As many of you know, I wrote an acid western, and anti-western a few years ago which will be published in February. And not a small part of that acid western conveys queer themes — which may seem antithetical to the western genre. I beg to differ.
The typical Western features any number of problematic tropes–savage Indians, noble expansionists, women as saint or prostitute. But one of the most enduring is the hyper-masculine cowboy. The epitome of male energy, the cowboy swaggers about defending the sanctity of women, engaging in good-guy/bad-guy shootouts, looking and acting stoic. The cowboy was brave, pioneering, resourceful, a hard worker and occasionally a hardscrabble philosopher about all these things–all that a man should be. And the cowboy is certainly, undoubtedly straight.
For various reasons, the Old West, especially the Old West of the California Gold Rush, was a queer place. For one, compulsive heterosexuality was an import of colonialism (a pretty poor one, when the chips were stacked against it, as we will discuss in a moment). Before colonization of the west, many indigenous peoples of North America had firmly entrenched gender roles called “two-spirit” (among other gender-variant positions in their societies). Two-spirit people were, simply put, bodies that hosted both a masculine and feminine spirit. Two-spirit people moved between traditional gender roles, and dress, and often had specially assigned social roles. The role has been reclaimed today as a First Nations/Native American queer identity.
As for the men who traveled to the West from various other places, the hyper-male cowboys of the traditional Western–women often didn’t make the journey with them. With this lack of female-identified people among their camps, some men took on those roles–often men of color, disabled men, and men of lower social standing. Journals of the time are ripe with homoeroticism, and cross-dressing was not infrequent. As it turns out, that masculine man of the Saturday matinee needed someone to cook, to clean, to love him. And as white women were few and far between, and women of color were often erased completely, other men were often the ones to fill that role.
The Old West has been handed to us as a time of total yang, of a masculine energy so complete that it supposedly formed a nation. In reality, the California Gold Rush was a time when the roles of gender were blurred, and seen as the largely false social construct they are in many ways. When I chose to write a novel in that time period, it was this blurring and uncertainty that I chose to focus on. In doing so, in creating an anti-western, I think I give a more accurate portrayal of the time than many books and movies considered iconic of that time period.