Real Cowboys, Real Rodeos

Published in: July-August 2006 issue.


THE POLITICAL DUST STORM kicked up by the Oscar-winning film Brokeback Mountain, however predictable, found right-wingers railing that yet another symbol of American “family values,” the cowboy, was being desecrated. A typical 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 the sagebrush states pushed a resolution declaring July 22 as “National Day of the American Cowboy.” But the movie also pushed a button for professional rodeo, with some contestants stepping forward to assure the media that, in all their years around the arenas, they never met a real-life Jack Twist.

I have to smile at all this denialism. I grew up on a historic Montana cattle ranch that was steeped in cowboy tradition. Back through American history, few occupations were 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. To find the roots of gay rodeo riders—and rodeo itself—we have to dig in this soil of the Old West.

History of the Cowboy

Rodeo is said to be “the only sport that grew out of an industry,” namely the vast 19th-century livestock business that flourished west of the Mississippi, from Mexico north to Canada. Already in colonial times, cattle and herders dotted the English-speaking east coast and the Spanish-speaking southwest. But after the Civil War (1861–65), as native tribes were being slaughtered or swept onto reservations, millions of square miles of grassland in the Western interior were suddenly open to grazing, and the livestock industry exploded. By the 1880’s, there were millions of cattle on the prairies and plains. For a couple of decades, my family’s ranch, the CK, was one of the big shippers—every year we averaged 15,000 steers to the Chicago stockyards. Beef was suddenly abundant and cheap, and Americans rushed to consume it.

To handle these millions of cattle, the cowboy proliferated too. People also called him a cattleboy, cowpuncher, cowpoke, drover, wrangler, vaquero, buckaroo, ranahan, rannie, and waddie. He was a skilled working stiff—the horseback equivalent of an autoworker or coal-miner. Ethnically he might be white, American Indian, Mexican mestizo, Hispanic, Creole, African, Canadian Métis—or mixtures of the above. “Boy” referred to his menial status, whereas the word “cowman” designated a rancher. Cowboys did all the dirty and 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, workman’s comp, industrial safety regulations, pension plans, or health insurance. Since there was also no mandatory retirement age, a working cowboy might be seventy years old. An outfit’s youngest rannie—usually called “the Kid”—might be fifteen or sixteen, since there 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. So he might introduce himself simply as Arizona Bill or Dutch Joe. Nobody asked questions. There were no Social Security numbers to track you with. All that mattered was that you could be trusted with a horse and a lariat. A rank-and-file cowpuncher was usually poor: he owned his clothes, horse gear, rope, and bedroll, maybe a harmonica or Colt .45. He did have pride in his person—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 20th century, his wage was forty dollars 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 the sunset years in comfort. But many a cowboy blew his pay in the nearest honky-tonk; alcohol and gambling addictions were common. He might have 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 end 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 till they died.

One has to ask how this hard and thankless life ever became so romanticized. In the 1800’s, novelists like James Fenimore Cooper were already gilding the frontier lily. But the big PR job started after 1900, when the art of Western artists Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington was popularized on calendars sold across America. That painted figure of the lone cowboy silhouetted against the Western sky had a deep appeal—and a 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 that recast the hard-drinking, rough-living 19th-century hired hand as a 20th-century hero. Whether played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, or Roy Rogers, the cowboy became a symbol of clean-living manliness and even “family values.” One prominent American who never bought the cowboy myth was country singer Willie Nelson. His “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” told how cowboys were viewed as trash by many “nice” people in town.

Despite the cowboy’s precarious social status, he was a proud, prickly, independent, tough-minded kind of man who knew how to defend his dignity. The boss couldn’t run a cow business without a skilled labor force, so he learned to handle “the boys” with care. Cowboys also 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, or 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 observes in the original Brokeback Mountain story, “When you live a long way out, you make your own fun.”

The Birth of Rodeo

But the cowboy’s favorite sport was the hard-core occupational variety, like bronc-riding on a cold morning. An unbroken horse was called a bronc (from Spanish bronco, meaning wild). On most ranches, horses weren’t ridden till 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 the wits and reflexes of a 1,000-pound animal.

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.

Who would win—man or animal? 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 the horse won and remained an incorrigible bucker. Every big outfit had one or two of these hellions that the boss kept around for entertainment and sporting value. Not every cowboy could ride these bad ones. It took a real buckaroo (from Spanish vaquero) to be a “bronc stomper.” He didn’t think of himself as an athlete, but he was—he had a lean build that melded core strength with lightning reflexes, instinctive timing, and balance. The combination helped him to stay ahead of a bronc’s violent and unpredictable movements.

