The Original Stag Dances
Slowly the queer history of the West is coming out of the closet, the attic, and the barn as descendants of “great-grand-Uncle Joe” no longer hesitate to share the photographs he’d kept in a cigar box. This photographic gem, probably a daguerreotype, comes off the internet. It might have been taken in California in the 1850s or anywhere in the Far West where until the post-WW II period, the number of men greatly exceeded that of women. I can still remember successful farmers and ranchers sending east for school marms who were intended as future brides for their sons.
Every town, of course, had a brothel or two, and an “out-in-the-shed” young man or two for certain menfolk, and many towns had a saloon called “The Stag,” which was the closest thing the town had to an exclusive all-male club and to a gay bar. The Stag in Gonzales, CA (where I grew up) was built shortly after the town was founded in 1888. It was a typical western saloon (Spanish salón, meaning “big room”) with wooden floors and darkly stained walls. The swinging doors were replaced after WW II, when neon light advertising (beers) was also added. Except for a back room where men gathered to play pedro or poker, the saloon was always kept very dimly lit, and even in the 1950s it remained off-limits to wives and “respectable” women. For years it had been the haunt of the original settlers: the Mexican employees of the Gonzales brothers who inherited the Spanish land grant, and the Danish and Italian-Swiss dairy farmers.
Since it served food, even in grade school I sometimes accompanied my father there for lunch. Now anyone who grows up on a farm or ranch gets sex education at a very early age by observing farm animals. I do remember my mother lamenting having to put down a bull because it had absolutely no interest in cows. I suspect I witnessed the full spectrum of both sexual orientation and gender identity in our farm animals, even if we didn’t then have nouns to describe them. I also suspect I saw almost the full spectrum at The Stag.
The only women allowed in The Stag were either the two or three prostitutes who were still plying their trade in the 1950s, and a few lesbian dykes...or frankly, they might well have been transgender men. My recollection is only that transgender women would have been driven out of town.
Like so many small western towns (in the 1950s Gonzales had a population of about 1,000), most of the town was “cleaned up” in the mid-1950s when the evangelical Christians who’d come to California from Arkansas and Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl years attained middleclass status and with it, political “power” in town. But The Stag remained a town fixture until the 1970s. Other than the fact it had become a fire hazard for the bank next door, I suspect it was done in by the gay liberation movement. Straight men didn’t mind rubbing shoulders in a dark saloon with gay men, lesbians, and most likely trans men as long as that reality didn’t creep outside of The Stag. Their wives wouldn’t know and wouldn’t question their manliness. The Stonewall Riots had their negative side. Uncle Willy and his partner had been together for 20 years. They’d bought a home together. The family knew; the town knew. They had no difficulty showing up at The Stag together. But the early 70s changed all that. Even my father turned his back on his younger brother. They had, in fact, been “openly hiding in view” and suddenly they were condemned. It split them apart. Uncle Willy returned to his native Switzerland and, sadly, drank himself to an early grave. The town’s best known and highly educated gay couple moved to the Monterey Peninsula, and commuted to their work in Gonzales. Only the town’s several lesbian couples stayed put because they had never socialized in town, never ate out at one of the three cafes.
Dictionaries don’t fully explain, incidentally, the meaning of “stag” in the west. It did refer to a male deer, specifically the largest and strongest, but also one that, during the mating season, showed no interest in females. Now, my father explained all this to me when I may have been eight or nine by saying the stag had unfortunately been castrated by an accident. It was only years later that I realized that “stag” was a code word for a male deer not interested in female deer and that castration by natural causes was just father’s way of not wanting to explain to me what homosexuality was.
Ray Verzasconi is the editor of The Queer Foundation Scholar and a Professor Emeritus of Spanish at Oregon State University. “The Original Stag Dances” is reprinted with permission of the author from The Queer Foundation Scholar (April 2014), pp. 9-10.