Essay by Penelope Reedy
Western Life – January 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine
Does Anyone Remember the Cowboy Code?
by Penelope Reedy
“In the moonlight he could see Harley’s body hanging from the fence, where they had tangled it upright between strands of barbed wire. Harley’s brown skin had gone as pale as the cloudy sandstone in the moonlight, and Tayo could see blood shining on his thighs and his fingertips.”
from Ceremony by Leslie Silko
MATTHEW SHEPARD, 21, died Oct. 12 in a Fort Collins, Colo., intensive care unit. He was kidnapped from a bar in Laramie, Wyo., by two young men and their two young female companions. Accounts say the men tied Shepard to a fence, beat him with a gun and left him to die in the cold, western landscape. His offense was being what he naturally was: an open homosexual.
In an Associated Press story, Alicia Alexander, 20, a sophomore at the University of Wyoming said she believed Shepard was beaten because “this is a cowboy place.”
No doubt the plains of Wyoming are cowboy country, but somehow the image of four young people beating a defenseless young man and hanging him on a fence so he resembled a “scarecrow,” (said the horrified bicyclists who found him) doesn’t measure up to the vision of the gallant gentlemen on horseback.
There were scarecrows on that scene in Laramie all right. Four of them: Russell Henderson, 21, Aaron McKinney, 22, Chastity Pasley, 20, and Kristin Price, 18. Heartless young men and women, their head pieces filled with straw.
The cowboy of my imagination resonate more with the portrait painted by the late Gene Autry, who years ago penned something called the “The Cowboy Code.”
A cowboy never takes unfair advantage, even of enemies.
A cowboy never betrays a trust.
A cowboy always tells the truth.
A cowboy is kind to small children, old folks, and animals.
A cowboy is free from racial and religious prejudice.
A cowboy is helpful, and when anyone is in trouble, he lends a hand.
A cowboy is a good worker.
A cowboy is clean about his person, in thought, word and deed.
A cowboy respects womanhood, his parents and the laws of this country.
A cowboy is a patriot.
I live among cowboys, and I want to be proud of that heritage. I want to believe America is the safe haven they told me it was in elementary school, where the pursuit of happiness exists for everyone, regardless of race, economic status, or sexual orientation.But my experience has taught me differently. Beneath America’s noble ideals lurks our dark side, where fear and hatred have been allowed to breed unchecked. This fear, fanned by ignorance, has bubbled up and seeped into our most honored institutions, in plain sight of our children.
I IMAGINE THE YOUNG PEOPLE who beat Shepard believed they had community support for their actions. And why shouldn’t they? Fundamentalist church leaders and right-wing politicians consistently condemn gay people and their quest for equal rights.
Those young men may even now believe that all they have to say is, “He came on to me,” and a homophobic western jury will let them walk. And sadly, they may be right.
As a court reporter for two newspapers, I’ve watched western juries acquit child molesters and stalkers after hearing blatantly obvious evidence of guilt.
And then there are the right-wing religious arguments blasting homosexuality as evil and “unnatural.” I can’t buy it. If a gay man occurs in nature, even if only once, then he is a “natural” piece of human diversity, God’s creation.
To deny him his brand of sexuality, would be like outlawing my femininity. History is on my side here: There is no century that did not have gay men and women.
The death of Matthew Shepard is a sharp reminder that the American West is a place of moral contradictions. Freedom and bondage, tolerance and bigotry, lie fitfully together in its mountains and valleys.
Matthew Shepard died not because Laramie, Wyo., is a cowboy place, but because too many people don’t know what it means to be a true cowboy.
Penelope Ready is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News, based in Paonia, Colorado. She is a reporter for the Idaho State Journal in Pocatello, Idaho.