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 the choreographed Indian fights and stagecoach holdups. When Wild West shows disappeared in the early 1900’s, rodeo stayed. Now the public was hungry for more variety, so new events like steer wrestling and wild-cow milking were invented. 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.

Through the early 1900’s, 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—25 or 30 dollars—you got a trophy belt buckle with an inscription on it. Rules were eventually 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 much the horse bucked.

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. They tolerate a hot climate, so Southern cowmen had been using them 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, along with judges’ scores. 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.

Introduced at the Fort Worth rodeo in 1920, bucking bulls quickly became the climax event of every rodeo—and the apex of machismo in the sport. A rodeo producer now had to contract for a whole string of “rough stock” that would buck reliably well. Contestants drew their rides out of a hat, so each one had to get a fair shot at a money ride. This created a new business—rodeo stock contractor—and a steady market for misfit horses and bulls with an attitude about humans on their backs. The most unridable 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 during that eight seconds in the arena, when they turned into a hoofed hurricane. Cowboys called them “union bulls.”) Serious injuries and deaths did happen to rodeo stock. Humane societies complained about rodeo, so the sport finally got more proactive on animal welfare.

Rodeo was hard on humans too—not just injuries, but crooked judges who took payola and crooked promoters who embezzled prize money. In the 1930’s, outraged contestants formed a grassroots union that would launch athlete activism in the sport. Eventually the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) took control of world-championship competition and enforced fairness to everybody (except to women, who were barred from RCA competition in the 1930’s).

Around 1960, when young Jack Twist came along, he would have been a rank-and-file member of RCA, carrying his sexual secret unnoticed in and out of the arenas. The movie actually romanticized Jack—he was no Hollywood cutie like Jake Gyllenhaal. In the original story Annie Proulx describes him thus: “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.”

Did They or Didn’t They?

In the 1800’s, a fall roundup or an 800-mile trail drive meant being away from civilization for weeks or months. Even for heterosexual cowboys, female companionship was scarce. Indeed, in some areas, women were still in such short supply that it was acceptable for men to dance together at honkytonks. Ranches didn’t want the boys fighting over women, so most had no women employees. You had to wait till 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 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. This circumstance tended to discourage most cowboys from marrying and settling down. Most were itinerant bachelors, “saddle bums” who drifted from ranch to ranch. According to Montana artist Charlie Russell, who cowboyed in the late 1800’s, “Cowpunchers were careless, homeless, hard-drinking men.” Only in the Spanish-speaking southern U.S. did a few big outfits encourage their vaqueros to have families and live on the ranch year-round.

Most ranches had a bunkhouse where the boys slept, ate, and hung out together. On our ranch, the 1880’s 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 1940’s, 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 the 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. The economic reason for this partnership was the low pay. In those days, society expected a man to own a house and prove he could support a family before he got married. But a dirt-poor cowboy could hardly afford to feed a wife and kids on forty dollars a month. As one old cowboy song put it: “When all your bills are settled,/ There’s nothing left for beer.”

Typically a pair of men operated on the old adage that “two can live as cheaply 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. One old song was “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.

It seems pretty safe to assume that some of these rawhide partnerships extended into discreet sexual intimacy. I’ve come to think that gay cowboy love was silently accepted by many livestock owners as an unavoidable result of their circumstances. They let some of the boys have it because it made the loneliness and hardship bearable—as long as two partners were discreet and did their jobs. Ranches who treated men well got their pick of the best men, and that could include two buckaroos who were an item. The policy of not asking questions was conveniently invoked here.

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. Our own ranch dropped from 50,000 deeded acres and two million acres of leased grazing in 1900 to just 6,000 deeded acres by 1940. Agriculture was mechanizing by then, and fewer horses and men were needed.

During World War II, the trend accelerated. Many a young puncher who was drafted into the armed forces and drove a tank or jeep across Europe came home 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, all we needed now was three or four hands. As a teenager, I always helped my dad, my brother, and the foreman move the cow herd between summer range and the home ranch.

When the livestock industry stopped being so dependent on that big workforce, I think many Westerners started to ask nosy questions about that traditional buckaroo bachelorhood. A cowboy was now expected to marry.

