Interview: Gregory Hinton

By Mark McNease

I interviewed author Patricia Nell Warren not long ago, and in the course of the interview learned about a program called Out West at the Autry. Ms. Warren had spoken at the Autry National Museum as part of the program, and suggested its curator and driving force, Gregory Hinton, would be a good person to talk to . . . and she was right.

Out West at the Autry is a series of public programs that explores the contributions of what Mr. Hinton refers to as the LGBT2 community to American history, with an emphasis on the American West. The program was inspired by the Autry’s installation of the iconic shirts worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal in the film Brokeback Mountain, as well as the museum’s permanent inclusion of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) archives to the Autry library. His career in writing and producing (‘It’s My Party’ was among the films he produced) well precedes Out West at the Autry, as you’ll see in the following interview in which he proves to be as generous with his time as he is in spirit.

MM: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. I got your name from author Patricia Nell Warren and I know there’s a connection there with Out West at the Autry, a program you developed with the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. Can you give us an overview of that program and how it came about?

GH: In late 2008, while conducting research on some Wyoming family history at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, I found myself strolling through the Autry’s extensive western film gallery. I happened to notice that Brokeback Mountain was not yet represented. I fervently believed that it belonged in the Autry for three reasons: It was a seminal western. It was a commercially successful western. It was also a critically acclaimed western. I wondered which artifact might best represent the film. Later, the intertwined shirts worn by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal came to mind. I soon learned that they had been won at auction by a Hollywood memorabilia collector named Tom Gregory. His winning bid was $100,000. I contacted him, and somewhat boldly suggested that they belonged at the Autry. We met two days later. Tom Gregory is very charming and handsome and I was quite intimidated. He won me over when he admitted that after he won the shirts he figured he’d be hearing from museums all over the world. “In three years,” he told me, “you were the only one who called.”

Six months later, with Mrs. Gene Autry generously officiating, the shirts were installed in the Autry’s Imagination Gallery, next to display cases with film memorabilia belonging to Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper and John Wayne. We were all surprised by the overwhelming media response – print, radio and television. Conan O’Brian even mentioned us on The Tonight Show. The Autry invited me to produce an LGBT2 western educational program series which I called Out West. Through a broad slate of plays, films, lectures, gallery exhibitions and scholarship, the mission of Out West seeks to shine a light on the contributions of the LGBT2 community to the history and the culture of the American West. We now partner with museums, libraries and universities all over the country. The Autry’s support is historic. The Autry is the first American Western Museum of Art to invite our community inside to tell its stories.

MM: I noticed you used the acronym LGBT2, with the’2’ standing for two-spirit. I’ve never seen that used before but had come across the concept in a book called ‘Spirit and the Flesh: Sexual Diversity in American Indian Culture.’ Could you explain this a little, why it’s used and who is using it? I’m very intrigued.

GH: I was born on the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. I coined the acronym ”LGBT2” for Out West when I became aware of the Native American Two Spirit culture through the PBS Independent Lens documentary film “Two Spirits” , directed by my friend Lydia Nibley. In certain Native cultures, Two Spirits were recognized, often from early childhood, as embodying simultaneous male and female traits. Many tribes cultivated their Two Spirit children, rather than impose change upon them. Two Spirits were noticed by explorers and trappers, and recorded in early writings and works of art. When European missionaries took it upon themselves to force change, life was made difficult for many in the Two Spirit community. A resurgence of Two Spirit scholarship emerged in the late 1980’s. A benefit of this scholarship has been the emergence of state and national Two Spirit support organizations. Out West was just honored by the Los Angeles City Council and on our Certificate of Recognition is the acronym, “LGBT2.”

MM: How did you come to be involved with the Autry National Center?

GH: I first became aware of the Autry when it was constructed in the late 1980s. I had offices at nearby Walt Disney Studios. I used to visit the museum during my lunch hour. As a kid l lived in Cody, Wyoming and watched the Buffalo Bill Historical Center being built. You could say that as an adult I watched the Autry being built, and it filled me with great nostalgia for my rural western childhood. There is a consortium called MuseumsWest, consisting of fourteen of the finest western art museums in the United States. Los Angeles is lucky to have one of the best – The Autry in Griffith Park.

MM: Your play, Beyond Brokeback: A Staged Reading with Music, premiered at the Autry in December of 2010 in commemoration of the 5th anniversary of ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ What’s it about, and why did this film have such a deep impact on you?

