In July, at the Museum of the American West, The Autry National Center (The Autry) installed the iconic intertwined shirts from Brokeback Mountain (BBM).
The shirts are center-stage beside the costumes of John Wayne, Kate Hepburn, Steve McQueen, and Clint Eastwood. It's an easy fit -great goes with great, but if clothes could talk, their arrival was the biggest "guess who's coming to dinner" moment in Los Angeles schmatta history.
The Autry was never naïve to the role of LGBT people in the early frontier, but 'the love that dare not speak its name' remained virtually mute in the American West. Apart from the stereotypical cowboy with his cowhand silhouetted alone on the long trail, heretofore-rural America wasn't the geography for such talk. With the shirts holding fast on their walls, The Autry has opened up a line of progressive, informative, bigot-fumigatin' dialogue.
"Gene Autry's legacy, is showing ...what?" you ask. Yes, the shirts from Brokeback Mountain are proudly on display at the Autry --That's what a progressive, modern institution of learning (a museum) does. They propel conversation and incite questions while pushing society to learn, grow, and evolve. According to his wife, Jackie Autry, Gene Autry would have loved this bold step.
Gene Autry was an original singing cowboy. He yodeled his way into radio. From there came a record deal. A flood of others - including his original and iconic version of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" -followed his first hit, "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine".
Children loved Gene Autry. In response to that admiration Gene wrote, "The Code of the Cowboy." Under the code he set up 10 rules all young bucks must follow. It's a code of peace and tolerance that his fans were instructed to embrace, even though the world was full of anger and hatred in the midst of WWII. Right in the middle is code number five:
A Cowboy must not advocate or possess racially or religiously intolerant views and ideas.
Following Gene's fearless lead, on Sunday, The Autry hosted the first of four programs on the LGBT contributions to the America West. Sunday's event was aptly entitled "What Ever Happened to Ennis del Mar". LA Times and NPR film critic Kenneth Turan was joined by sociologist Professor Peter Nardi, USC Associate Professor William Handley, and panel moderator, University of New Mexico history professor Virginia Scharoff.
The Museum's Wells Fargo Theater was full of western film fans, scholars, and people anxious for more of the story they can't get out of the soul. Like The Grapes of Wrath, The Searchers, or High Noon, BBM has grown a patina of scholarly importance over the last few years. BBM rocked the paradigm of the Hollywood love story, and became a personal catharsis, then a call to action for fairness and equality among LGBT people.
On Sunday, I witnessed The Autry making history in the trail-blazing style of America's boldest pioneers. For too long we've written off the America's most beautiful landscapes as real estate lost to the right. But all of America has been claimed for all Americans. By their trailblazing move, The Autry has branded The United States free to everyone.
Consulting Producer Gregory Hinton, not only facilitated the installation of the shirts, but was the driving force behind the next in the series which he calls "HIDDEN HISTORIES.", It is slated for May 13th.
Sponsors of the program were HBO, The Gill Foundation, The Small Change Foundation, GLAAD, HRC, and The Courage Campaign.