John Wayne and the Queer Frontier:
Deconstructions of the Classic Cowboy Narrative
during the Vietnam War

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2006, Volume 5, Issue 1

Christopher Le Coney and Zoe Trodd
Harvard University

“John Wayne?! You’re gonna tell me that John Wayne’s a fag?!”
–Midnight Cowboy (1969)

“I gave my dead d--- for John Wayne.”
–Ron Kovic (1976)

“There ain’t no queer in cowboy and I don’t care for anyone suggesting there is,” snapped Wyoming cowboy Jim-Bob Zimmerschied in December 2005 (qtd. in Sherwell). The growing numbers of participants at regional and national gay rodeo finals, and the existence of the International Gay Rodeo Association (founded in 1981 and now with member associations across most states, the District of Columbia, and two Canadian provinces) might suggest otherwise. But, responding to questions about Ang Lee’s critically acclaimed film Brokeback Mountain, Zimmerschied continued: “I’ve been doing this job all my life and I ain’t never met no gay cowboy…John Wayne and Will Rogers, they made real cowboy movies. They portrayed us like we are” (qtd. in Sherwell).

Nearly thirty years after his death, Wayne’s name has been continually invoked in interviews, reviews, and articles sparked by the release of Brokeback Mountain. Ubiquitous in Western genre films from the 1930s through the 1970s, and a cultural icon of titanic proportions, Wayne’s tall stature, chiseled jaw, and broad shoulders made him the perfect celluloid cowboy. His performances set the standard by which all Hollywood cowboys – including Ang Lee’s – were then judged. “I think my career demonstrates that I am no panty-waist,” Wayne told a Playboy journalist in 1971 (92), and this decades-long career had made Wayne a poster-boy for strong, independent, American masculinity. Wayne’s was also a heterosexual masculinity. His on and off screen personas were unambiguously straight: on screen he idealized a vision of virile straight men who waged battle by day and wooed women by night, and off-screen his personal demeanor and political values seemingly mirrored those of his cowboy characters. He espoused conservative causes, repeatedly expressed a personal distaste for homosexuality, particularly its pervasive presence in Hollywood, and proclaimed himself disgusted by Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959). “They’ve gone and killed John Wayne with this movie,” concluded Zimmerschied of Brokeback Mountain (qtd. in Sherwell). But while Lee’s portrayal of gay cowhands in Brokeback Mountain might be an affront to the John Wayne myth of an exclusively heterosexual frontier, it is by no means the first. Beginning in the late 1960s, this cultural myth has been under attack.

John Schlesinger’s Western, Vietnam, and a
Frontier Dystopia

It was a brisk January day in 1974 and the citizens of Cambridge did not know what to make of the spectacle. A boisterous crowd of nearly 400 Harvard students was milling about a military armored personnel-carrier as it made its way down Mt. Auburn Street towards the Harvard Lampoon office. All eyes were fixed upon the 6’4” barrel-chested figure who stood atop the tank with an unloaded gun, smiling and waving casually as he dodged the occasional incoming snowball. Cambridge’s celebrity visitor was none other than John Wayne, celluloid cowboy extraordinaire and the recent recipient of the Lampoon’s Brass Balls Award, given in recognition of his “machismo” and his “penchant for hitting people in the mouth” (Kifner 41). An article in the New York Times noted that although Wayne was foraying into “hostile territory,” he managed to charm the liberal-leaning campus community. The Lampoon had invited him to take part in a political debate where he answered pointed questions on his conservative politics. A handful of Native American activists protested his appearance but, despite the obstacles, the Duke dominated the day’s proceedings with his mix of rough bravado, folksy humor, and sincere disregard for the academy’s liberal sensitivities. The New York Times even summed up the day’s debate by painting Wayne as a modern-day Theodore Roosevelt – a “symbol of American mythology: cowboy, soldier, agent of empire” (Kifner 41).

Wayne dominated Harvard that winter day, just as his character Dunson had dominated the body and spirit of Matthew Garth in Howard Hawks’s Red River (1948). Ironically, however, Red River is one of several pre-Stonewall counter-westerns: The Outlaw (1943), The Left-Handed Gun (1958), and Red River are all charged with homo-eroticism. But while the gay sub-currents of these pre-Stonewall films occasionally bubble up in moments of release, any up-swellings are usually mitigated, subdued, or window-dressed. It wasn’t until the 1969 release of both Lonesome Cowboys and Midnight Cowboy that homoerotic undercurrents within the western genre reached the point of overflow. Much ink has been spilled by critics debating whether Joe and Rizzo’s relationship in Midnight Cowboy is homosexual, for it resists a conclusive label (though even Wayne could not ignore its explicit interrogation of cowboy sexuality: answering a Playboy interviewer’s question about “perverted” films, Wayne responded, “Wouldn’t you say that…Midnight Cowboy, a story about two fags, qualifies? But don’t get me wrong; as far as a man and woman are concerned, I’m awfully happy there’s a thing called sex” [76]). However, the true significance of John Schlesinger’s 1969 film lies in this critical debate itself: Midnight Cowboy marks a tentative yet clear turning-point in the history of the Hollywood western.

