Back in August, I reported on a historic event at The Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. As I stood in the crowd with L.A. press, museum staff and Stetson-topped members of the International Gay Rodeo Association, (IGRA) the two iconic cowboy shirts worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in Brokeback Mountain were installed in the museum's showcase on classic Contemporary Westerns. Just yards away was another exhibit featuring cowboy wear and horse gear that belonged to founder and famed actor Gene Autry himself. The two shirts, tucked together on their hanger as in the film, had been put on loan by vintage Westerniana collector Tom Gregory.
That event sparked the planning of "Out West," a series of upcoming lectures at The Autry, which will explore -- for the first time ever -- the LGBT side of Western history -- from gunfighters to women ranchers and Native American healers, and of course that provocative male figure, the cowboy. This coming Sunday, December 13, "Out West" will offer its first program from 3:00 p.m. to 5 p.m.
Panelists: William Handley, USC professor of English; Peter Nardi, Pitzer professor of sociology; and Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times film critic. With support from moderator Virginia Scharff, professor of history at the University of New Mexico, the three will dig deep into the canyon walls of contemporary Western life, to excavate some answers to that question: "What Ever Happened to Ennis del Mar?"
The film left that question hanging in the air.
Though many Americans today think of the West as that phalanx of "red states" on the TV map during election night, the West can surprise with its sudden shiftings of spiritual sunlight and shadow, its social landslides that can reveal unsuspected layerings of raw experience and challenge. In fact, the West's essential quirkiness has enabled all kinds of LGBT people to find something out here -- from hiding places to homes. At times, we have not only survived here, but thrived here.
Arrival of the two shirts inspired the Autry's staff to decide that they wanted to explore those centuries of hidden LGBT lives. In so doing, The Autry became the first major American museum to recognize the contribution of LGBT people to the American West.
Sponsors of the series have been generous with their support -- Tom Gregory, HBO, the Gill Foundation, and the Small Change Foundation, in association with GLAAD, HRC, the Courage Campaign, and the Gay and Lesbian Rodeo Heritage Foundation.
Creator and consulting producer of the series is Montana, Wyoming, Colorado-raised author and filmmaker Gregory Hinton, the man who brought Tom Gregory and the shirts to The Autry.
In Los Angeles the other day, at a little French eatery on 3rd Avenue, I sat with Gregory over brunch and we "chewed the rag," as my rancher dad used to say, about growing up gay in the West. There we were in the West's vastest city, geographically far from our childhood haunts, yet spiritually still close to -- and making our peace with -- those powerful influences of land and weather and people and conquest that shaped us both.
I asked Gregory how and why, after writing books and making films, he took an unexpected trail to planning these historic history lectures.
"It started with my dad," he told me, "-- with going back to Cody, Wyoming, where I grew up as a boy."
Kip Hinton had been editor of the Cody Enterprise, founded by Buffalo Bill. A fire had destroyed an archive of the newspaper's original copies, but the Autry Library arranged to borrow microfilm of the complete set from 1956-1962, when Gregory lived in Cody. Rediscovering all the wonderful columns that his dad had written, with their small-town humor and skill at saying a lot with few words, Gregory found himself reconnecting with his home state as a grown man, in a way that he had never dared to do as a kid.
"And the sole reason for not being there before," he told me, "was because I was gay."
Early this year, while working on his latest novel Night Rodeo, Gregory discovered The Autry and started going there to write. Setting up his laptop in a quiet corner of the sunny patio, he sometimes took a break to wander through the galleries so richly crammed with arts and artifacts and memorabilia -- with The Autry's original Museum of the American West made even vaster by addition of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, and the Institute for Study of the American West.
"It was enormously comforting," Gregory said, "like walking through my childhood. The staff got used to having me around. I've probably been there a hundred times this year."
Looking at the Charlie Russell paintings and Remington bronzes and Indian arts, and hearing all the talk of "Western history," Gregory suddenly had another powerful sense of reconnection -- of ownership in something that he'd never felt was his before.
"It's my history too," he told me.
Surrounded by all that movie memorabilia, Gregory started wondering what had happened to the two shirts worn in Brokeback Mountain. More than anything else in the film, they symbolize the dangerous journey that two cowboys made to a secret place in the Wyoming landscape that only they could know and understand. Doing some research, he learned that Tom Gregory had won the shirts at a charity auction, so he looked the collector up.
"Our community had so many disappointments this year," Gregory commented, referring to the same-sex marriage battles. "That's why what's happening at The Autry is a wonderful anomaly -- something we should support and reinforce."
I agree -- it's our history too.
For his part in creating these events, the IGRA is awarding Gregory with their President's Award for 2009. The Autry Library has also accepted the IRGA archives into their permanent rodeo collection, also facilitated by Hinton.
Meanwhile, Rolling Stone has cited Brokeback Mountain among the 10 Best Films of the Decade. The magazine's Peter Travers says: "Ledger gave the film its soul. He didn't just know how Ennis moved, spoke and listened; he knew how he breathed. Seeing him inhale the scent of shirt hanging in Jack's closet is a scene that pierced your heart."
That reality of the film's most powerful and enigmatic character, and the questions about Ennis that remain to be answered, are the focus of the upcoming program on December 13.
For anyone in the L.A. area who wants to attend this "Out West" event, it's 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. Admission to the event is free.
The next lecture in the "Out West" series will be May 13, 7-9 p.m.. Details to be announced.
My August 2009 article on the shirts' installation at the Autry