Patricia Nell Warren

LGBT History Month: A Tale of Old-time Montana

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | October 09, 2008 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: coming out of the closet, LGBT allies, LGBT history month, Montana, tolerance

One coming-out in one small town can move the hearts of a lot of people for a long time after. Whenever I go home to Deer Lodge, Montana, and enjoy the acceptance -- or at least tolerance -- of a certain percentage of the population, I know that I owe it to a man named Jan Stewart. Deer Lodge is the 2nd oldest community in the state -- it goes back before the 1860s gold rush, before the mixed-blood ranchers who settled there in the 1850s, into the last days of the fur trade and the First Nation peoples living there in the valley. Jan made that history even more colorful.

I didn't meet Jan till after I came out myself. In 1976, I published my third gay-themed novel, The Fancy Dancer, and it became a national bestseller. While the story focused on the travails of a young closeted Catholic priest, it was really about the secrets of a small town -- my own home town, in fact, thinly disguised under the fictional name Cottonwood. By then I was living in New York, but often traveled home to visit my parents, who still lived on the ranch north of Deer Lodge. A cousin of mine who owned the book shop in town told me that he was doing a brisk business selling Fancy Dancer.

"Everybody in town wants to read it," he said, "to find out if they're in it."

My mother had already read the copy I'd given her. She had put out the word to her women friends in bridge club, Eastern Star, the Women's Club and the Presbyterian Church, creating a small tidal wave of book sales for my cuz.

As a novelist, I thought I'd done a good job of indicating hot spots of valley life where certain secrets lay buried in the lives of both closeted men and women. But some time after the book was published, a reader's letter was forwarded to me by the publisher, William Morrow. It was a masterpiece of elegant old-school handwriting in fountain pen, informing me that the writer was gay and lived in Deer Lodge. He suggested we meet next time I was in town.

Jan was a stocky silver-haired man in his 60s, who loved to camp and tease while smoking the kind of cigar I would expect from a banker eating lunch at the Montana Club in Helena. In a town where most men stuck to cowboy shirts and jeans, Jan stuck to slacks and leather sandals and California-style short-sleeve sports shirts (in summer, anyway). He didn't make any speeches about gay liberation. He didn't need to. In a town where he was unique, all he had to do was walk down the street with his cigar and his sports shirt and wave hello at his friends. That alone was a statement.

It turned out that Jan's ancestors had arrived in Montana before the gold rush, as had mine. One of his greatgrandfathers was an eastern Ojibway who had migrated to the territory with the voyageurs, to make a dollar in the fur trade. Once there, he married into the Stewarts, one of the many Scottish families that pioneered into the territory's early trading networks. Jan had grown up on a little ranch in southwest Montana.

As we were having coffee at the Four B's Cafe, and Jan's stogie polluted the air in our part of the restaurant, I asked him, "We're practically related. Why in the world didn't we ever meet before?"

"Because I wasn't here," he said. "I went through high school ahead of you. Then I left Montana in the Fifties and went to California ...and became a Buddhist."

The lure of Beat Generation questioning had reached the questioning ranch kid, who heard about Jack Kerouac, and probably read an outlaw copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl that drifted through town. Jan followed the well-worn trail of Montana ex-pats that led to the Golden State, where he eventually headed for one of the many Buddhist monasteries tucked away in the hills. Along the way, he had figured out what attracted him sexually. Turned off by Christianity, Jan became a for-real Buddhist. Most Buddhists have no ideological problem with same-sex orientation, so Jan could proceed on to other questions about life, such as reincarnation and why we have to come back to the planet so many times to figure out a few things. He learned Chinese so he could study Chinese Buddhism. Seeing his enthusiasm, his order assigned him to translate some ancient Chinese texts that had never been done into English.

Customarily (Jan told me) a monk was supposed to do translations on a long-term retreat. Jan's idea of retreat was to return to Deer Lodge. In a state that had always harbored pockets of religious nonconformism, from a rebel group of Mormons through Mennonites and Hutterites, to Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal, Jan's choice of a spiritual path didn't raise many eyebrows.

The small late-Victorian frame house he'd bought was right near Cottonwood Creek, which wended through the oldest, most historic -- if slightly shabby -- part of town. Inside, the place was monkishly neat, with the smell of cigars and sandalwood incense mingling in the air. In the living room, his altar was the focus, with Buddhist scrolls hanging on the wall behind it. Half a dozen Siamese cats dozed on his meditation cushion, or superintended as he sat at his oak desk translating...working in the Victorian handwriting I'd first seen in his letters. His modest living costs were covered by a stipend from his order.

Every gay man has his straight woman sidekick. Jan's was none other than Vivian Stuart Kemp, who lived next door in the elegantly weathered Victorian where she'd spent much of her life. Vivian was in her early 90s, the town's dowager "daughter of a pioneer" -- the only one alive who could actually remember things that the rest of us had to read about in history books. Vivian's son had died, so she had adopted Jan as a surrogate. He spent time with her every day, helped her with business and errands.

Whenever I visited Jan, we'd go next door for tea. As Vivian got out the good china cups and a plate of sugar cookies, her black eyes always sparkled with impish humor as she told the latest story making the rounds. She and Jan kidding around together were funnier than "Saturday Night Live." Vivian too was a mixed-blood -- her pioneer father, Tom Stuart, had married a Blackfoot woman and homesteaded a little ranch on the Deer Lodge River, just south of my family's own ranch. (Stuart -- Stewart -- different spellings of the same name, so the two families' Scottish ancestors were probably related somehow back in the Auld Sod.) Vivian's family and mine had known each other since she was born, and Vivian was a good friend of my mom's.