GH: Brokeback Mountain taught us “what not to do,” as one of the bloggers states in our play, Beyond Brokeback. And that’s what Beyond Brokeback is about. Life after Brokeback. Over ten million people from all walks of life went to see it – gay, straight, young, old, male and female. It grossed over 200 million dollars. Nobody dreamed Brokeback Mountain would find such a huge audience.

And in the aftermath of its limited release debut, Dave Cullen, a freelance journalist and author of Columbine, created a website called The Ultimate Brokeback Forum to help publicize the film. In the first year after the film’s release the Forum received over 500,000 posts, with 50,000 people stopping by each month to “silently witness” the outpouring of emotion on the site. In the opening monologue of Beyond Brokeback, Cullen‘s character says, “I formed the Ultimate Brokeback Forum just to help the film. I never dreamed it would be the audience that was left in need.”

I have produced several films with gay themes, “It’s My Party” and “Circuit” which I also co-wrote. Both were controversial because they dealt with tough, dark themes – AIDS and assisted death; and the hardcore drug and sex underbelly of the circuit party scene. It is my experience that some gay people tend to be very hard on filmmakers – gay or straight – who attempt to tell our stories.

I am guilty of the same bias, so I didn’t expect much of Brokeback Mountain. I went alone on a cold December morning. I’ll never forget the experience of walking around the corner and seeing hundreds of middle-aged gay men, lined up to buy tickets. In his powerful Brokeback essay, The Magic Mountain, Andrew Holleran writes: “The sadness of Brokeback begins outside the theater.” Listening to the outpouring of emotion in the packed movie theater, Brokeback Mountain broke the mold.

I felt very homesick for Wyoming and Montana after seeing Brokeback Mountain. I decided it was time to return to my rural western roots to stake a claim to my own LGBT family history. Told through essay, poem and song all inspired by the film, Beyond Brokeback is an oral history of the rural LGBT western experience.

Beyond Brokeback has been performed to standing ovation in venues large and small – from the community room in the Bozeman Public Library to Chicago’s historic 3,700 seat Auditorium Theater.

MM: Your request of the Autry was prompted by your discovery of the International Gay Rodeo Archives. These are also at the Autry. Can you describe these a little and what their significance is?

GH: When I envisioned the Brokeback shirts in the Autry film gallery, I also performed a cursory search of several western research library databases to see what information existed about LGBT2 western history and culture. Nothing popped up until I found mention of gay rodeo in the Autry Library collection. I requested the file, which consisted of two slim folders containing a few gay rodeo programs and clippings from a 1987 San Francisco Chronicle newspaper article on Golden State Gay Rodeo.

I attended one gay rodeo in my life, and had a few friends who competed in the late ‘80s. I looked up Gay Rodeo online and discovered a terrific website complete with its history. Gay Rodeo got its start in Reno, 1975. I saw that IGRA had twenty-six member associations, with 5,000 members and annual attendance of 50,000. I contacted Brian Helander, President of the International Gay Rodeo Association and asked if IGRA had archival records. He confirmed that bankers boxes containing the thirty-five year Gay Rodeo history were stored in the basement of Charlie’s, a Denver country western gay bar.

I flew to Colorado and met with Patrick Terry, IGRA historian and archivist. Sure enough, the archives had been meticulously preserved, and lined up on shelves in a storage closet off the basement drag show dressing room. Included in the collection was correspondence, financial records, rodeo programs, rule books, posters, belt buckles and costumes spanning all the way back to 1975.

A week after the Brokeback shirts were installed at the Autry, Patrick Terry and his friend Tommy Channel drove the IGRA archives from Charlie’s Western Bar in Denver across the Rockies to the Autry Library where they are now part of its permanent rodeo collection. The value of these archives in inestimable. Gay Rodeo formed to counteract negative stereotypes of gay people, and saw itself as an ambassador to the mainstream western community. I came out in the Denver/Boulder area in 1975. I recognized names, places and faces from my own history in those boxes. It was more than moving. It felt divined.

The history of gay rodeo follows the trajectory of the gay liberation movement from the burgeoning of sexual freedom, the awful advent of HIV/AIDS, Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and Marriage Equality. On May 19th, Out West will present “Pride in the Saddle, the History of Nevada Gay Rodeo” at the Clark County Library in Las Vegas. In 2013, I am proud to say that the Eiteljorg Western Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis will present a rare collection of gay rodeo photographs by renowned photographer and champion bull rider, Blake Little.

