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Scholar reclaims hometown of Cody, Wyo., and gays’ and lesbians’ place in the West

A reluctant Gregory Hinton returned to visit Wyoming after being encouraged by retired GOP Sen. Alan K. Simpson, left. Now they are friends.
(John M. Glionna / Los Angeles Times)

Gregory Hinton’s rental car eases along the main drag of this town established by William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody. Hinton’s a proud tour guide of his boyhood haunts in the place where his father was once top editor at the newspaper Cody founded.

Hinton drives streets wide enough for horse-drawn wagons to have made whip-driven turns, passing the white house where he lived until age 8. He gazes toward the window of his old bedroom with particular longing, a sense of something lost.

The gay scholar has come home again.

Through his novels, plays and scholarship, this native son of the Plains has tried to go beyond the hackneyed cowboys-and-Indians portrayal of the region and shed new light on the role gays and lesbians played — and continue to play — in the American West.

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He’s researched tribes that referred to cross-dressing members as “two spirits,” lesbians who made no bones of their sexual orientation and frontier women who impersonated men as a measure of safety.

“We’ve been here since the beginning,” he says. “We’re stakeholders to our own story.”

Hinton came to Cody from his Hollywood home to research the friendship between Buffalo Bill and author Oscar Wilde, who was celebrated for his wit, then reviled for his homosexuality.

Cody hasn’t changed much. Though the library is now a microbrewery, the theater still shows movies and the Absaroka Mountains loom to the west, with Yellowstone National Park just beyond.

Hinton takes a deep breath. Home.

“When I was young, I always had a mountain range over my shoulder,” he says. “I still come back looking for lost dignity.”

Now 61, Hinton came out as gay while a college student in Boulder, Colo. A backlash, including physical threats, fostered a harsh realization: Like legions of others, he would have to leave the small-town West for gay enclaves in West Hollywood or San Francisco.

In 1991, an HIV diagnosis brought new direction to the longtime Hollywood producer and screenwriter. He wrote three novels about the gay experience in the West and celebrated his father, George Clifford “Kip” Hinton, in “Waiting for a Chinook,” a play about a journalist who comes home to seek out his father’s writings.

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In 2009, Hinton spearheaded a move to display the two shirts, symbols of repressed love, worn by gay cowboys in Ang Lee’s movie “Brokeback Mountain.” He’s the creator of Out West, a national program using lectures, plays, film and gallery exhibitions to showcase LGBT history and culture.

Now is the time, Hinton says, for displaced gays and lesbians from the West to come home.

“All of this beauty. We just can’t relinquish that to people troubled by our very being.”

::

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The retired U.S. senator and the gay scholar are eating lunch at the Irma Hotel, the inn Buffalo Bill named after his daughter.

Alan K. Simpson is riffing on the waitresses. “They’re an evil bunch,” the Republican says. “That one over there’s meaner than a barn owl.”

Both are sons of Cody. Simpson once read Kip Hinton’s newspaper columns. They’ve been regulars at the Cody Theater, where Hinton saw “Ben Hur” in 1959 and Simpson watched “The Wizard of Oz” two decades earlier.

Hinton was once afraid of returning to hard-edged Wyoming and wrote Simpson in 2008, introducing himself as a Cody boy who had come out as gay.

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Simpson’s warm response ended, “If you’re thinking of coming back to Wyoming — get on back! It’s home!”

“That letter,” Hinton says, “made me feel like a rich man’s son.”

The two trade gossip. Simpson tells of two lesbians who once lived near town. “There have always been people here who were different,” he says. “But the man-man thing, that was still the ancient curse before this wonderful time.”

Hinton raises his camera for a picture of the senator. “Listen, for God’s sake,” Simpson scolds. “Farting around with that thing.”

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Soon they say their goodbyes with a brotherly embrace.

::

When Hinton came out of the closet, he called his older brother, Scott, with the news. His response: “Join the club.”

His parents then learned that they had not one but two gay sons. The parents said that being two meant they could protect each other. Their parents helped. When the brothers got a threatening call at home, Kip Hinton took the phone and said, “If you ever call here again, I’ll kill you.”

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Years later, Hinton and his father would meet for martinis and talk frankly about their lives, and about acceptance.

Research for “Waiting for a Chinook” helped him get to know his gregarious father and mother, Jeanne, better. On this visit to Cody, he again delves into his family’s past.

Hinton sits in the offices of the Cody Enterprise, poring over papers published when his father was editor, from 1956 to 1962, after he moved the family from Montana — the two boys and daughter Christine.

“My father took that,” he says, pointing to a photo that won a national award that year, of a boy falling off a bucking rodeo steer.

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Except for his sister, they’re all dead now — his father, mother and brother, each of lung cancer.

Hinton still uses his father’s name to open doors in Cody.

“It’s part of my journey back here,” he says. “I want my father to have a legacy.”

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Jeremy Johnston had been a curator of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West for just a month when the gay scholar called a few years ago — he wanted to use the center’s collection to research homosexuals in the Old West.

Johnston hesitated. He liked the idea, but this was Wyoming. He wasn’t sure the museum board would embrace the proposal.

But the board went for it. And Johnston knows why.

“The research he was doing hit upon something we always thought about Cody,” he says of Hinton. “Sure, there’s vocal criticism about gays, and all the jokes. But there’s also an ingrained ethic in the West, to live and let live.”

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But with Hinton, there was something more.

“Outsiders are always coming here with their ideas about water, gay rights and reintroducing wolves,” Johnston says. “But Gregory isn’t an outsider. He’s one of us.”

::

Back in 2001, Hinton and his brother took a road trip and joked about what their lives would have been if they’d stayed in Cody: Scott, an artist, would have been the town florist; scholar Gregory its librarian.

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A year later, Scott was dead, and Hinton took another journey, this time to scatter his brother’s ashes in Wyoming, along Crazy Woman Creek. Had Scott lived to see the U.S. Supreme Court uphold gay marriage, he would have been first in line to wed his longtime partner.

Hinton continues to write and lecture — about his father, gay history and the merits of gay rodeo. He recently helped establish an archive of gay Western history at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, called “Out West in the Rockies.”

And he drives. One recent evening, he motors toward Shoshone Canyon and its prehistoric majesty, on what Teddy Roosevelt is said to have called the most beautiful drive in the world. Back home in Hollywood, he dreams about this place.

He emerges from a tunnel, the expanse of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir before him. “Now you see,” he says, “why I come back.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

Twitter: @jglionna

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