Sunday, 29 March 2009

Gay Cowboys

A 33-year-old rancher, Mr. Glover comes from a family that has worked the land around Lusk for generations. His father still runs 300 head of cattle.

Seated at a table in the smoky Outpost Cafe alongside Highway 85, Mr. Glover laid out the story of a typical ranch-country boyhood: herding, branding, culling and haying, horses hobbled on picket lines and calves pulled forcibly from their mother's bodies during spring calving. Every summer Mr. Glover sets out with his brother in a panel truck carrying their two quarter horses, to compete in calf and steer roping competitions. "I never had any intention of leaving the cowboy lifestyle," Mr. Glover said. "Ranching is who I am."

Yet next month Mr. Glover will quit Lusk and that part of himself in order to move to the bright lights of Lander, Wyo. (population 6,864). "I don't really want to do it," Mr. Glover said. Yet he has to, he explained, if he ever wants to live his life openly. Like Jack Twist, the rodeo-loving character portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in "Brokeback Mountain", Derrick Glover is gay.

"They always define it as coming out of the closet, but I don't consider myself to be out of the closet," Mr. Glover explained. There is a reason for that, he said. "Where I live, you can't really go out and be yourself. You couldn't go out together, two guys, as a couple and ever be accepted. It wasn't accepted in the past, it's still not, and I don't think it ever will be." That he and some of the others interviewed for this article were willing to be named and photographed was not without social and even physical risk.

When Mr. Ledger's character defiantly asserts, "I ain't queer," following a drunken coupling with Mr. Gyllenhaal's character in their sheepherder's tent, it seems clear that as much as he fears the loss of his cowboy machismo, he is equally scared to relinquish his physical safety once the two come down from Brokeback Mountain.

"I grew up with that same kind of fear and conflict," Ben Clark, a fourth- generation rancher from Jackson said on Tuesday. "Growing up, I never even dreamed that a real cowboy would be gay," Mr. Clark added. It is a belief in which he is not alone.

"I awakened to my same-sex attraction when I was 12," said Mr. Clark, who is now 42. "But I had no idea what to do about it, ever. I was raised in a ranching, rodeo world - wrangling, packing horses, riding bucking stock, working in hunting camps - but always with the sense that I had to conceal who I was because cowboys could never be gay."

The experience was "extremely, extremely lonely," Mr. Clark said, leaving him feeling so isolated that he more than once contemplated suicide. "I could not accept being gay because of the stereotypes that were drilled into me," he explained. "Gay men are emotionally weak. They are not real men. They are like women."

Like Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in the film, Mr. Clark dated women for a time, bowing to the pressure to be "normal" although, unlike them, he never married and led a double life. There's a joke out here about how one goes about finding a gay man on the frontier. The punch line is deadpan: "Look for the wife and kids."

Fortunately, Mr. Clark said, "I never did get married, because I never wanted to hurt a woman like that."

"When I was in my 20's, I worked in a hunting camp for three years as a wrangler," Mr. Clark said. "I heard the jokes, but I kept my feelings inside. One of the hunters asked me, 'Have you been married before?' I told him no. And he gave me a look and said, 'Most of the guys who aren't married by now are getting involved with being hairdressers.'"

"I know there are a lot of gay guys in Cheyenne, and it's pretty much accepted, in a way," said Julie Tottingham, the manager of Corral West Ranchwear in Cheyenne, the city's largest purveyor of boot-cut Wranglers, ostrich-skin Tony Lamas and broad-brim buffalo-felt Stetsons. "But at the same time, a lot of our customers would be offended if a gay guy was in here shopping," Ms. Tottingham said. "They'd feel it's an insult to the cowboy way of life."

Among the locals who got an opportunity to see "Brokeback Mountain" at the screening in Jackson was Jade Beus, an openly gay former cowboy raised on a sheep ranch in Soda Springs, Idaho. "I had more or less that same experience," said Mr. Beus, referring to the characters' struggles. "Trying to find self-acceptance literally took me to a place where I thought I was such a bad person I once put a pistol to the roof of my mouth."

Mr. Beus, who now owns a heating and plumbing contracting company, is not certain what it was that prevented him from taking his own life. "But something clicked over," he said. "I believe greatly in a higher power and I realized He dealt me this particular hand," Mr. Beus said. "I'm a man's man. I'm not feminine at all. Other people might slander me for who I am, but I made a decision a long time ago that I'm not going through life hating myself because I love men."

Source: Cowboys, Just Like in the Movie, The New York Times,
December 18, 2005