MM: I’m becoming more conscious of the need to preserve LGBT history and I’d guess there may be many people who aren’t aware of our contributions and influence in the American West. Ours has often been a hidden history; do you think that’s changing?

GH: I am positive that visibility for the LGBT2 rural western community is changing for the better. Each month we discover new scholarship on our history. So many educational books are being written. The rapid expansion of Out West programs in a growing list of western museums, libraries and universities who wish to partner with us seems to underscore the fact that LGBT2 western American history won’t be hidden for much longer.

MM: You’re an author and a movie producer. One of the movies you produced was “It’s My Party,” a 1996 film about a man who has an end-of-life going away party for himself. What got you involved, and in what way has HIV/AIDS affected your life.

GH: For many years I was privileged to manage the film company of Randal Kleiser, best known for directing “Grease.” I was introduced to Randal by his life-partner, architectural designer and artist Harry Stein. Harry contracted HIV/AIDS, and died in the early 1990’s. “It’s My Party” is inspired by his life.

I was diagnosed with HIV on March 1st, 1991. It felt like a death sentence then, and I remember giving myself five years to live. As I did when I came out, I told friends and family right away. I wanted to know where I stood. On that score, I have been extraordinarily lucky, especially with my family. That said, I’ve since lost my dad, my mom and my older brother all to lung cancer. I outlived them, with HIV, and I confess to terrible bouts of survivor’s guilt. I know, too, how worried they were about me even as they were dying. And although I have great support, I miss them more than I can say. My novels are all family portraiture, particularly The Way Things Ought to Be. (Kensington, 2003) When I get lonely, I read favorite passages and spend time with them. How lucky I am to be a writer.

How has HIV affected my life? Equal parts blessing and curse. As with being gay, my ”policy” about living with HIV is always in flux. After thirty some odd years, I am still coming out and I am still coming to terms with having HIV. Both issues confuse me still, and always will. I have written four novels, produced two films and with Beyond Brokeback, I am delving into the world of theater. Mine has been a quiet but earnest career dedicated to the telling of personal stories against the backdrop of recent gay history, the decades that I have witnessed that I feel are important to commemorate. A friend recently told me that creating Out West is what I was born to do. She then reminded me how “lucky” I am that it came my way. And I agree because I’ve had a lot of help.

MM: You’ve been with your partner Tom for 23 years. Where do you live and what’s the environment like (literally as well as socially – vast spaces, a city, what’s the landscape)? Is this where you intend to stay?

GH: We have lived in the heart of Hollywood for two decades. It is culturally diverse, very urban and teeming with noisy street life. You may recall the Hollywood arsonist who recently set fire to over 50 apartment buildings between Christmas and New Year. I can see the skyline of LA from our windows. Each evening for nearly a week, I watched helicopter flood lights darting back and forth over the palm trees of neighborhoods to the south, west and east of us with fire engines and police cars in hot pursuit. On New Year’s Eve, we forced ourselves out for an early dinner. Around 7:30 PM, we were already home. The sirens started wailing. “Again???” I walked onto the deck. Sure enough, several helicopters were in the air, but instead of flying off in the distance, they slowly started circling in our direction. Suddenly I was awash in white light. A fire engine screamed up the street, blocking the alley. A cop car pulled in on the other end. You guessed it. The arsonist had just lit fire to a car next to our building in the alley below. Thanks to the quick response of 911, no damage was done and the guy was finally arrested the next morning.

Two weeks earlier I had been staying in a cabin high on a hill, blanketed with snow, in remote northwestern Wyoming. I was on sabbatical at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. I love the contrast. 2011 was a great year for me. Nobody burns me out. I’m not going anywhere.

MM: Our website is aimed at LGBT people over 50. Besides the contributions we make as LGBT people, is there anything you’d want to say about making contributions as aged and aging people?

GH: When I was a college student, my brother gave me the gift of a course in Transcendental Meditation. I didn’t keep it up, and put away my mantra for nearly four decades. Several years ago, after a great emotional upheaval, I started meditating again. In my particular kind of mediation, I am not required to clear my mind, but instead, in a state of deep relaxation, my thoughts run unhindered where I can watch them from a safe distance. All of my best ideas occur during my meditations, and I put them out in the world that same day because I trust my intuition. I urge anyone at any age to embrace his or her own spiritual path. I now meditate two times a day. I observe the rising and setting sun with equal reverence. That’s how I feel about age.