I don’t mean to sugarcoat the life of a black person in the Old West. Of course there was racism and many people behaved despicably towards Blacks. However, there was and continues to be a strong tradition that if a cowboy proves his worth through his actions, he is considered a good hand and thus deserves and receives respect. I’ve read that approximately a quarter of all the cowboys out West in the second half of the 19th century were Black or Hispanic. Names like Bill Pickett, Nat Love and Bass Reeves are renowned among students of the West.
Western inclusion in the 21st century has gotten a little trickier if you ask me. Many folks I know who live in the West are pretty conservative. If you ask them their views on homosexuality and gay marriage, race relations, immigration and other such issues, they can sound pretty inflexible. As you get to know them better however, you may find that it turns out they have a gay friend. If they live on the border, they may leave out bottles of water for illegal immigrants so they don’t die of thirst. In fact, if they live on the border, they most likely have work associates and even friends that are illegal. If you were to ask them about this, they would probably reply, “Oh, that’s different. I know him.”
I have two cowboy friends in particular with whom I’ve discussed this issue. They both are somewhat homophobic, a remnant of their upbringing in Texas in the 1950s. I know because I grew up there too. We were exposed to the taunting, ridicule and bullying of homosexuals on a fairly regular basis. It’s not something I’m proud of but it was definitely a part of the culture in which I grew up. Interestingly, I also know that both of my cowboy friends have had friends who are gay. On an individual basis, they are willing to take the time to get to know a person and decide if they “pass muster.” If they meet their criteria for what they’re looking for in a friend…loyalty, good sense of humor, someone you can count on…they will include them in their circle of friends. For them, good character trumps old prejudices.
Not long ago, I attended the wedding of the daughter of a friend down in southern New Mexico. The wedding took place on the ranch of the father of the groom. He is gay. He and his partner live and work on this ranch. They work cattle with their neighbors and break bread with them frequently as well. His partner grew up in the little town that they live near and has known many of the people all his life. If you took an opinion poll on the community’s views on homosexuality, the results might appear rather negative and intolerant. If so, you couldn’t tell it from the way this man’s neighbors interact with him. If you were to point out the disparity, they would probably be confused. They would just say, “I’ve known old so and so all his life. We’ve been friends since we went to school together.”
I know quite a few people who are absolutely NOT politically correct. The sometimes use words that I wish they wouldn’t use. The words are hurtful and offensive. I’ve seen these same people, however, interact with people whose lifestyle would normally be way outside their comfort zone and once they get to know them, they accept them and treat them with the utmost respect. Language matters and words can hurt. I’d really like to see a time when we get past these prejudices and people’s behavior is consistently tolerant across the board. In the meantime, if I’ve got to settle for half a loaf, I’m glad to see that a lot of folks I know really are able to get past labels and appearances and accept people in their totality.
It really is a Western tradition to take the time to get to know someone and take their measure before you pass judgment on them. People are evaluated on their work ethic, the way they treat their family and friends, their honesty and integrity and of course, their sense of humor. If they pass those tests, then they’re “someone to ride the river with.” Seems to me that’s a pretty good way to look at the world.