Rhinestone cowboys

Jan 4, 2006 at 8:00 am

Epiphanies come in all shapes and sizes. Over the weekend I happened upon an old photograph of television cowboy Hopalong Cassidy. There he was, impeccably dressed in black, a stylish scarf held together by a silver broach, a hat that looks pretty goofy today but could have made GQ in 1953, and to top it off, pearl-handled pistols.

Now, I remember watching “Hoppy” as a kid, and the thought never occurred to me that he might have ridden down a different path, as it were. But in the wake of the growing furor over “Brokeback Mountain,” the new cinematic love story of two gay cowboys, I realized this new film should not surprise us in the least. It should be patently clear that the “Wild West” was wild in the same way Connections nightclub is wild on a Saturday night.

Yes, we must now face the truth: The American West was just one big gay hayride. The evidence is overwhelming, and it was right there for every young American boy to see. First of all, almost all leading men cowboys had sidekicks, which the studios also called “saddle pals.” (Just for kicks, next time you see your best guy friend, ask him if he will be your saddle pal. Then duck.)

Sure, Roy Rogers (a guy with a “golden palomino” named Trigger, pullease!) and Dale Evans were married, but that may have been just a mirage. After all, she was known as the “Queen of the West.” Anyway, Roy spent far more time with his best bud “Gabby” Hayes than with the calico-clad Miss Dale.

There were the Cisco Kid and Pancho, the Lone Ranger and Tonto (Did “kemosabe” really mean “faithful friend” … or something more?), Gene Autry (aka the “singing cowboy”) and Pat Butram (no comment on the last name). And what about life on the Ponderosa in the hit show “Bonanza”? A thrice-widowed (sure!) father and three adult brothers who never have women around? I mean, Adam, Hoss and Little Joe, all single? Does it get more gay than that?

The mind spins as I recount all those hours sitting there being subtly indoctrinated by the gay heads of Hollywood TV studios. Then I recall some of those childhood photos of me — studded shirts, spurs and a whip, beads and sequins all over my body — and all the time I figured I was playing tough guy. I should be thankful there was no Internet. No telling what perverted Web site those might have shown up on. Where was Focus on the Family when we really needed it?

Seriously, along with many other kids, I went through my days whistling the Roy Rogers theme song, “Happy Trails to You.” Good golly, Miss Molly, what would George W. Bush think if someone bid him “Happy Trails”?

Another of my favorite shows was “Sky King,” and nothing about the plot ever struck me as unusual until I set out on this memory trip. Here was an older guy, no wife, flying around on adventures with his niece Penny in his airplane, which he named “Songbird”! Mommy and Daddy, what did you expose me to?

Before now, I was not suspicious about why the Lone Ranger wore a mask, even though he had no other identity, like Batman did. (Oops, that’s a whole other story.) And I will never again get chills when I watch an old show and see the Ranger atop his all-white horse, exclaiming, as he heads out of sight: “Hi Yo, Silver!”

Sadly, it doesn’t stop there. Another series of movies in the ’50s featured Lash Larue, the “King of the Bullwhip.” Again, a very pretty man perfectly coiffed and clad, again with a natty scarf around his neck, who just wouldn’t think of soiling his hands while combating the bad guys. When you consider all of the old cowboy stars in this light, it’s hard to figure out how John Wayne and Gregory Peck ever got roles ... or is it?

Last week in The Courier-Journal, the Rev. Albert Mohler of Southern Baptist Seminary wrote an op-ed piece in which he, mostly through an article written by someone else, suggested that “Brokeback Mountain” would make it difficult for boys to befriend other boys. It was, to say the least, a bizarre column that seemed to imply that no one had been aware of the existence of gay men until the release of this movie. While Mohler’s column is grist for many other discussions, suffice to say here that that horse has already left the barn.

If Mohler is right, I can only imagine how many other friends I now would have if I had not watched Hopalong, Roy, Cisco, Gene and all those other gay caballeros as a young boy. Somebody get those reruns off cable before another generation is ruined.

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