Midnight Cowboy is the tale of a Texan named Joe Buck who takes a bus to New York in search of rich women who will hire him as a hustler, but who instead ends up spending a hard winter with a con artist named Ratso Rizzo. As Joe leaves Texas in the film’s opening moments, he passes an abandoned movie theatre whose marquee still advertises the last film shown, Wayne’s The Alamo (1960). That film has a special place in John Wayne’s filmography, for Wayne not only starred but also directed and produced it as his personal pet project. The abandoned movie theater suggests a masculine icon in peril – another toppled, empty myth – and anticipates the situation in New York, where macho gay cowboy clones further undermine masculine signifiers. In fact, another toppling strategy employed by Schlesinger is to focus on the largely performative foundations of the macho cowboy myth. Joe wears a snappy, tight-fitting cowboy outfit complete with western boots and a hat, and the camera frequently dwells on booted feet walking or cowboy hats bouncing along the street, yet women wear faux western outfits, and gay male hustlers dress as cowboy clones. Schlesinger’s clones emphasize the fragility of the macho cowboy myth, as Rizzo explains: “That great big dumb cowboy crap of yours don’t appeal to nobody, except every Jackie on 42nd street! That’s faggot stuff! You want to call it by its name, that’s strictly for fags!” In reply, Joe stammers: “John Wayne?! You’re gonna tell me that John Wayne’s a fag?!” This tentative, yet open vocalization of the homoerotic subcurrents in westerns signaled a shift in the cultural landscape: fissures had formed in the cowboy’s identity, in part because of the pervasive presence of frontier language and imagery during the Vietnam war. 1.

The frontier loomed large as early as 1960, when John F. Kennedy’s Democratic Party Nomination acceptance speech observed: “From the lands that stretch 3000 miles behind me, the pioneers of old gave up their safety, their comfort and sometimes their lives to build a new world here in the West…But the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won, and we stand today on the edge of a new frontier.” Seven years later American politicians and generals called hostile Vietnam “Indian country” and referenced “Daniel Boon Squads.” In Dispatches, for example, Michael Herr claims that a captain invited him to play cowboys and Indians. Vietnam had become a movie: approached by politicians like a western and fought by cowboy-generals and soldiers with expectations of what veteran Ron Kovic later called “the glory John Wayne war” (158). The silver-screen myth of the West seemed to be informing America’s ongoing struggle in Vietnam: a pioneer cavalry entered a wilderness of savages, and Kovic, for one, felt like “your John Wayne come home,” as the first-edition cover to his Vietnam memoir put it.

Conflated in the American imagination were frontier myths, the Vietnam War, and the cult of John Wayne. As Richard Slotkin explains in Gunfighter Nation, the frontier myth “provided an imaginative model of the kind of historical actor who is needed in a struggle of this kind.” The “new enemy does not fight by civilized rules,” Slotkin continues, and so “can only be defeated by someone who combines the amoral pragmatism and technical expertise of the gunfighter with the skill in handling natives that belongs to the ‘man who knows Indians’” (446). Slotkin adds that the “historical past was itself encoded in the terms of myth…the scenarios and game-models developed by the policy-makers were not very different from the imaginative projections that were developed by fiction writers and filmmakers…Tropes and symbols derived from Western movies had become one of the more important interpretive grids through which Americans tried to understand and control their unprecedented and dismaying experiences in Vietnam” (546). And, while history became a movie, movies about Vietnam referenced frontier-history. Directors, unwilling to make explicit antiwar movies, transformed Vietnam into the Indian frontier: Soldier Blue (1970) and Little Big Man (1970) drew parallels between the Sand Creek and Wichita River massacres of 1864 and 1868, and the My Lai massacre of 1968. Westerns made between 1965 and 1972 were often about Vietnam, and Vietnam continued to be represented as a western: after the war, The Deer Hunter (1978) revisited Vietnam as a mythic frontier, drawing upon James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), and in Full Metal Jacket (1987) a soldier asks, “Is that you, John Wayne? Is this me?” while another comments, “I’ll be General Custer, but who’ll be the Indians?”

Only one Vietnam film was made while the war unfolded: The Green Berets (1968), a propagandist movie partly sponsored by the Department of Defense and the only feature film of the period to support American involvement in Vietnam. Wayne directed and starred as Colonel Kirby, named after a character in Fort Apache (1948). The Montagnard outpost becomes “Dodge City” and Wayne’s western persona blends with his other significant genre role as a soldier. The film’s producer even admitted: “when you’re making a picture, the Indians are the bad guys” (qtd. in Suid 233). Thus helping to sustain America’s cowboy dreams on the silver screen – offering the frontier cowboy as a model American soldier – Wayne also translated those dreams into Realpolitik, becoming a vocal supporter of the war.

Yet by 1968 the war had begun to undermine Americans’ confidence in their classic cowboy and Indian narratives; cultural myths of an Anglo-American aggressor who always triumphed over the colored Other. “I gave my dead d--- for John Wayne and Howdy Doody,” wrote Kovic (whose war-wounds left him impotent), also describing “a generation of violence and madness, of dead Indians and drunken cowboys” (98, 158). Doctors dubbed a post-Vietnam stress disorder the “John Wayne Syndrome,” and Kovic’s disillusionment with this war echoed across war journalism, veteran memoirs, and interviews. One marine in Dispatches hates the movie he’s in, and another veteran recalled: “When I went to Vietnam, I believed in Jesus Christ and John Wayne. After Vietnam, both went down the tubes. It don’t mean nothin’” (qtd. in Mahedy 33). Still another recounted: “I lost my footing and slipped into a ditch, went under the water and came up and out, screaming, ‘This ain’t a war movie! This ain’t a John Wayne movie!’…It took me six months in Vietnam to wake up…[Movies] could no longer help me to deflect reality” (qtd. in Bird 11). America was finding no regeneration through violence in Vietnam. In 1970, journalist Saul Pett observed: “We walk safely among the craters of the moon but not in the parks of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles. Technology and change run berserk, headlights hide by day and moral values shred overnight. The unthinkable multiplies until it seems ‘things fall apart – the center cannot hold’…America is no longer immune to history…America, we seem suddenly to have discovered, is no longer infinite in space or resources or hope. There is no next valley or virgin forest to tread” (qtd. in Roberts and Olson 586). Echoing Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 pronouncement of the closing of the frontier, Pett’s article re-declared the end of cowboy dreams: someone tell John Wayne the cowboy is not invincible.

Wayne was a standard-bearer for the American right, and he came under attack from Native American groups, feminists, and gay rights groups, as well as from anti-war protesters. After all, when inviting Wayne to Harvard, the Lampoon had written: “We’ve heard you’re supposed to be some kind of legend, everybody talks about your he-man prowess… You think you’re tough. We’re not so tough. We dare you to have it out, head on, with young whelps here who call the supposedly unbeatable John Wayne, the biggest fraud in history” (qtd. in Kifner 41). Though Wayne often fought back against criticism, frequently offering incendiary comments to the press, the students’ confrontational language and ironic cynicism was indicative of Wayne’s contested legacy in the wake of campus anti-war sentiment. 2.

Activists from all of the 1960s major protest movements turned the pervasive frontier mythology back on those perpetuating it and appropriated the cowboy soundtrack to Vietnam. Within the context of the Native American protest movement, some activists argued that if history was repeating itself, then – contrary to Marx’s famous dictum that it repeats first time as tragedy, second time as farce – Vietnam repeated a tragedy: “history repeats itself and this is not the first time that American soldiers have murdered women and children…how about Wounded Knee?”, observed a letter to Life magazine in 1969 (qtd. in White 46). A protest image by Roland Winkler, published in the journal Akwesasne Notes in 1974, juxtaposed North American Indians with Vietnamese, connected by a flag in the shape of the Statue of Liberty superimposed, and Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970) sold over five million copies within two years: Brown’s success was due in part to the situation in Vietnam, for his book’s publication coincided with protests against the war that pointed to the inherent violence of American culture and sought previous examples of America’s empire mentality. If there were connections between the wars at home and abroad, then protest over Vietnam could inspire and fuel protest over domestic abuses of power. American Indian Movement (AIM) members, many of whom were Vietnam veterans, identified with anti-Vietnam war protestors, connecting American imperialism abroad and at home. Activists drew comparisons between Vietnam and Wounded Knee, then returned to the site of Wounded Knee for a battle with U.S. armed forces and a 71-day occupation from March to May 1973 – one of AIM’s most high-profile protests. “The best analogy is South Viet Nam,” insisted Kenneth Tilson, an attorney fighting the government’s illegal invasions of reservations. “Most obviously, there is a corrupt government of natives, who are set up, armed, supplied, financed, propagandized for, and maintained in power by the U.S. Government” (qtd. in Voices 128).

