Wednesday, February 12, 2014


You wanna talk macho?  This guy is Spanish.  It's his language.
The photo is off a gay website.

A professor of Western history (a field at least split and possibly more chaotic than some will admit as terms and scope get massively reframed) asked for help thinking about the lynching of a handsome, competent young man in 1888 Arizona.   Son of a wealthy Massachusetts mill manager and prohibitionist, this fellow owned a ranch, where he gave sanctuary to TB sufferers, but only men and tough guys at that.  He did not associate with women and did not attend local dances.  Two of his hired men and he himself were seized, taken by “Texans and Mormons” to the county line, evidently to blur jurisdiction, and all three hanged.   He had been warned.

The historian asks: “When they lynched him, they tied a delicate scarf around his neck to mock him, [ i.e. to prevent him from getting rope burn]  Might this indicate that they were mocking him for being gay?  Now, I realize that no one was "gay" then. . .[the concept did not exist yet] You might wonder what other reasons I have for suspecting Stott to have been attracted to other men.  None, really, except that he sought out an all-male culture.  They accused him of horse theft, but they could easily have brought him to trial for that ... the juries were regularly convicting horse thieves at that time.  And the county prosecutor was going after any and all criminals.”  Was he convicted of being homosocial or simply for consorting with thieves?   If he’d had a wife, would he have been spared?  There was also a mention of “the white feather” which was presented to men who appeared to be cowards in a time of war.  In the Civil War, one could pay one’s way out of conscription.

There comes a point in settlement when the tolerance for difference and disorder that tolerated -- even encouraged -- unique people is given over to reform sentiments, the idea to become civilized, which is usually code for “just like what we left.”  The group coalesces and tries to push individuals into conformity in preparation for political unity and power: written rules, identity as a group.  Given the ethnic and geographic origins of these people, much importance would be given to the separation of the sexual identities, particularly among Mormons who valued obedience and fertility in their women.  But this fellow doesn’t sound limp-wristed or overly “poetic.”  (I never use the word “effeminate.”)

Harold Bell Wright

In the small Montana town where I live -- which still struggles to feel mainstream -- gay is synonymous with weak, ineffectual, not fit enough to survive.  The novels from the turn of the century had titles like "When a Man's a Man," (Harold Bell Wright) and often turned on acts of courage that redeemed men who had been considered failures.  Greenhorns, tenderfeet, like Patches in this novel, were subjected to rank bucking horses and other ordeals.  Of course, the women generally admired gentle men.  And gentlemen.  When Patches turns out to have money, they are delighted.  If a wedding ring is involved, well. . .  Wright, who was an ordained minister, is better known for "The Shepherd of the Hills," with a similar theme but in the Ozarks where he had gone in hope of improving his health.

Matthew Shephard

Substituting at the high school library, I was behind the check-out counter when a boy came in scowling at a paper he had just gotten back with a bad grade.  He grumbled,  "I knew Mr. X was gay!"  (Mr. X was married and had children.)   I asked,  "What do you think 'gay' means?"   He was incredulous that I didn't know that gay meant frivolous, incompetent, disrespectful, etc.  In other words, to be “gay” in his mind was to be feminine (“effeminate”) -- why else would anyone want sex with a man?  To be perverted in this way meant to be marked as sinful, fair game for stigma, teasing, and violence.  Matthew Shepard was beaten to death not just because he was desirous of sex with men but even more because he was seen as being in a category legitimate to assault, stigmatized by his vulnerability, literally defenseless as well as "socially deficient." 

It wasn't until the SF "leather lit" movement of motorcycle bears and military veteran S/M gladiators that the image of "gay" changed.  Even now I find that historians of the West (except in California) don’t have this consciousness of gay.  And yet Western literature is replete with confrontations between two strong men, intimate in their conflict, but never allowing "love" which the S/M couples assert.  When the other guy comes too close, gunfighters shoot. 

Tying a scarf on the victim of a necktie party almost sounds like a rehearsal, a test to see what would happen with the final fatal intimate contact, mockery as relief from ambivalence.  (At the moment the man was challenging them to fist fight as equals.)  All cowboys wore scarves around their necks for utilitarian reasons (not bandannas, which are for farmers), so it would not be the fact of a scarf but the nature of the particular one that was mockery.  Old-timer Blackfeet warriors wore silk scarves over their heads the way the Queen of England does.  Cowboys around here, including Bob Scriver, wore black silk scarves close around their necks -- not flowing like Tom Selleck’s but wound around several times to protect from sunburn and chafing.

Bob Scriver, 1962

Tom Selleck

As I think about this a little more, there's another element.  People who work with contagious diseases spread by sexual contact have recently been talking about a "new" category that they call MSM, which stands for Men who have Sex with Men.  It is not considered the same as gay, which would be men who specifically desire and exclusively have sex with other men, avoiding women.  MSM is men who occasionally, situationally, or sometimes just for the hell of it, have sex with men.  They are not born gay, as others are.  

Another possibility is that this man was somehow sexually atypical.  There are people who are born both female AND male, or a mix of the two.  Not cross-dressers, but people who have both kinds of genitals or a compromise between the two,  because of variation at the cellular chromosomal level:  XY or XX being "normal", there are people who are XXY, XYY, or even XXX.  (There must be at least one X in order to have a viable being, because the X carries the instructions for the cell as well as DNA that guides the cell.)  I don't suppose historians generally include this stuff in their course of study, but I'm coming partly from a ministry standpoint.  Historians would know of cases of women who passed as men, esp. during the Civil War and on the frontier.

Calamity Jane

MSM have always been present.  There's nothing particularly biological about it -- more situational.  The key to much sexuality is domination; violence can be part of that domination.  A cowboy who can't dominate a cow is in big trouble.  No doubt the cowboy turned that on other people, too.   Still does.  

Another angle is that getting pregnant was often a death sentence on the frontier, partly because of lack of medical help and partly because of lack of soap and water as well as antibiotics -- let alone any anesthesia.  My own great-grandmother died from an infection after giving birth.  We forget that "the pill" wasn't just freedom from unwanted babies, but also freedom from the life-threatening danger of childbirth.  

As many contemporaries have discovered, anal sex is a birth control method that protects the hymen, the “proof of virginity.”  (Virginity is not about lack of experience -- it’s about guaranteeing that the child belongs to the man.  We can do that with DNA now.)  But men who use anal sex with women, would probably (!) know how to do that with other men.  Anal sex is one of the definitions of sodomy, which is irrelevant to the gender of the aperture or even the species.  Unfortunately, attempts to discuss such matters in a sensible way -- even on academic listservs -- soon become a venue for sheep jokes.  But this is my blog.  And I've already heard 'em.

No comments: