ride'em cowboy

Howdy, partner: 12 queer cowboy movies that prove Westerns have always been gay AF

They’re at film festivals, they’re on the radio, they’re on Netflix—and there’s even more on the way. These days, it feels like queer cowboys (cow-folks?) are everywhere.

Now, you may ask, “What in tarnation is going on here?” What’s in the water that, suddenly, it feels like the zeitgeist is chock-full of gay Westerns?

Well, the thing is, the genre has pretty much always been gay. Traditionally, the Western is thought of as the realm of male bravado—hyper-masculine, tough-talkin’, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps type of guys—but all that “yeehaw’ posturing is exactly why so many cowboys, gunslingers, and outlaws in films lend themselves to queer readings. It’s all such a put-on that it’s easy to sense something gay just beneath the surface.

Yes, the frontier has long felt like a conduit for repressed homosexuality. Every quiet night around a campfire on the open plain, every tense stare-down between stand-off rivals can feel charged with unspoken sexual tension.

Over the decades, many filmmakers have leaned into the Western’s latent queer appeal—whether intentionally or not—dating all the way back to the genre’s first golden era in Hollywood.

With that in mind. we’ve decided to follow down that dusty old run through cinema history and call attention to 12 notable Westerns—from 1948 to today—that showcase the genre at its gayest. The Good, the bad, and the ugly the erotic, and the strange, this dirty dozen movies shows how the West was won by the queers.

Red River (1948)

It’s impossible to talk about the cinematic history of Westerns without mentioning John Wayne, the silver-screen icon whose gruff demeanor cemented culture’s understanding of the masculine cowboy ideal. Wayne’s true grit may be the star of this Howard Hawks classic, but Red River maintains its place in the queer canon for its charged homosocial relationship between gunslingers Garth (Montgomery Clift in his film debut) and Valance (John Ireland), particularly the infamous scene where they compare pistol sizes. The barely veiled subtext is right there, making it one of the gayest moments to come out of Hollywood’s Hays Code era.

Streams on The Roku Channel and PlutoTV. Available for rental on Amazon Prime Video, YouTubeTV, Vudu, and iTunes.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Another classic that’s all about the subtext, the oddball Johnny Guitar isn’t remembered as one of the legendary Joan Crawford’s greatest roles, but it’s certainly one of her gayest. Frequently dressed in butch Western threads, Crawford’s Vienna is a surly saloon owner who inspires one character to remark, “Never seen a woman who was more of a man.” Vienna’s got big-time beef with cattle baron Emma (Mercedes McCambridge), and their rivalry is one of the genre’s rare instances where women got to be tough and talk a big game—the sapphic undertones making it an early lesbian favorite.

Available for rental on Amazon Prime Video, YouTubeTV, Vudu, and iTunes.

Lonesome Cowboys (1968)

Okay, enough of the subtext (for now), let’s get really gay. Art world provocateur Andy Warhol played dress-up with American cowboy iconography in this experimental, bisexual reimagining of Romeo And Juliet. Originally titled F*ck and then The Glory Of F*ck, Lonesome Cowboys is the kind of in-your-face, unabashed queer art film you might expect from Warhol, one that was labeled “absolute filth” by critics at the time. Featuring plenty of sex and cross-dressing, the X-rated feature isn’t what you’d call a “coherent narrative” by any stretch of the imagination, but it offers plenty to admire—and ogle.

Lonesome Cowboys is not currently streaming, but physical copies can be purchased through Amazon Prime.

Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969)

We’ve previously unpacked the homoerotic tension coursing through George Roy Hill’s gold-standard Western, Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid, but we couldn’t not include it on this list. After all, the Academy Award-winner features two of the handsomest actors of all time—Robert Redford and Paul Newman—getting all buddy-buddy out on the open plains, their bromance always teetering on the edge of becoming something more, culminating in a climactic shootout that gets a special shot-out in The Celluloid Closet for its obvious gay metaphor.

Streaming via HBO Max. Available for rental on Amazon Prime Video, YouTubeTV, Vudu, and iTunes.

Song Of The Loon (1970)

Like Warhol’s Lonesome CowboysSong Of The Loon is a cinematic curio that’s light on plot but heavy on the eroticism. Inspired by a series of gay, underground pulp novels from author Richard Amory, this oater odyssey follows city boy Ephraim MacIver on his vision quest through the American wilderness—and all of his homosexual encounters along the way. Especially for its time, Song Of The Loon is shockingly frank about queer love and desire, and it’s worth seeking out just to marvel at how a movie like this was made in the first place. (Well, that, and the fact that it features plenty of strapping, shirtless men.)

Unfortunately, Song Of The Loon is not currently available to stream.

