Now and then, amid all the religious-right efforts to hurt LGBT people, a moment comes when that I see the America that I love and fight for -- the one that would rather heal than hurt. The other day, August 11, one of those moments happened while I was a guest at a private event at the Autry Museum. A hundred folks, plus L.A. media, had gathered to witness the installation of the two iconic cowboy shirts -- the ones worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal -- in the Autry's display case that celebrates Contemporary Western film.
There they are, one shirt tucked inside the other, entwined on one hanger, just as they were in the closing moments of the film, expressing a wounded but enduring love between two men. The shirts are right in the middle of the case, flanked by clothing and gunbelts worn in other classic films by Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen and Jeff Bridges, among others.
My generation of Westerners grew up with Gene Autry's movies. We felt the man's music and message at a thousand Saturday matinees in small-town theaters, as we threw spitballs at each other between the gunfights on the screen. I always had a notion that Autry was a figurehead of sagebrush conservatism, mostly because so many of his fans saw him that way. So I was surprised to learn that in real life, this great Texas actor/entertainer was actually an accepting and outreaching kind of guy. His "Cowboy Code," published in 1948, listed ten "commandments" that were pretty forward-looking for their time. Commandment #5 is mind-boggling for how it implicitly countered homophobia:
"The Cowboy must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant ideas."
In 1988, Autry and his wife Jackie, along with Monte and Joanne Hale, co-founded The Museum of the American West. Eventually the institution also took in the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, and started its Institute for Study of the American West. In short, the combined Center activates the singing cowboy's dream of telling real-life stories of his native West. The displays and educational programs draw on the West's vast and rich tapestry of ethnic and social experience -- its long centuries of history and archeology, its fine arts and day-to-day artifacts, not to mention every Hollywood movie that ever celebrated it.
Autry himself died in 1998. Jackie, who was present that afternoon, is carrying on, with the support of dedicated staff, sponsors and donors.
Two Shirts That Tell a Story
As Autry Center president John Gray told me during the mixer, "We want to tell all the stories of the West, all together -- not just one story at a time." And all stories, for The Autry, include those about gay cowboys and lesbian cowgirls.
After filming of Brokeback Mountain ended, the two shirts went on a story thread of their own...and disappeared. Noted gay author Gregory Hinton, himself a native of Wyoming cow country, loved the film and wondered where the shirts had gone. Were they languishing in a prop-house closet somewhere?
Hinton tracked the shirts down and learned that they'd been sold at a charity auction. New owner: well-known producer/actor/ collector Tom Gregory. When the two men met, Gregory shared his hope that the shirts would go to a museum. He was hurt that no museum had knocked on his door yet.
"My feelings were hurt," Gregory explained to Hinton. "Not for me, but for the shirts, for what they represent,"
So Hinton got Gregory together with the Autry Center. Six months later the shirts went on display. Both men spoke during the short program, and Gregory brought down the house with his comment that those two shirts are "the ruby slippers for our time."
In its official announcement, the Autry Center explained its purpose with the shirts:
The Western genre is an American art form that has played a crucial role in the development of American popular culture. Putting the Western into a larger historical context, the Imagination Gallery shows how the genre has evolved over the last one hundred years in response to social and cultural changes taking place in America. The iconic shirts are at the center of the Contemporary Westerns case in order to highlight Brokeback Mountain's significance in keeping the Western genre alive and thriving in the new millennium, and also to spotlight the LGBT community's struggle for safety and inclusion in the rural, Western communities from where many originate yet often feel forced to abandon.
As one of those Westerners with roots in such a rural community, I was deeply moved at the Autry Museum's plain-spoken statement of support for the LGBT struggle as lived out in all these great lands west of the Missouri. The display is a further entwining -- two iconic gay cowboy shirts folded into a vision of the West held by an iconic American entertainment and cultural figure.
Jack and Ennis's shirts are also part of the Center's larger educational program, where students and teachers will hear about them. This includes a panel scheduled for October that will examine the LGBT community's contribution to the West and the Western genre.
Last but not least, The Autry is negotiating to house the archives of the International Gay Rodeo Association. So the guests included a colorful contingent of IGRA members, all turned out in their best Stetsons and boots -- and, of course, their own best cowboy shirts.
For anyone who lives in L.A., or visits L.A., a pilgrimage to see those two shirts in their new home is an easy drive into the Valley. The Autry's magnificent facility, complete with restaurant and shop, is located on the Griffith Park Campus at 4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles, CA, 90027-1462.
Amid all those Winchester rifles and silver-mounted saddles and movie posters and Indian pottery and bronze sculptures of bucking horses, the two shirts are holding their own very well.