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Cherchez la femme, pardieu! Cherchez la femme!: My Accidental Obsession with Lesbian Westerns

“Gender is dead. Gender remains dead. And we have killed it.” - Friedrich Nietzsche, probably

“Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the categories of sex (woman and man).” - Monique Wittig, definitely

St Andrews. The vast open ocean crashing and roaring, at war against itself. Flurries of rain lashing sideways against your face. Any outlaw, bandit, or cowboy would have to hold their hat to their head, have their coat collar pulled up. But that didn’t bother me at all. I had my headphones on: I Want You by, everyone’s favourite lesbian, Bob Dylan. It was a cold, cold October evening and I knew where I was headed. Back home. To the warmth and comforts that one’s own room offers. To my reliably old and noisy PlayStation 3, with Fallout: New Vegas loaded up.

As Twitter user @Pipbois notes, there are several things to know about Fallout: New Vegas, but they list one of the most important: “fact number 1: lesbian cowboy.” Be it the tragically fated relationship of Veronica and Christine, the user’s ability (a.k.a. the obvious choice) to get a perk allowing them to engage in queer romance options very early in the game, or the vast range of queer side characters, Fallout: New Vegas is a benchmark for queer representation in games. And, I mean, who doesn’t love lesbian cowboys? October was a busy month for me, and I sought a great deal of comfort in escapist media. The Western genre is an intensely problematic one, and with films like Killers of the Flower Moon coming out recently, it is a genre under scrutiny. These analyses of the genre through alternate lenses, away from the dominant narratives of American white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal structures, is deeply necessary. Genres, with their traditional barriers and logic, run the risk of introducing stereotypes into their use of cliche and pastiche. However, a great deal of artists have broken down the reliance on these barriers of tradition to create truly radical, progressive snapshots of what genre can truly be. The Western, I think, can be a great comfort for LGBTQ+ people. Stories of outsiders, rebels, runaways; of chosen family, forging a life, finding love in unusual places. Certainly, Fallout: New Vegas, for me, represents a game wherein you wake up in a doctor’s office and immediately get to choose aspects of your gender, appearance, and identity. Then you are unleashed into this wild western post-apocalypse with the ability to do anything, be whoever. It is an intensely freeing experience to not have to merely look for representation (which, as noted, New Vegas has plenty of) but to create your own. Traditionally, women, queer people, and other subjugated bodies have found themselves typecast into stereotypes in the Western genre. In October, by sheer accident, I found myself exploring a subsect of artists and audiences who rejected that principle of the genre and forged their own, very gay notion of the lesbian western.

This interest can probably track its origin back to the summer. My partner was visiting and I took him to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where we saw a delightfully sweet and funny play called Cowboys and Lesbians. It simultaneously presented a parodic view of the genre and its conventions but also keyed into something deeply important to me and is perhaps why I’ve held onto it for so long. The play follows two girls, Nina and Noa, in the twilight years of their time at secondary school. They fancy each other, but are both too shy and inexperienced to admit it. They begin to conjure up a fantasy about a mysterious dashing cowboy and the headstrong country girl who falls in love with him. Personalities begin to meld as we see clearly who ‘Carter’ and ‘Esmerelda’ truly represent. The presentation of queer coming of age, in all of its stuckness and uncertainty and angst, through this cowboy fantasy really struck a note with me. Escapism can be a vehicle for so much: unrequited love, gender expression, and so on. And it’s also just a lot of fun. So, when it came to October, and I was kind of overwhelmed with deadlines, tutorials, and the annual winter identity crisis which comes free with queerness, I knew exactly what I wanted to watch, read, and listen to. I wanted lesbian cowboys.

Official Playlist for Feeling like a Cowboy Lesbian:

I’ll Be Here in the Morning - Townes Van Zandt

Betty and Dupree - Tia Blake

I Want You - Bob Dylan

Cowboy Like Me - Taylor Swift

Wildflowers - Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris

Bigger Fish - Odie Leigh

Born for Loving You - Big Thief

Red Moon - Big Thief

Blue Lightning - Big Thief

(just listen to lots of Big Thief)

Man! I Feel Like A Woman! - Shania Twain

Thelma and Louise is a widely celebrated film. Despite not going the whole nine yards and presenting a truly authentic lesbian relationship between the titular characters, it is recognised as a queer cult classic for its portrayal of rebellion and outlaw status. Released at a point in time wherein major American film productions were beginning to move away from the thinly veiled celluloid closet of implied queerness to something more explicit, a shift which wouldn’t find itself materialised outside of independent queer productions until later in the 90s and 2000s, with films like Bound and Mulholland Drive. Even today, outside of independent films, truly queer cinema is rare to come across, normally we just get pretty but fruitless tripe like Call Me By Your Name or erasure-fests like The Danish Girl. Thelma and Louise is not perfect, but it is a film about two rebel rousing lesbians (even if not explicitly) who run away together because, as the film’s tagline states, “SOMEBODY SAID GET A LIFE… SO THEY DID.” The desert landscape around them, indicative of the traditional Western genre, is rooted in patriarchy. And thus, when Thelma and Louise kiss, hold hands, and drive their Ford Thunderbird off the Grand Canyon, they break the traditional logics of hetero-patriarchy, the Western genre, and the very space they occupy. 

Even earlier than Thelma and Louise and far more explicitly, Donna Deitch made one of my favourite films of all time and by far my favourite lesbian western. Desert Hearts came out slap bang in the middle of the Reagan/Thatcher era of homophobic politics taking centre stage at every level of society. This film feels, truly, like the biggest fuck you to Ronald Reagan I’ve ever seen. It is a movie which utilises the Western genre, in which Reagan got his big break, to critique straight-edge, mundane, soul-crushing heterosexual life in favour of the wild west of queerness. In an era of fear and hatred, Desert Hearts is a movie about lesbians riding horses, wearing cowboy shirts, listening to country and 50s pop. It’s raw and tender and a tad melodramatic, it's cinema! Cinema in its purest form! Ending on a positive note, this is a film which breaks the common lesbian tragedy trope, whilst simultaneously finding joy and splendour in being a total pastiche of the Western genre. Just a gorgeous, moving film. A deeply underrated gem of the 1980s and of queer cinema as a whole.

In conclusion, play Fallout: New Vegas, listen to a lot of Big Thief, engage in the cosy revolution of lesbian Westerns, and this winter, when the inevitable identity crisis sets in, find inspo in the queer cowboys of yesteryear and forge new futures for all the outlaws, renegades, rebels, and straight shooters amongst us.

By Jay (they/them)


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