denver has others like himself’” (p. 82).

Again, it’s not entirely clear if this refers to the girlishness or the sexuality, but in either case it is noteworthy that Denver seemed to boast something of a queer community.

Some places may even have had enough of a community to support male brothels. According to historian Chris Packard:

“A recent search of the Dodge City Police Court Docket, 1885-1888, reveals evidence of male prostitutes arrested during a sweep of what were termed ‘houses of ill-fame and assignation.’ On the same night, both ‘Howard Hines’ and ‘John Smith’ paid a $5.00 fine plus $7.50 court costs for being ‘an inmate of a house of ill fame’: language that is identical to that used for [female prostitutes] ‘Myrtle Glover’ and ‘Mabel Watson.’ Other men arrested on the same date were charged with ‘vagrancy’ and fined $10.00. Why did the court single out Hines and Smith from other men arrested that night and convict them of identical crimes as two female prostitutes? Why did Hines and Smith pay the fines and admit their guilt? The dearth of historical evidence should not be construed as the absence of it.” (Packard, p. 16)

If Dodge City, Kansas, did, in fact, have a male brothel, that suggests a base of clientele sizable enough to support it.

On the other hand, that community might not have been large enough for its members to feel truly free, even in their own gathering spots. Most frontier towns were not big enough to support the kind of protective anonymity one might find in, say, London, Paris, or Berlin at this time. As historian William Benneman relates:

“Only Philadelphia was large enough to provide men-loving men with the anonymity of numbers. In rural areas among the lower classes it might be possible for two men to live their lives together working the same farm or pursuing the same craft, but in more urban areas, especially among the socially prominent (whose stories are the ones most likely to be preserved in surviving documents), heterosexual marriage was the only acceptable goal” (Benemann, p. xvi).

Benneman seems to be considering Philadelphia a frontier town here, as coastal cities like New York and Boston were certainly much larger at the time. Nevertheless, the point stands: frontier towns were vanishingly small in comparison, and could not provide the cover of anonymity. Thus, gay communities, if they existed, would likely have been quite clandestine, and you might have been more likely to encounter same-sex love among the sort of rural, subdued, private relationships featured in The Power of the Dog.

A few other examples are worth noting. Eva Lind, not to be confused with the Earl Lind mentioned earlier, cross-dressed as a woman in Colfax, Washington Territory, in the 1880s, and received numerous offers of marriage, reportedly even committing to one man (Boag, p. 79). Similarly, another cross-dresser known as George Todd of Omaha, Nebraska, was arrested in 1891 for attempting to “make a mash on his own sex” (p. 79).

So far, we’ve dwelled upon men who loved other men, or those assigned male who loved men. But the West was also home to women who loved other women, and those assigned female who loved women.

First, there was Shirley Martin, who dressed in masculine attire. Historian Peter Boag writes:

“Lake City, Iowa’s Shirley Martin, whom papers interestingly reported to have had a feminine appearance, nevertheless dated women, having taken them to picture shows and other amusements as well as having treated them to ice cream. Although in a 1912 news article Martin claimed never to have received a proposal of marriage, she all the same asserted that ‘I might have won a wife if I had tried very hard though’” (Boag, 2011, p. 46).

Then there was a certain Blanche (we don’t know her last name), from Aspen, Colorado. An 1889 article reports that the 28-year-old Blanche proposed to marry her 17 year-old cousin, Belle. Apparently it was a one-sided affair, though, and the younger girl complained. Boag writes that Blanche:

“‘hugs and kisses and squeezes me nearly to death. She won’t let me out of her arms after we go to bed, and presses me so close to her I can hardly breathe. She says if I don’t marry her she will kill me, and talks so strange I have grown afraid of her.’ When questioned by her uncle, Blanche responded calmly that she indeed loved Belle and ‘just as strong as the love of man ever was for woman… and I am ready to prove it with my heart’s blood’” (p. 43).