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, which 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, the conservative white or plaid Pendleton cowboy shirt, the re-soled Justin boots, were fine for the arena. 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. Contestants suddenly found their private lives under the harsh floodlights of gossip, kidding, and social scrutiny. Indeed, I think that the raw heterosexism of today’s professional 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 story of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar fits this historical trend. 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. Brokeback Mountain unfolds the tale of Ennis’s grim struggle to support a family on the few rural jobs available in Wyoming. “I’m nothing … and nowhere,” Ennis tells Jack. Jack had an option that Ennis didn’t. He had rodeo—and the social opportunities afforded by the rodeo scene. His curly hair and quick smile were good enough to snag a rodeo queen from a well-to-do Texas family. So Jack moved up the social ladder a little. Now he had the 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 go live with him on their own little place. But Ennis knew this old-time strategy for closet “partners” was now risky, so he refused.

The 50’s and 60’s would be called the Golden Age of Rodeo as the sport went professional. In 1963, a real-life Jack waiting his turn at the bucking chutes would have rubbed shoulders with world champions like Larry Mahan, Gene Rambo, Casey Tibbs. But Jack would have been just a face lost in that crowd. Annie Proulx wrote: “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.” So Jack often finished out of the money. One year he earned just $3,000, along with a list of sprains and broken bones that would have crippled a city dude.

In 1983, Jack’s story ends with a beating by gay-bashers at the age of 43. 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 a hard time hiring a stock contractor and a venue. But finally the event came off at the Washoe County Fairgrounds on Oct. 2. The Court raised thousands of dollars for charity.

Contrary to what some right-wingers say, it isn’t hard to find gay rodeo cowboys who competed in mainstream rodeo when they were still in the closet. I’ve been running into them for years as I travel across the U.S. on book tours. Today, however, openly gay contestants can only be found in gay rodeo. Around 1996, when I got acquainted with the gay rodeo circuit, it was amazing to see how much our creative version of this sport had grown. Inspired by Ragsdale’s event, GLBT rodeo producers had emerged in other states, among them: Wayne Jakino and John King of Colorado, Linn Copeland of Kansas, Al Bell of California, Terry Clark of Texas. Visionary producers like these women and men were the ones who sparked the formation of local rodeo associations across the country. They hooked up the GLBT rodeo movement with country-Western gay bars, clogging and square-dance groups, equestrian centers, and the like, to create the package that’s familiar to gay rodeo fans today.

As gay rodeo grew, Reno remained a focus, with the International Gay Rodeo Association’s National Finals held there. Today IGRA’s calendar lists rodeos in 25 U.S. and Canadian cities. The old Imperial Court connection is still strong. No gay rodeo is complete without high camp, such as drag rodeo queens with truckloads 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 get to ride broncs and bulls, while men get to compete in barrel racing, traditionally a female event. And creative gay and lesbian minds have created new events for tenderfoots, such as “goat dressing,” where you wrestle a pair of men’s boxer shorts onto a goat.

As a reflection of the new agribusiness scene, pro rodeo of 2006 is radically different from those cow-country contests of 1869. Fewer contestants are ranch kids now; the “urban cowboy” rules. City kids can overcome their fear of animals and learn bullriding in special schools, even college courses. Contestants train hard like any Olympic athlete. The familiar cowboy hat, which offers no protection against being kicked in the face, is giving way to a protective helmet with face mask.

Bullriding has gone international and is 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 bullriding vest is plastered with sponsor logos. Top contestants can win $250,000 a year, with a few individuals topping a million.

Some people complain that today’s professional rodeo has become too commercial. 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. The two-legged athlete out there on the back of the hoofed hurricane may be non-heterosexual, but he or she is still pitting human skills against the skills of a powerful animal athlete. And the old question is still there to be answered: which of the two will win?


Patricia Nell Warren grew up on a big cattle ranch just north of Deer Lodge, Montana. Known as the CK in the 19th century, the ranch was re-launched as the Warren Hereford Ranch by her father in the 1930’s. Today the ranch belongs to the National Park Service and is open to the public as the Grant-Kohrs Ranch National Historic Site. As a teen, Warren competed in amateur 4-H, high school rodeo, barrel racing, and other events open to girls. She won what she calls her “first and only” belt buckle as Best All-Around Cowgirl around 1951. She first wrote about gay cowboys in her bestselling 1976 novel The Fancy Dancer.

Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.