Some wondered if contemporary Indian wars were in fact preparation for Vietnam: “we used to talk about ‘bringing the war home,’” said Bruce Elison recently. “[T]he FBI…thought that that was really a good idea, and many of the tactics that they used in Indochina and Central America and other places in this world, they decided to try out on the Pine Ridge Reservation” (n.p.). The U.S. government did “bring the war home”: one government agency ran a public campaign linking the Black Panthers to the Vietcong. But, again, activists turned this connection around. Beyond AIM, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw Civil Rights and Black Power protesters make the connection between the wars at home and abroad. On January 6, 1966, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee issued a public position paper that connected lynching to the Vietnam war: “The murder of Samuel Young in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam,” they said. “Samuel Young was murdered because the United States law is not being enforced. Vietnamese are murdered because the United States is pursuing an aggressive policy in violation of international law” (416). The Panthers were soldiers at war in “the jungle which is America,” added Reginald Major (280), and in 1967 Huey Newton set Vietnam in a history of racist policies: “The enslavement of black people from the very beginning of this country, the genocide practiced on the American Indians and the confining of the survivors on reservations, the savage lynching of thousands of black men and women…and now the cowardly massacre in Vietnam, all testify,” he claimed, “to the fact that toward people of color the racist power structure of America has but one policy: repression, genocide, terror, and the big stick” (7). If the race war raged abroad, it also continued at home: “As the aggression of the racist American government escalates in Vietnam, the police agencies of America escalate the repression of black people throughout the ghettoes of America,” said Newton (8). In 1969, a letter in Life magazine reiterated the connections between domestic racial upheaval and the Vietnam counterinsurgency: “We have thousands of Mylais every day right here in America,” said the reader; “the brutalizing of individuals in the everyday life of urban communities…We accept killing, the killing of civilians in Vietnam and the killing here in Chicago of the head of the black Panthers, as…a way of life” (qtd. in White 46).

Betty Friedan then connected the feminist movement and the Vietnam war; a war seemingly driven by America’s frontier mythology and its well-established vision of ideal masculinity. She recalled seeing male anti-war protesters in 1968, “saying they didn’t have to napalm all the children in Vietnam and Cambodia to prove they were men,” and realizing that they were “defying the masculine mystique as we had defied the feminine mystique” (391-2). Connecting the feminist movement to the anti-war movement, she explained in 1973: “I believe the locked-up sexual energies have helped to fuel, more than anyone realizes, the terrible violence erupting in the nation and the world during the past ten years. If I am right, the sex-role revolution will liberate those energies from the service of death and will make it really possible for men and women to ‘make love, not war’” (395). Adrienne Rich made a similar connection between masculinity and war in her 1976 sequence of lesbian-love sonnets, “Twenty-One Love Poems”: “You know, I think that men love wars,” she wrote. “And they still control the world, and you are not in my arms” (35).

Slotkin documents how the western genre was beset by “counterculture Westerns” in the early 1970s, and links this to Vietnam and race-based protest (631). In part, the 1960s marked the beginning of the end for the hegemonic legacy of Theodore Roosevelt’s conception of the American West. While cowhands in the nineteenth century were a group of diverse races and ethnicities, Roosevelt white-washed demographic realities to portray them as distinctly white heroes of the frontier. But while Slotkin explores how race defined Roosevelt’s conception of the frontier, he largely ignores the gender dynamics at work in that conception. Gail Bederman’s Manliness and Civilization goes some way toward correcting this oversight, explaining that Roosevelt’s racial philosophy was inextricably related to his schematic understanding of gender roles in civilized society (18), and, extending this observation to the 1960s, Martin Pumphrey singles out feminism to argue that protest movements asked modern audiences to view the western and Wayne’s cowboy masculinity as anachronistic and ironic (93). Pumphrey’s focus upon gender counterbalances Slotkin’s focus upon race, but neither critic discusses sexuality in their examinations of counter-cultural challenges to the western – in spite of Schlesinger’s “perverse” story “about two fags” and Andy Warhol’s flamboyantly queer western of 1969, Lonesome Cowboys.