Another was Denver’s John Hill. A 1911 article declared that for two years he had been “doing the work of a man and never shirking when it was grinding and heavy; wearing the clothes of a man; bearing the name of a man; making love to a young woman with true masculine ardor” (p. 56). A startling about-face then occurred, however, when Hill went to prove up his homestead claim. As he had taken out the claim in his given name, which matched his assigned sex of female, he was obliged to change into female attire, causing quite a surprise to the locals. He later told a newspaper, “It was the only thing to do. A woman would not have felt safe out there alone, and I just had to do it” (p. 56). The notion that women might have to dress as men to survive was a common trope at the time, and it may have been a cover story told to the press to conceal deeper questions of gender and sexuality.

Yet another example comes from hunter Joseph Lobdell. Having been assigned female at birth, Lobdell suffered through an abusive marriage before leaving to take up a male identity in Minnesota in the 1850s. When his secret was discovered, however, county officials sent him packing back east. In Pennsylvania, Lobdell obtained a teaching position. Boag relates:

“Reportedly popular with all the local young women, many of whom enrolled in his classes, by the end of this first term of teaching Lobdell had earned the love of, and an engagement to, one such pupil… The night before the planned wedding, however, a rival for the girl’s affections who had come into information… about Lobdell’s female alter ego planned to capture his opponent, tar and feather him, and then run him out of town on the rails. But before this nefarious scheme could be hatched, Lobdell’s betrothed discovered the plans. Notwithstanding her reported mortification upon learning of her engagement to a woman, she nevertheless warned her fiancé, for whom she yet retained feelings. Lobdell safely fled in the night” (p. 162).

Finally, there is Oregon’s Alan Hart, born in 1890. Always considering himself a boy, Hart nevertheless presented as a girl into college years, where Hart met and fell in love with classmate Eva Cushman. Boag writes:

“Hart and Cushman were inseparable by day, typically attending all functions in each other’s company, and they usually spent one night of the week together. Early in their relationship they engaged in petting, but in time they became intensely sexual. During the summers when Cushman was away… Hart daily wrote love letters to her” (p. 10-11).

Later, Hart began experimenting with men’s clothing and habits, such as drinking and smoking. Unfortunately, Cushman found this intolerable. They continued their relationship for some years, but eventually drifted apart.

These examples clearly illustrate that lovers of the same sex could and did make their way in the Wild West. That doesn’t mean it was easy, however. No doubt there are many, many more cases lost to history because of the secrecy that often had to be kept due to endemic homophobia. And in a few cases, it was so intolerable that stories ended in tragedy.

The Not So Gay West

Here I should post a trigger warning: these next three stories do involve suicide, so you can skip ahead a few minutes if you feel it necessary.

The first tragic story tells of a laundress following Custer’s 7th Cavalry Division, one Mrs. Nash. Libbie Custer writes of her extensively in her book Boots and Saddles, praising her skill and sense of decor. Mrs. Nash married 3 times, and only upon her death was it discovered that she had the anatomy associated with males. Her last marriage, to John Noonan, was apparently a happy one. They were together three years before Noonan’s discharge in 1877, who promptly reenlisted, though reduced to the rank of corporal, and carried on with Nash. After her secret was exposed upon her death, however, Noonan was taunted harshly by other soldiers and harassed by newspapers. One reporter asked if he had been “a husband to her… with all that the name implies”, to which Noonan replied that he had, that he had thought her a woman all along, and that they had even expected a child at one point but it came to naught (quoted in Boag, 2011, p. 137). Whether Noonan had really been so oblivious or was simply too ashamed to admit the truth is a matter of debate. In any case, the shame caught up with him in the end, whereupon the story takes a dark turn. About a month after his beloved Nash’s death, Noonan took his own life (p. 136).

Whatever went on between lovers of the same sex in the Wild West, it was not without the burden of prejudice. In Noonan’s case, the public ridicule was enough to do him in.

