Country rapper Lil Nas X had a monumental summer. His hit song, “Old Town Road,” broke records with 19 weeks atop the Billboard’s Hot 100 list. A stunning victory for an African American singer in a music genre that has been persistently imagined as white, even as the music industry hotly debated whether or not the song should be considered country. While riding his groundswell of support, he also came out as gay in a series of tweets. His fans widely celebrated this revelation while the media heralded the news as groundbreaking.
In an era when the nation is divided along political and geographical lines, Lil Nas X’s desire to leverage his stardom into expanding the increasingly narrow definition of the cowboy deserves a deeper look. As I demonstrate in my book Outriders: Rodeo at the Fringes of the America West, the cowboy has always been a contested figure in the American imagination and many groups of people have claimed cowboy identities despite being written out of the popular narrative. For many, the cowboy has always been black and gay.
Working cowhands in the 19th century were often working-class men of color. Influenced by the mounted herding traditions of Mexican vaqueros, American cowboy culture emerged along the cattle trails of former slave states. Enslaved and free black men, alongside Native, Creole, and Mexican people, made up a significant portion of the cattle industry both before and after the Civil War.
These were not solitary heroic figures—they were wage laborers in a rapidly industrializing country. They spent much of their time forming long-lasting relationships with other men whom they depended on for safety and companionship. They worked seasonally in sparsely populated areas in order to drive meat on the hoof towards industrial centers, but they also spent a great deal of time in the West’s rapidly expanding cities.
These classed and racialized realities of working cowboys were present in early versions of western performance, even as the figure of the cowboy steadily became whitewashed by Jim Crow segregation and mythologized in dime novels, Wild West shows, and early rodeo. Black cowboys, whether popular individuals like Bill Pickett, a respected African American rodeo cowboy, or entire black communities, like Boley, Oklahoma, carved out places for themselves in western performance. Feeding an ever growing number of black riding associations and rodeo circuits, like the Anahuac Saltgrass Cowboys Association and the Bill Pickett Invitational, the Boley rodeo helped inspire black cowboys across the country. Likewise, white women, many of them first generation Americans, competed in bronc riding and trick riding in mainstream rodeos in the early twentieth century and formed the Girls Rodeo Association in the 1940s.
During the Cold War, the idea that a cowboy was and had always been a white, heterosexual man solidified in the American imagination. Still, many groups of people, from civic leaders in Oakland to incarcerated people in Texas, used cowboy performance to assert their belonging in the nation. Some of these groups, like the International Gay Rodeo Association, explicitly used the language of civil rights to urge for the reimagining of the cowboy icon. Officially formed in 1985 after a decade of successful gay rodeos in Reno, Nevada, this association tapped into the cowboy craze of Reagan’s America. Gay cloggers, line dancers, two steppers, and rodeoers worked to create spaces where many men and women who had fled rural places in fear could find a connection to the lifeways of their childhoods. Today the association still struggles to normalize the existence of queer cowboys, despite thriving for nearly forty-five years.
Lil Nas X has handled backlash from homophobic fans well. He explained that he understood the consequences of his decision to come out, stating “I know the people who listen to [‘Old Town Road’] the most, they’re not accepting of homosexuality.” Yet as this young man is inundated with both praise and vitriol, told that he is either destined to be forgotten or represents the future, he should not be made to feel alone—the history of the cowboy is the history of black, gay cowboys.
Rebecca Scofield is assistant professor of American history at the University of Idaho and author of Outriders.
If you are attending the 2019 Western History Association conference in Las Vegas, please join us for a special book signing at the University of Washington Press booth (No. 30) on Friday, October 18th at 3 p.m.