Legacy and Legitimacy: Race, Sexuality, and the Cowboy in 20th-Century American History

Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM
Thurgood Marshall East (Marriott Wardman Park)
Rebecca Scofield, University of Idaho
By the middle of the twentieth century, the cowboy had solidified in America’s cultural imagination as a white, heterosexual male. This character, a man who defended rugged individualism and middle-class femininity, bore little resemblance to the unmarried, wage working, men of color who often filled arduous jobs in the cattle industry during the mid- to late- nineteenth century. As the gaps between historical reality and cultural imagination have widened over the twentieth century, diverse communities have also persistently reasserted their right to the cowboy image and, by extension, their place in American history, culture, and politics. My research investigates how queer men and women of color, particularly African American, Latinx, and Asian people, have re-narrated their own histories in order to claim a place in the post-1970s imagined American West. In particular, I analyze the expansion of late twentieth century niche rodeo circuits like the Cowboys of Color and the International Gay Rodeo Association. Founded in the 1970s, organizations like these allowed for the segregated participation of marginalized people in the production and consumption of the mythology of the west. These spaces offered people the safety to celebrate their rural upbringings or western aspirations. Combatting the notion that gayness had no place in rural America, the rodeo was a potential haven for men and women who were forced to flee rural communities out of fear of discovery. Drawing from both archival evidence and oral histories, I argue that these communities utilize ideas about heritage, history, and upbringing as tools to prove their own legitimacy. By reinvesting in problematic concepts of authenticity, however, these organizations also bolster larger notions of regional and national belonging and exclusion.
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