Unfortunately, he was not the only one to suffer such a fate. A similar story can be found in

the New Mexico couple Portia Doyle and Jessie Elizabeth Rigley. When Doyle, a governess, married her employer’s brother, a new governess was brought in. Doyle and the new woman, Rigley, became “fast friends” with the habit of spending every Saturday and Sunday together (Boag, 1998, p. 335). Soon Portia left her husband, citing only that she no longer loved him. After that, in 1891, word arrived that the two had been found dead. Boag writes:

“They neatly folded their cloaks as pillows, pinned letters to their dresses, and lay down in each other’s arms. The coroner’s report confirmed the deaths as voluntary. Jessie first shot Portia ‘thro’ the heart and then turned the weapon on herself’, piercing her own heart as well” (Boag, 1998, p. 336).

While there is no indisputable proof, Boag strongly suspects the two were lovers, and found it impossible to live apart as their society demanded.

Our final story is the well-documented case of John Chaffee and Jason Chamberlain. The two met in Massachusetts, then headed to California for the 1849 gold rush. There they lived for 50 years together. Neither ever married or left any evidence in their diaries of desiring female companions. But in 1903, Chaffee fell victim to a painful skin disease that took him to San Francisco for treatment (Alley, p. 316). Meanwhile, Chamberlain, back at their lodge, fell despondent. A guest at the lodge wrote “His meditative, absent look, and daydreams indicate that his mind, thought, anxiety are in Chaffee while he lingers in the East Bay Sanitorium in Oakland. A love could not miss his sweetheart more” (Guest Book).

Chaffee succumbed to the disease later that year. Upon hearing news of his death, Chamberlain could not go on. Tying to his toe to a shotgun trigger with a length of string, he shot himself in the head on his front porch. A neighbor reported they had intended to be buried together, but their wishes were not carried out (Tuolumne County Historical Society).

From these stories, it is plain to see that while the West was no easy place to live for those who loved others of the same sex, it was home to them nonetheless.

The Evisceration of the American Myth

The West was no playground of Chippendales dancers. But in a very real sense, yes, the West was gay.

Such men, women, and those who defied their assigned sex made their way in the West no less than anyone else. And their stories deserve to be told too.

Out of all the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of Western films, why can’t one here or there highlight the true-to-history presence of same-sex desire? Why does that represent such a threat to folks like Sam Elliot?

That’s what belies the homophobia in Elliot’s reaction to the film The Power of the Dog. He seems to object to the fact that one movie tells the story of a single homoerotic relationship, as if that story is somehow illegitimate. And he seems to feel it de-legitimizes the story of the West as he knows and loves it. To express this, he rather clumsily appropriates that critic’s phrase, the “evisceration of the American myth.” And drops 21 f-bombs in the process.

And you know what? Frankly, he’s right (about the myth part, not the f-bombs).

I’m not sure Elliot realizes why he’s right, but he’s right. It does eviscerate the American myth. The myth of American manliness, going all the way back to Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis, is that we were born and bred on the frontier, such a harsh place that we had no choice but to toughen up and become “real men”, and that made American men what we are today. The presence of queer folk on the frontier, whether on the silver screen or in real life, threatens that myth.

Now, to be clear, the myth is just downright false. As this series has painstakingly shown, it is a lie that propped up the new 20th century notion of heteronormativity. It has little to do with what the West was really like, and everything to do with how straight folks in the century following reacted to the new modern notion of sexuality as identity.

See, around the turn of the century, as same-sex lovemaking transitioned from something you did to evidence of something you were, i.e. an identity, and that notion trickled down from the sexologists in the universities to the wider population, heterosexuals felt the need to starkly demarcate the boundaries between them and everyone else. The Western film played a role in service to that end. It came to embody what the majority culture felt a “real man” was like: rugged, tough, and thoroughly straight.

That’s the myth of American manliness. And that, I think, is what Elliot really feels is eviscerated by The Power of the Dog.