Yet gay rights activists also questioned the acceptance of an exclusively heterosexual American frontier, again confirming the domestic roots of America’s mess abroad and undermining the cultural myths and stereotypes that America had enshrined in the form of Wayne’s westerns. Some envisaged an exclusively homosexual utopia instead. Carl Wittman’s “Refugees from Amerika” called for free, self-governed territory. L. Craig Schoonmaker, leader of Homosexuals Intransigent!, wanted to make gays a majority, suggesting migration to certain city neighborhoods and the takeover of election districts. He recommended beginning with Manhattan’s 19th and 20th Congressional Districts and called this the first Gay Power district (qtd. in Teal 292). Don Jackson wanted to take over Alpine County, in California’s Sierra Nevada, and turn it into a “Stonewall Nation.” At a Berkeley gay liberation conference in December 1969 he laid out his gay nationalist vision: “A beautiful valley in the mountains…A place where a gay government can build the basis for a flourishing gay counter-culture and city…There is a county in California where 200 gays would constitute a majority of registered voters…The colony could become the gay symbol of liberty, a world center for the gay counter-culture, and a shining symbol of hope to all gay people in the world.” Jackson asked pioneers to help form this Stonewall Nation (qtd. in Teal 292-4).

Amid these calls for a new, gay frontier space, gay cowboys began to peek further out of the proverbial closet. Clones appeared within the queer community in the late 1960s and early 1970s: gay men who adopted an overtly butch fashion style that looked to traditional images of masculinity for inspiration (the biker, the lumberjack, the construction worker, and of course, the cowboy). “It would be unlikely for an American boy growing up [in the 1960s] not to have a cowboy hero,” explained one gay man to fashion historian Shaun Cole (127), and clones (so named because they all looked alike) were particularly drawn to the cowboy – in large part because cowboys were larger-than-life masculine icons. Then Lonesome Cowboys and Midnight Cowboy reclaimed the silver screen frontier as a space for gay cowboys.

Midnight Cowboy’s connection to Vietnam is most powerfully established during the nightmare sequence. When Joe is anally raped in a frantic dream with terrifying flashbacks, the John Wayne myth of heterosexual masculinity is sodomized right along with him. The dream sequence depicts a violent gang-bang. Joe’s girlfriend Annie is ripped from his arms, leaving him to be raped by a male posse while she is assaulted in the distance. Joe wakes and yells: “Where my boots, where are my damn boots?!” His dream of rape becomes an almost-castration, felt in the absence of his cowboy boots. Even more significantly, the first thing he hears upon waking is the sound of a radio anchor announcing the latest death toll in Vietnam. He grabs the radio out of Rizzo’s hands and switches it off, but cowboy identity, the Vietnam war, and the traumatic rape have collapsed into each other: the scene symbolizes the psychological rape of American warrior-masculinity suffered in Vietnam. 3.

The real-life frontier space of Texas – as well as the filmic frontier so long kept open by Wayne – has been closed. But Midnight Cowboy offers little by way of a new frontier space, for Schlesinger’s vision of an alternative remains decidedly dystopian. Joe’s decision to abandon his dead-end existence as a dishwasher in small-town Texas and depart for New York had seemingly constructed Manhattan as the new frontier space. In the shower before departing Texas, he sings: “Whoopee yi yo! Git along, little doggie, for you know New York will be your new home” The song is a classic Western tune, but the traditional lyrics, as first composed by Owen Wister in 1893, are: “you know that Wyoming will be your new home.” The substitution of New York for the Cheyenne State inverts the traditional East to West frontier narrative, but New York turns out to be no modern utopia. Increasingly lost and dejected, Joe runs out of money and wanders the streets of Gotham that have become his own dystopic urban jungle. As though emphasizing this closing of the frontier, Joe’s New York dream sequence includes numerous scenes where shallow visual fields and jarring camera angles create a sense of claustrophobic entrapment. Several shots in the dream sequence show him trapped in the dead-end of a New York alley, or with his face pressed against a barbed-wire fence (like those that closed off the frontier and ended cattle drives in the great plains). Initially trapped in Texas, he now finds himself trapped in New York. For, if the 1960s saw a crisis in America’s frontier mythology, then Joe is confronting a post-frontier reality: what Herr describes as “the turnaround point where [history] would touch and come back to form a containing perimeter” (49).

Rizzo, on the other hand, dreams of Florida, rather than New York. He adorns his derelict building with brightly-colored posters depicting sunny skies and bountiful orange groves. But his imagined Florida utopia is also a no-place. One of his daydreams begins with the pair running happily along a beach, but it quickly turns nightmarish. Then, toward the end of the film, shots of passing scenery seen through the bus window on the way to Miami, echo similar scenes from Joe’s journey to New York. This framing device in the film echoes Herr’s “containing perimeter” in its circularity. There’s no frontier left and Rizzo and Joe run in vain, as a sign glimpsed earlier in the film had prophesied: at one point Joe’s Manhattan-bound bus passed a roadside motel with a bright neon sign that reads, “The El Dorado.” Just as that mythic land kept the Spaniards searching in vain, so the effort to find a new American frontier is similarly thwarted. Rizzo dies on the bus to Miami leaving Joe alone. Florida is still out of reach for Rizzo – and for Rizzo and Joe as a pair – and the film ends with Joe discarding his cowboy costume. Having woken from an actual dream to hear bad news about America’s latest “Indian War” on the radio, Joe now hears the broader wake-up call for a country cowboy-dreaming its way through a war.