Zachariah (1971)

Hailed as an “electric Western,” Zachariah is a truly unique film experience that’s one part rock musical, one part psychedelic fantasy, and all very queer. A critique of the genre’s harsher tendencies, the George Englund film instead preached pacifism and free love, largely focusing on the intimate friendship between its eponymous hero (John Rubinstein) and his best friend, a blacksmith named Matthew (Don Johnson in one of his first screen roles). Though the ways of the West send these two down different paths, their connection is palpable. Zachariah is said to be the first film to feature two cowboys openly, earnestly declaring their love for each other.

Zachariah is not currently streaming, but physical copies can be purchased through Amazon Prime.

Zorro, The Gay Blade (1981)

In what sounds more like a Saturday Night Live sketch than a feature-length movie, this wacky romp finds George Hamilton pulling double-duty, playing both the iconic Spanish-American vigilante and his flamboyant twin named (wait for it) Bunny Wigglesworth. When Zorro hurts his ankle, his foppish brother steps in, imbuing the hero with more flair than usual, prancing about in pastel costumes and fine jewelry, but still managing to save the day. The joke here is almost certainly on the gays, but, 40 years removed, it’s no harm, no foul—The Gay Blade is a camp classic.

Sadly, Zorro, The Gay Blade is not currently streamable, but (hint, hint) you’ll find a lot of great clips uploaded to YouTube.

Dead Man (1995)

Yes, Johnny Depp is “persona non grata” these days, but that shouldn’t stop you from checking out this dark, idiosyncratic Western from indie stalwart Jim Jarmsuch. The monochromatic film follows in the fancy footsteps of Zachariah, subverting genre tropes to tell a psychedelic tale set against the backdrop of the American frontier in the late 1800s. Dead Man is a poetic reckoning with manifest destiny and the country’s own bloody history with a notable queer bent: When The Stooges frontman Iggy Pop turns up as a cross-dressing fur trader, he’s not exactly “positive representation,” but it still feels rare to see such an overtly gay character in the genre.

Streams on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel. Available for rental on YouTubeTV and iTunes.

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Well, I’m sure you all expected to see this one on the list. One of director Ang Lee’s many masterpieces, Brokeback Mountain feels like the quintessential “gay cowboy movie.” Heartthrobs Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal star as two men hired for a summer sheep-herding gig, their shared isolation bringing them closer together than they’d care to admit. Of course, plenty of gays would prefer if Lee had shown us even more of what went down in that tent (perhaps Pedro Almodóvar will rectify that in his upcoming short), but there’s no denying Brokeback Mountain is a landmark of queer cinema, one that earned eight historic Oscar nominations (and three wins).

Streaming via Netflix. Available for rental on YouTubeTV, Vudu, and iTunes.

Cowboys (2020)

An all-too-rare “modern Western,” Cowboys is a heartwarming indie about a young trans boy named Joe (Sasha Knight) who escapes off into the Montana mountains with his troubled father (the ever-reliable Steve Zahn) after his mother (Jillian Bell) refuses to accept his authentic self. First-time feature director Anna Kerrigan makes smart use of the genre’s tropes—horseback riding across the vast wilderness, bean-fueled fireside chats, and even a tense stand-off between our outlaw heroes and the police—in this coming-of-age exploration of identity and family.

Streams on Hulu and Kanopy. Available for rental on Amazon Prime Video, YouTubeTV, Vudu, and iTunes.

The Power Of The Dog (2021)

Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog is a stirring Western that uses myth-like cowboy bravado to comment on toxic masculinity and the poisonous nature of suppressing one’s true self. Anchored by steely performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee (no to mention real-life couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, at their best), the slow-burn film gets under your skin and then delivers a gut punch in its final moments. In his infamous rant to Marc Maron, Sam Elliott complained about The Power Of The Dog‘s “allusions of homosexuality throughout the f*ckin’ movie”… Yeah? So what? Like that’s a bad thing???

Streams exclusively on Netflix.

Lonesome (2023)

Why should Americans have all the cowboy fun? Well, maybe “fun” isn’t the right word to describe Lonesome, a dark and contemplative Australian neo-Western from queer filmmaker Craig Boreham. Newcomer Josh Lavery stars as Casey, a somber ranch hand who escapes his mysterious past to travel to the big city of Sydney where he scours Grindr for casual hook-ups and a place to sleep. Gorgeously shot and sexually explicit, Lonesome is a feast for the eyes, and it’s proof that the “queer Western” is a sub-genre that’s a live and well, with plenty more stories left to tell.

Available for rental on Amazon Prime Video, YouTubeTV, Vudu, and iTunes.