And that part is true. It does expose the fact that the West was not entirely straight. My only beef with Elliot is that this is not to be decried but rather praised, as the critic he quoted originally intended.

I mean, if the American myth isn’t true to history, oh well. Try again, right?

And that’s pretty much what this whole podcast is about. This show is about exploring the incredible variety of sex and gender norms across time, such that simplistic myths like this can’t help but wither away.

You know, honestly, I’d love to hear what Elliot thinks of this show. Maybe I should ask Marc Maron to have him back on to find out.

If The Power of the Dog got 21 f-bombs, I wonder how many I’d get?

[music]

Well, that’s all I’ve got for you today, folks. I hope you learned something today; I certainly did.

And you know, everything said today only addresses one side of the Wild West, the settler side. But there was also, of course, the side of its native inhabitants. And that is a much more complex and nuanced story. That’s what we’ll dive into in the next installment of our Sex in the Wild West series. That’s planned tentatively for May.

Meanwhile, for April we’ve got a special treat coming up: an interview with famed actress Alexandra Billings from the award-winning TV series Transparent. Billings sits down with me to discuss her experience as a Trans woman, an actress, and a teacher. That’s coming up next month.

In the meantime, if you like what we’re doing on this show, you can support us by subscribing, rating, and reviewing on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Or you can pledge on Patreon, where $5 a month gets you a portrait drawn in the time period and culture of your choosing. I will draw you as a rough-riding or smooth-riding or whatever-kinda-riding-you-darn-well-please cowpoke making your way in the frontier. Or whatever you want, I’ll make you look awesome, I promise. Just go to www.patreon.com/btnewberg. That’s patreon.com/btnewberg.

Alright, folks, I’ll see you next time. I’m B. T. Newberg, and this is The History of Sex.

[music]

References

Alley, B. F. A History of Tuolumne County, California, Compiled from the Most Authentic Records.  San Francisco, 1882.

Benneman, William. Male-Male Intimacy in Early America. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Boag, Peter. Re-dressing America’s Frontier Past. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011.

Boag, Peter. “Sexuality, Identity, and Gender in Great Plains History and Myth.” Great Plains Quarterly, 18(4), 1998, Fall: pp. 327-340.

Dargis, Manohla. The New York Times. “The Power of the Dog Review: Wild Hearts on a Closed Frontier.” 2022, Feb 2. Retrieved Mar 5, 2022, from: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/30/movies/the-power-of-the-dog-review.html

Garcaeu, Dee. “Nomads, Bunkies, Cross-dressers, and Family Men: Cowboy Identity and the Gendering of Ranch Work.” In: Basso, Matthew, et al. Across the Great Divide: Cultures of Manhood in the American West. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Guest Book. Chaffee and Chamberlain Papers. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1903, June.

Maron, Marc. “Episode 1309 – Sam Elliot.” WTF with Marc Maron Podcast. 2021, Nov 30. Retrieved Mar 5, 2022, from: https://www.stitcher.com/show/wtf-with-marc-maron-podcast/episode/episode-1309-sam-elliott-200486902

Ng, David. “‘Out West’ at the Autry Examines the History of Homosexuals and Transgender People in the Old West.” LA Times. 2009, Dec. 15.

Packard, Chris. Queer Cowboys: And Other Erotic Male Friendships in Nineteenth-Century American Literature. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006/2005.

Rowe, Kaz. “Exploring the Queer History of the Old West… Yeehaw.” Youtube. 2022, Feb 17. Retrieved Mar 5, 2022, from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T0AOwdODmMA

Tuolumne County Historical Society. Ch Burden Undertaking Company Burial Records, 1890-1953. Tuolumne County Historical Society.

Audio Credits

Podcast theme music mixed from “Gregorian Chant”, “Mystery Sax”, and “There It Is” by Kevin MacLeod.

The Power of the Dog Official Trailer” from Netflix.

Odd Fellow’s Rest” by The Dirty Diary

Image Credits

Rodeo cowboy from VectorStock

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