Since Vivian was the mega-matriarch of Deer Lodge society, not a single homophobe in town dared to say a word against Jan.

Now and then, as we munched cookies and talked history, Vivian would get out her shoe box of early-day photos. They were taken during her dad's time, and showed Deer Lodge as it was in the early 1860s. Along Cottonwood Creek, log cabins stood with teepees next door, and dogs and horses roaming around, and wagons or carts parked. There were Victorian studio portraits of tribal women in Victorian gowns whose names I had heard a million times but whose pictures I'd never seen, who had married white or mixed-blood traders in the valley.

Leafing through them with Jan, I always felt amazed at having discovered this knitting circle, which had existed right under my nose in Deer Lodge for so many years without my knowing it.

"I wish I'd met you in time to put you in The Fancy Dancer," I told Jan.

"Just as well you didn't," he grinned. "Nobody would believe that a gay cigar-smoking Buddhist lives in Deer Lodge."

And so the Eighties passed, with me going off on my own retreat -- massive research on One Is the Sun, a historical novel about Montana. Now and then Jan and I exchanged letters, and I saw him and Vivian whenever I was in town. He was politically aware and supportive of the first gay-rights efforts in Montana, which were fiercely opposed by stirrings of extremism that would bring the Montana Militia briefly to power in the 90s. Local rednecks would arm themselves right there in the county.

But Jan wasn't worried. "If they shoot me," he said, "they'll be sorry when they meet me in my next life."

As time went on, my research showed me how deeply LGBT people were braided into Montana history. The braid is a powerful First Nation symbol -- it grows in strength with every new thread plaited into it. In the old days, people braided everything in their daily lives -- stories, hair, lariats, horse's manes, even switches of sweetgrass for incense. Today, we try to braid politically and socially. At Montana Pride I would meet other LGBT descendants of those old-time families, some of whom had lived right in the Deer Lodge valley. There was the gay greatgrandson of Robert Dempsey, mountain man who opened the first roadhouse near town. There was the lesbian granddaughter of an elderly retired cowboy that my family knew. There were transgendered people whose eyes lit up at the mention of Two Spirits. We were all braided into the great Montana rope, for sure -- no effort could ever tear our thread out, no matter how hard it got yanked.

Jan's translation project was coming to an end -- time to move back to the monastery in California. But his health was not good. One day there were no more letters inked by a post-Victorian who loved Chinese calligraphy, and I learned that Jan had died.

Vivian lingered a few years, then followed him. That shoebox of photos is out there somewhere, with her heirs -- I hope it finds its way into an archive somewhere, because the images in it have not been preserved anywhere else. Those Buddhist texts are out there too, probably being read right now by Americans who rediscover the achievements of ancient China. Unless they meet Jan's spirit in another life, they'll never know about the man -- and the six Siamese cats -- who got those texts into English.

Today, when I visit Deer Lodge, I always remember that I'm part of that local braid first started by Jan and Vivian -- with some threads added by Vivian's group of liberal-thinking women friends who backed them up. Women like Thelma Shaw, who served on the library board and made sure my books and certain other books weren't censored. Women like my mom, who played the organ in church and thought that The Fancy Dancer was a fair picture of life in Cottonwood. When Montana's governor finally had the courage to veto a bill passed by the state legislature that made homosexuality a crime, it was thanks in part to small-town changes of heart like the one in Deer Lodge.

In early 2008, when I went back to Montana for the first gay-themed Library Week events ever held in the state -- including one in the Deer Lodge public library -- it was clear that the braid was growing longer, and more magnificent.

Today, we're trying to plait ourselves more deeply into national American life. We may win or lose political battles like ENDA and Prop 8. But history teaches that time is on our side. Every coming-out, every support of a coming-out by some loving ally, is a thread in the ever-growing strength.


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We lose battles like Prop. 8 because some queers are too preoccupied with getting their latest D&G/A&F apparel rather than bothering to make donations.

Ugh, sometimes this community gets on my nerves.

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On a more relevant note, thanks for this piece. I enjoy how you express your love for Montana. You give off such a sense of hearth in your writing.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | October 10, 2008 1:46 AM

The "Gay Braid" is throughout American history. Whether it is found in the "counterjumpers" brought trade to the wilderness, the dentist, cowboy or woman of any profession outside the norm we were there. We were overlooked, marginalized, eliminated from the accepted story, but those "not the marrying kind" were there. Thank you Patricia

Rick Elliott | October 10, 2008 9:23 AM

What a grand story! Thanks for sharing it. I'm a writer also, but haven't worked out how to get beyond short stories.
Patricia, I have a great idea for a gay-themed novel. I'd really like to share some of the ideas and you might get another novel and I'd be glad that my idea made itself into print.
Rick Elliott, feebee3@comcast.net

This is an awesome story. Thanks for giving us a view of LGBTQ history that doesn't get told very often.

This is beautiful. Thank you.

Having grown up in southeastern Idaho and spent much time in Montana -- flyfishing, camping, visiting family in Livingston -- I appreciate very much the picture of a tolerant Montana that you paint here. People in the rural West are amazingly tolerant when you can get to know them one on one without the filter of religion or politics (always verboten topics in communities like Deer Lodge if you want to get along with people). As long as you are trustworthy, willing to help when the need arises and to keep your nose out of other people's business, people in these communities are generally willing to live and let live.

Thanks for reminding me of the love I have for the Great State of Montana. As beautiful as it is, for me, Arizona can't hold a candle to Montana.