'Out West' at the Autry examines the history of homosexuals and transgender people in the Old West

Say the words "gay cowboy" and chances are the conversation will turn to "Brokeback Mountain," the 2005 film starring Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and based on the Annie Proulx short story.

The Oscar-winning drama, which is set in the 1960s to '80s, highlighted a long-submerged facet of frontier culture. But as a new series at the Autry National Center shows, the presence of homosexuals and transgender individuals in the American West is much older than the movie might lead you to think. It is, in fact, almost as old as the West itself.

Take for instance the tale of One-Eyed Charlie.

A stagecoach driver known for his hard drinking and itchy trigger finger, Charlie worked for the California Stage Co., where he earned his reputation as one of the best drivers in the wild West. He traveled between Oregon and California and, the story goes, got his nickname when he lost an eye while attempting to shoe a horse.

But Charlie kept a secret that was revealed only after his death in 1879. When his body was being prepared, a coroner discovered that One-Eyed Charlie was actually a woman.

It turns out that Charlie, nee Charlotte Darkey Parkhurst, had passed much of her adult life as a man. The discovery of her true gender became a local sensation. And her story still fascinates U.S. historians, some of whom believe that she was the first woman to have voted in a presidential election, long before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Stories like One-Eyed Charlie's will be part of the Autry series titled "Out West," looking at the roles of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in frontier history.

"It doesn't just start with 'Brokeback Mountain.' In a way, the movie is an exclamation point to that history," said Stephen Aron, an executive director at the Autry.

The series is the first of its kind hosted by a Western-heritage museum, say people associated with the Autry. It consists of a gallery tour, panel discussions, lectures and performances to be rolled out in four installments over the course of 12 months. Dates for future events are being finalized.

Gregory Hinton, an independent historian who conceived and organized "Out West" for the museum, said the Autry was getting into potentially risky territory with the program.

"They have conservative trustees they have to deal with," he said. "It has not been done without a lot of thought."

One aspect of "Out West" that the Autry handled with special care was the title. An early suggestion was "Gay and the West" but the team at the museum rejected it partly because it was too "hard-hitting," according to Hinton. Officials at the museum said they disliked that title because it didn't include bisexuals and transgender people.

Another title, "Equality and the West," was rejected because it sounded too political.

So far, the Autry hasn't received any complaints about the series either from the public or internally, according to museum leaders. One trustee they wouldn't name voiced concern that the program might portray conservatives as bigots in the vein of the character played by Randy Quaid in "Brokeback Mountain."

The first installment, which took place Sunday at the Autry, was a discussion titled "What Ever Happened to Ennis Del Mar?" The title refers to the Ledger character from "Brokeback" who lived a closeted life in rural Wyoming.

Sunday's panel, which included Times film critic Kenneth Turan, was inspired by an exhibition of two shirts worn by Ledger and Gyllenhaal in the film that went on display at the museum in the summer.

Public interest in the shirts was one of the main motivations for producing "Out West," according to those involved with the project. If "Brokeback Mountain" helped to open the frontier's closet door, the Autry is taking the next step by rummaging through the closet's contents and sharing what it finds with the public.

One of those findings is a pair of wooden "buffalo" chairs from 1841 that was commissioned by Scotsman William Drummond Stewart. The Autry acquired the chairs in the early '90s but the museum has only recently learned about the history behind the artifacts.

Stewart, who hailed from a wealthy Scottish family, traveled the American West in the 1830s. During his journeys, he met a French Canadian man named Antoine Clement, who eventually became his lover. The two moved back to Stewart's castle but arranged for Clement to live as the butler so as not to raise questions.

"It was a strange arrangement, that's for sure. But in many ways, it was a necessary one," said Jim Wilke, the historian who brought the story to the Autry's attention.

He said the "buffalo" chairs were commissioned by Stewart to commemorate his days in the U.S. The objects are made out of wood and feature carved buffalo heads with glass eyes.

The chairs will be part of "Hidden Histories," the second installment of "Out West" scheduled for May that will include a gallery tour.

Patricia Nell Warren, a historian and author, said that same-sex relationships between cowboys were often tolerated in the early days of the West largely because manpower was scarce, thus making it impractical for landowners to be choosy about whom they hired.But attitudes changed with the introduction of mechanized agriculture, which rendered human labor more expendable. "Tolerance went away after that," she said.

Today, the presence of gay men and women in rural America is not exactly embraced by the mainstream but people's perceptions have evolved. James Pluth, a San Diego man who attended Sunday's panel, is a retiree who is actively involved in gay rodeo organizations. He said his sexuality is a "nonissue" when it comes to working with straight rodeo associates.

But, he said that straight rodeo groups sometimes engage in Christian activities, such as group prayer and Bible study, that may make some gay participants feel uncomfortable.

"Out West," which is budgeted at $25,000 -- modest for a museum program of this nature -- is still in the fundraising stage, though it has already attracted some big name contributors like HBO.

The series is expected to feature a segment on homosexuality and Native American cultures.

Organizers are planning to return to "Brokeback Mountain" with a performance of fiction and other literature written by "Brokies" -- an informal group of fans who strongly identify with the film.

Eric Hooper, who lives in San Jose, is a Brokie who said he has seen the movie 56 times in theaters, flying across the country to catch screenings at various festivals and events.

The movie came as a revelation, he said, after living in a city for most of his adult life. "That's what really struck me about 'Brokeback' -- it presented the possibility of being gay and living in rural America."

david.ng@latimes.com

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