Andy Warhol’s Western, the Gay Rights Movement, and a Queer Frontier

Throughout the 1960s, the growing visibility and activism of racial, feminist, and gay minority groups fermented social unrest and pushed Americans to re-examine long-held assumptions about what made men “men.” The acceptance of heterosexual hegemony was being challenged on multiple fronts by gay rights groups, and, while Midnight Cowboy had connected the gay cowboy to the crisis in Vietnam, Lonesome Cowboys used the figure of the gay cowboy to connect the 1960s gay rights movement to earlier forms of gay activism. In particular, Lonesome Cowboys engages the gay rights movement’s internal debate over the acceptance of effeminate “fairies.” This issue had been a point of heated debate within the gay community for quite some time. As homophobic persecution increased during the Lavender Scare of the early Cold War period, new organizations were formed to address the needs of the gay community. The two most famous of these were The Mattachine Society, founded in 1951 by gay rights activist Harry Hay, and a more radical off-shoot organization called ONE, which aggressively agitated for gay rights in the 1950s. The differing politics of these organizations is clear from the debate surrounding effeminate or “fairy” gay men, which tapped into the deeper issue of how gays understood themselves through traditional gender paradigms. The Mattachine Society’s more conservative tendencies and its aversion to the taint of Communism marginalized more flamboyant homosexuals – the topic of one meeting was: “What can we do about those swishes and dykes that give us a bad name?” ONE took the opposite course, embracing a vision of a distinct gay minority identity and fashioning a broad-based, radical approach.

Activist Jim Kepner attended the Mattachine meeting that addressed the perceived problem of “swishes and dykes.” He recounts that the discussion included repeated complaints that flamboyant gays were hindering the movement by making heterosexuals uncomfortable, until he finally protested – reminding the group that “it was those obvious ones who established squatter’s rights to the Gay bars that the rest of us could sneak in and out of” (3). Continuing to insist that it was flamboyant gays, already marginalized by their obvious nature, who had initiated the homophile movement, Kepner went on to write an editorial for ONE magazine, in 1954, lambasting those gay who “puritanically attack swishes and fairies, insisting they’d never associate with such trash.” Kepner’s editorial explained: “They will try to excommunicate any homosexual who belies their view that we aren’t really different. Neither rebels, nor swishes, nor any others who fall short of their standards of respectability will be welcome in their society…Is our aim to pacify, or to fight?…I am interested in defending my right to be as different as I damn please. And I’ve picked up the notion that I can’t protect my own rights without fighting for everyone else’s” (16).

The debate between Mattachine and ONE over effeminate gays was soon rendered obsolete by the Stonewall riots: that night on Christopher Street marked the beginning of a fundamental shift in the politics of gay rights activism. But this short history of the homophile movement’s differing attitudes towards effeminate gay men offers another perspective from which to view the subversion of the John Wayne cowboy image by Lonesome Cowboys, with its campy cowboys, and Midnight Cowboy, with its uber-masculine clones. In Lonesome Cowboys, there is no longer anything “unspoken” about the love that dare not speak its name: Warhol constructs a Wild Wilde West and a gay utopia that stands in stark contrast to the dystopia imagined by Schlesinger. Even more importantly, however, Lonesome Cowboys offers a frontier utopia where an effeminate cowboy might exist. The town sheriff is an occasional transvestite, and one character notes that they’ve always been accepting of him: “we always respect you…when you got your new wig, no one said anything – we even drove you into town.” Warhol depicts a relationship of tolerance between the macho gay cowboy and the drag queen sheriff; a union of seeming opposites.

Throughout the film, Warhol’s campy cowboys subvert the hyper-masculine John Wayne stereotype. The narrative begins as a curly-haired brunette named Ramona travels the Southwest with her male nurse. They wander the abandoned streets of an ordinary-looking frontier town in Arizona, “looking for a little companionship.” The nurse is immediately coded as gay in traditional Hollywood fashion, with his high-pitched lisp and swishing gait. He soon comments of an empty church that “an altar boy would have done…for either of us.” The pair is then greeted by a band of five “brothers” that ride into town, and a quarrel quickly develops. Ramona questions the brothers’ sexuality, and her nurse makes sexual comments (“look at that man, with a bulge in his pants!”). Enraged, the eldest brother Louis yells: “Listen sheriff – tell these creeps – tell them that they can’t walk around staring at my brothers…those people are perverts,” but his siblings respond warmly with awkward smiles, bowing their heads coyly as the camera lingers on their faces and bodies.

The film shifts to an extended campground scene, where the mostly-naked “brothers” share sleeping bags and cavort in an extended homoerotic wrestling match. The nurse pairs up with one of the younger brothers, prompting Ramona to remark: “But you came out here to cure your perversion.” The nurse is explicitly rejecting the nineteenth-century vision of the frontier as a site of male regeneration, while the wrestling match mocks the warrior-masculinity of those regenerated men. Lonesome Cowboys then moves towards a new vision of the frontier. One of the younger brothers yells at Louis for spending the night with a newcomer named Tom: “I was supposed to sleep with him last night!” Louis ignores his brother and tells Tom: “I want you to stay with us, be a part of us if you can…you’re so beautiful.” The film ends with the pairing of Louis and Tom, who ride off into the sunset, bound for California – a frontier space with “lots of beautiful men,” as Louis promises, adding: “It’s great, you can get anything you want out there.” The space of the Western frontier wilderness is explicitly marked in opposition to the East: “How can you learn life if you’re in the East where they have books, mathematicians, and reading?” one cowboy remarks. “You should be out here, under the trees of life.” There is something “under the trees” that offers these cowboys their regenerative frontier: a utopia regenerated through desire rather than violence. Lonesome Cowboys even had the original title of Ramona and Julian: if camp is the opposite of tragedy, then these names are significant. Warhol inverts the genders of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and his parodic inversion suggests that Lonesome Cowboys rejects the tragic queer-frontier narrative; strains of which are evident in films like The Outlaw, The Left-Handed Gun, and Red River, which variously kill off the queer cowboy, allow him to remain but control latent subversiveness within the trappings of heterosexuality, or banish him to Mexico. Not abandoning but rather adapting America’s cowboy dreams, Warhol offers a renewed vision of the West as what might be termed a homotopia. John Wayne would be skeptical, but Ang Lee’s Jack Twist would surely approve.

To argue that Warhol is queering the frontier, and attacking the John Wayne myth of a heterosexual frontier world, is to run contrary to many critics. For example, Mark Finch, former co-programmer of the London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, notes that “Cowboys doesn’t lay any claims to being a political statement,” and asserts “the absence of easy links between the film’s form and this crucial moment in civil rights politics” (117). Finch misses the political and historical significance of Lonesome Cowboys because he insists that the film has little in common with traditional westerns. Yet the film’s narrative is set at the turn of the twentieth century: the backdrop scenery depicts a classic frontier town with hastily erected wooden structures and dusty unpaved roads, and the characters dress in period attire while playing classic western roles (sheriff, outlaw-cowboys, and the lone woman lost in an otherwise exclusively male world). Staying true to the genre, Warhol’s camp aesthetic was able to manipulate it, allowing the film to take aim at the self-important mythology that had infused westerns since the 1930s. Warhol even shot the film at the Old Tucson set in Arizona, where John Wayne had filmed on numerous occasions. Undermining Wayne’s hyper-straight cowboy with its fake fellatio and naked all-male romping scenes, Lonesome Cowboys simultaneously soils the physical space of the Old Tucson set. Like Schlesinger, Warhol mocks the abandoned mausoleum of myth.

Another aspect of Warhol’s strategy in toppling the mythology of Westerns is to imbue his film with overtones of a post-Western. Before the narrative proper is an extended soft-core sex scene between a curly-haired brunette (the as-yet unidentified Ramona) and her blond Adonis lover. This opening is incongruous with the rest of the film, but it sets the central theme of Warhol’s western: sex. The scene is too mechanical to be erotic and too tedious to be pornographic; it takes the blond lover nearly four, drawn-out minutes to remove his pants. In fact, the scene is so oddly mundane that the viewer’s attention gravitates towards the background rock music: “At the old Rialto theater, the West that lives on the screen brightens up the mezzanine. There I sit stretching wide, just like Lonesome Cowboys ride. At Rialto intermissions, when the dudes slip around…I let my mind turn away, and dream again about the day that I be Lonesome Cowboy bound.” This soundtrack throws the already-confused viewer further off-balance by introducing a self-reflexivity (“the West that lives on the screen”). The film’s opening strategy repeats throughout: Warhol continually seeks to highlight the discrepancy between the genre’s supposed reality and the frontier’s actual reality, often through jarring and self-reflexive juxtapositions between a scene’s visual message and the soundtrack’s spoken one. In addition, the track emphasizes the escapist, fantasy quality of the singer’s identification with the Rialto’s celluloid cowboys. Along with Warhol’s abrupt opening, mechanical sex scene, and the meta-references throughout, it promises a wake-up call from old-school cowboy dreams.

Unlike Schlesinger, Warhol offered the potentially radical vision of a utopian queer frontier; an attractive alternative to America’s fast-spoiling cowboy dreams. Still, the film’s dependence on a camp aesthetic reinforces many of the pre-Stonewall stereotypes of effeminate queers, for though the brothers are not as flamboyant as the nurse, most of them “swish” to some extent. Revolutionary as his film was, Warhol’s gay cowboys perhaps posed less of a threat to male masculinity than the butch Times Square clones of Midnight Cowboy. Yet the public reaction to these films indicates a greater degree of comfort with Schlesinger’s film: Midnight Cowboy, a feature film release by a major Hollywood Studio (United Artists), was a huge success with critics and at the box-office, going on to win seven Academy Award nominations and the “best picture” Oscar – despite its initial X rating from the MPAA – while the reception of Warhol’s film was quite the opposite. Critics panned it, and the FBI condemned it as perverse and dangerous, seizing it repeatedly during screenings in major cities throughout the early 1970s. Warhol’s hopes of releasing the film to a large audience eventually died under the weight of government censorship and after its initial theatrical release, the film’s distribution was limited to one small production run of VHS tapes in Britain. It had to be recovered for archival research purposes in a mid-1980s special joint project by the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum.

Lonesome Cowboys, with its vision of a gay frontier that is willing to reject John Wayne machismo, was noticeably less nostalgic in tone than Midnight Cowboy. That militancy was likely difficult for audiences to accept (when coupled with an avant-garde, art-house style that makes the film seem unpolished, disjointed, and inaccessible for many mainstream viewers). The contrasting success of Midnight Cowboy suggests how deeply it resonated with critics and audiences across the nation: though in many ways a far more depressing film, it interrogated cowboy masculinity while still valuing it. Joe’s comment, “You’re gonna tell me John Wayne’s a fag?!”, reveals an anxiety that mourned what was lost and tried desperately to cling to the cowboy myth despite its faltering. The Vietnam war and 1960s protest culture helped make Midnight Cowboy and Lonesome Cowboys possible, yet even at this watershed moment Americans were more receptive to a depressing dystopia as long as it properly mourned the erosion of the John Wayne myth. To Warhol’s less depressing but far more seditious and liberating vision of a gay frontier, Americans responded with angry accusations of perversity.

In 1969, five years before Wayne blustered into Harvard Square, the stormy winds that had blown throughout the decade finally coalesced into a typhoon of change, engulfing and uprooting the myths of manhood upon which America had come to rely. Stepping out of the celluloid closet more decisively than ever before, the gay cowboy found himself at a crossroads. His future was still uncertain. The clear emergence of latent homoerotic subcurrents, and the shift beyond this newly apparent liminal space – appropriately, the genre’s midnight hour – would continue after 1969, through to Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. But his place within the larger matrix of American identity had begun to shift as he staked out a more visible space on the imagined frontier.


1. Midnight Cowboy has elements of gross homophobia. The comment “that [cowboy] stuff is for fags” is one of several derogatory comments. The first time that Rizzo meets Joe, he yells “get away faggot!” at an effeminate man who wanders up to their table. As far as “real” homosexuals are displayed in the movie, they usually exhibit severe self-loathing and are coded as pathetic or sinister. In some ways, Midnight Cowboy can be considered more homophobic than the westerns it deconstructs, as if it is compensating for the Pandora’s box of masculine crisis that it helped to open. Though it was revolutionary for interrogating constructions of cowboy masculinity, the film seems deeply ambivalent over the answers it finds.

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2. During his visit to Harvard, one student asked Wayne what he thought of the women’s liberation movement, to which the star replied: “I think they have a right to work anywhere they want to [long pause] as long as they have dinner ready when we want it.” And during his infamous 1971 interview with Playboy, Wayne remarked: “I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them [Native Americans]. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.”

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3. Warhol also uses a rape scene to connect his cowboy story to the Vietnam war. One of the brothers in Lonesome Cowboys comments that the rape of Ramona “was fun,” and another retorts: “we’re not here for fun – we’re here to… get ready for World War One.” Playing cowboy like American GIs, the brothers’ attack is seemingly a preparation for war. Yet the rape scene, during which Ramona yells “you faggots,” is farcical, confirming – like Midnight Cowboy – the vulnerability of America’s cowboy dreams and perhaps also the failure of its attempt at imperialist rape. Both films echo the emasculation of Kovic, crippled by a war wound, whose veteran memoir spoke of an invalid nation.

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