Out on the Range

updated 01/30/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/30/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ben Clark never dreamed he would see what was playing out onscreen. Yet there it was, as if taken from his life: the Wyoming setting, with its rugged mountains, meadows and buttes. The horses, the cattle, the grazing herds of sheep. The lonely gay cowboys.

Watching Brokeback Mountain in Jackson Hole, Clark, 42, took in director Ang Lee's tale of ill-fated love between male ranch hands with a mix of sadness and familiarity. Clark's own cowboy pedigree is impeccable: His ranching ancestors helped settle Jackson Hole in the 1890s, and he spent his youth roping, riding and hunting. And like Brokeback's lovers, Clark is also gay—which sometimes makes him feel like a stranger on his own land. “Sure, it's hard being in a place with so few people who are gay,” he says. “It used to both anger and depress me. Now I just understand it as a fact of life.”

That particular fact doesn't sit well with everyone in the land of the Marlboro Man. “I grew up in Buffalo, S. Dak., as ranching a community as you can get, and I've never encountered anything like a gay cowboy,” says professional rodeo rider Frank Thompson, 38, who now lives in Cheyenne, Wyo. “I feel like Brokeback Mountain is a jab at us out West.” But gay activists have used the film as a sort of public coming-out party, organizing a forum in Jackson Hole Dec. 9 at which several men and women discussed their sexual orientation. For Ben Clark, it was the first time he publicly talked about it in his hometown. And just seven years since the brutal murder of 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, an antigay hate crime that made headlines around the world, Brokeback has so far caused little controversy in Wyoming, where much of its action is set (although a theater operator in neighboring Utah canceled screenings). “People who are interested in the movie will see it; people who aren't, won't. But nobody is going to make a big deal,” says Guy Padgett, 28, a gay council member in Casper.

Yet to be both gay and a cowboy means sometimes straddling separate worlds. “Most gay guys I know don't like to hunt,” Ben Clark says over a breakfast of over-easy eggs and hot chocolate in Rexburg, Idaho, “though I did take one gay guy I met last year to hunt elk on the edge of the Big Sandy River in Wyoming. We didn't get anything, but we had fun.” Growing up, Clark can't recall role models for a young man with his orientation. “The first experience where it really scared the heck out of me was when I was 12.” That was when Clark came upon some high school boys sunning themselves on the football field. “I remember feeling excited. I pushed it down deep and pretended it didn't exist.”

Throughout school and college, Clark kept his urges to himself. “I got teased because I was into choir and playing piano. Then as a high school sophomore, I joined the ski and track teams and I roped calves with the rodeo. So guys quit picking on me.” After attending Ricks College in Rexburg and Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Clark dropped out, moved to Southern California and fell for his first serious boyfriend. “We met at Disneyland at the wishing well in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle—through mutual friends. It was like, ‘Wow.’ I'd never had a dating experience, much less a love experience.”

Clark followed Jason to New York, attended New York University in Manhattan's ultratolerant Greenwich Village, but found that city life wasn't for him. “There was too much of everything, especially stress,” he says. Back in Wyoming, he sat his parents down in 1992 and broke the big news. “As time went on, my dad accepted me unconditionally,” he says. “He came around a lot faster than my mom.” Still single, Clark socializes with a group of 20 to 40 men in Jackson Hole, he says. “I sometimes wish I could live in a place where I could walk down the street holding a guy's hand. But it's funny. I had to come back, with my family. I needed to ride and do all the stuff I love to do here.”

As a plumbing contractor catering to the wealthy residents of Jackson Hole, 31-year-old Jade Beus can afford to live in any number of gay-friendly locales. But then he wouldn't be able to help out at the family spread in Soda Springs, Idaho, where generations of Beuses have farmed and raised sheep. “When you stand on a hilltop and know your family has worked that land for the last century,” he says, “When you plant 1,000 acres and come back to see plants sprouting, it's so much beauty, such a feeling of self-worth.”

That was in short supply, he admits, while growing up gay and closeted in Soda Springs. “I had one major relationship in high school,” he says. “It carried on until he had sex with a woman and married her. It was painful, the main reason I moved to Jackson Hole—I couldn't stand to see them together.”

Beus attempted to follow a similarly straight path, but it only led to pain. “I dated women and, one after another, broke their hearts. I loved all of them—still do. It's just that part of me was missing.” Today Beus is open about his sexuality but unattached and admits that living in a thinly populated state doesn't boost his prospects. For now, at least, he'll take the trade-off. “If I moved to West Hollywood, I could hook up with guys. That would satisfy me for about a week. I understand the need for a city fix and to go to restaurants with small portions. But I need open spaces.”

Oklahoma rancher Sam Beaumont knows the feeling. For him, gay life in the West was a tender, quarter-century love story that began with a chance meeting in Tulsa, back in 1977. The strapping Beaumont, now 62, was sitting beside the Arkansas River when Earl Meadows, a soft-spoken comptroller for a manufacturing firm, walked up and started a conversation. “We just talked all day and night,” Beaumont recalls. They had much in common, notably that both were divorced and gay. Not long afterward they settled on a 60-acre ranch in Bristow, Okla., raised a small herd of cattle—and Beaumont's three children—and stayed together until Meadows's death from cancer in 2000.

“We loved each other,” Beaumont says. “We had a better relationship than most straight couples.” Beaumont says there is an entire subculture of gay men living under the radar in rural states like Oklahoma. “You'll have some who are sort of in your face, then you'll have ranchers who are quiet about it. Then you've got the ones that claim they're straight but have sex with men. And when they come home at night and their wives ask if they've been with a woman, well, they don't have to lie.”

Beaumont nursed his partner through his final illness. “The house and land were in Earl's name,” he says. “He left me everything in his will, but he had only one witness signature.” Oklahoma requires two signatures; Meadows's cousins contested the will, and Beaumont lost his home. He eventually met a new partner, Marvin Reed, 65, online, and they now share a 350-acre ranch near Cromwell, Okla., a cluttered one-bedroom home and a menagerie of livestock, ducks, dogs, cats and rabbits. But the great love of his life is never far away. “I think about Earl every single day,” Beaumont says wistfully. “Sometimes I'd have liked to kill him. But I sure do miss him.”

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