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When most people think of the Wild West era of 1865 to 1895, they imagine ultra-masculine cowboys who drank whiskey, roped steers, shot revolvers and frequented brothels. Just look at HBO’s Westworld — it’s filled with blood-thirsty bandits but nary a gay cowboy. But no matter your preconceptions, queer historian Michael Lyons says the 19th century American frontier was much gayer than most people think.
Lyons followed the exploits of “Scottish-born adventurer and noted homosexual” William Drummond Stewart, a military nobleman known for his gay adventures in the American West. Stewart’s travels and other historical facts make for some eye opening revelations about the queer frontier.
Here are 5 things you might not have known about the Wild West:
1. Male travel companions
After coming to America in 1832, Stewart joined a “rendezvous” of hunters and trappers in Wyoming and met a French Canadian-Cree hunter named Antoine Clement who became his lover for nearly a decade. As an experienced frontiersman, Clement undoubtedly showed Stewart the ropes of frontier life.
Later on, when the two returned to Scotland after the death of Stewart’s older brother, Stewart presented Clement as his valet (a male attendant responsible for his clothes and appearance) and footman (a uniformed servant who met guests and waited on him at the tables).
Clement reportedly didn’t like Scotland (probably because his boyfriend kept passing him off as the help) and so he and Stewart began traveling the world together. But even today closeted conservatives still pass off their male lovers as “luggage handlers” and “travel companions.”
2. “Bachelor weddings”
Lyons points out that California’s population before the 1849 Gold Rush was 90% male, and most of the men did male-dominated jobs that excluded women like “mining, cattle herding, ranching, hunting and trapping or the military.”
As a result, groups of men would form homes together and some men would do housework previously left to women like cooking, cleaning and laundry. Sometimes these men would also share beds and form partnerships known as “bachelor marriages.”
Historians have noted that these small, all-male families were made up of Chinese, African and Latino settlers, something that both exacerbated racial tensions, especially when food tastes and customs came into conflict, and transcended racial conflicts altogether.
Old-timey photos of same-sex cowboy couples also show the commonality of male affection during the 19th century, but not all of the men pictured in such photos were lovers. Many were just friends or relatives who felt comfortable expressing physical intimacy back then.
3. Same-sex dances
While terms like “homosexual” and “heterosexual” weren’t really in use at the time, men still expressed some of their same-sex affection on the dance floor.
An article entitled “Paradise of Bachelors” says the lack of women compelled men to hold dances where “half of the men danced the part of women, wearing patches over the crotches of their pants to signal their ‘feminine’ role.”
Some modern day dance events at gay country western bars, Latino bars, Renaissance fairs and contra dance meet-ups have leading partners wear something signifying their traditionally “male” role.
4. Native American “berdaches”
You’ve probably heard of Native American two-spirits — tribal religious leaders and teachers believed to have the spirit of a man and the spirit of a woman within them. Two-spirits lived across America at the time, but they weren’t seen as trans women and men, really. Rather, they fell somewhere along the gender spectrum.
While Christian-influenced Latin-American and European settlers condemned two-spirits as “sodomites” (and some of them did have same-sex or bi-fluid relationships), Native Americans focused instead on two-spirits’ spiritual gifts, allowing them to enter spaces meant exclusively for men or women. Female two-spirits also existed and would sometimes enter unions with other women in the tribe.
History also points out use of the Wild West word “berdache,” a Persian-derived term commonly applied to two-spirits. The word isn’t a synonym, though, because of its more overt sexual overtones; it is similar to the words “lover” or “boyfriend.” Some people consider the word offensive now because of its derogatory use by some frontiersmen.
5. Rennaisance-themed orgies
Most surprisingly, when Stewart returned to America in 1843, he planned a large “frontiersman rendezvous” and travelled with “a large entourage” to Fremont lake for the event. Stewart brought along “a large array of velvet and silk Renaissance costumes for his all-male guests to wear during the festivities.”
A historian called the event “a rollicking medieval market faire” where “naked men crawled out from beneath striped canvas” of the tents to go loudly skinny dipping in the nearby lake. Most were in their teens and 20s.
A scandal during the “Renaissance pleasure trip” reportedly caused Stewart to return immediately to Scotland and never return to America again.
Did you have any idea just how gay the Wild West was?
This story was originally published on April 5, 2017.