If The Beauty Queen is my novel about Protestantism and gays, The Fancy Dancer is my novel about Catholicism and gays. If The Beauty Queen is my book about urban gays, The Fancy Dancer is my book about rural gays. In fact, nobody had written much about rural gays at all. Urban gays got all the airtime. Inevitably that subject would lead me back to portray the Montana town where I grew up.
The Fancy Dancer is set in a small Western town like the one where I grew up. In fact, the name "Cottonwood" was actually the name of my hometown for a while in the late 1800s, before it went to the present name of Deer Lodge. When the book was first published in 1976, many people in Deer Lodge raced to buy the book, because they knew I knew about the gay stuff in town! The small bookstore in town did a landmark business on this novel for a few months.
My parents read it, of course. My dad harrumphed politely and was noncommittal, because he hewed to an old-time philosophy that "secrets were better off kept secret". But my mother loved the book. The Fancy Dancer opened a door between us, so we could talk about religion and sexuality. Her Presbyterian church was already split over the gay issue (as it still is today).
Though I was raised a Presbyterian, a fascination with Catholicism had marked my childhood. Catholics were the biggest denomination in Deer Lodge. My best girlfriend and her family and many of my other friends were "mackerel snappers," as people called them then. Finally I converted to Catholicism for a few years — briefly, passionately, my first year in college. Further study of the religion convinced me I'd made a bad choice, and I'd left the Church by my senior year.
The real-life Father Tom was actually a young parish priest I knew in Missouri, while at Stephens College there. I never knew if he was gay, but his high-energy lifestyle had all the marks of being driven by some mysterious inner crisis. The real-life Vidal Stump, you could say, was my half-breed native-American relatives all rolled together. The real-life inspiration for Vidal's dad, a tribal cop on the Blackfeet Reservation, was John Tatsey, a.k.a. Weasel Necklace, an Indian cop I knew who wrote a wonderful column about reservation life called "Heart Butte News". The two old lesbian ladies were every pair of Western widow ladies I had ever known or heard of, modeled distantly after my own grandmother and grandaunt. I had never met any gay rodeo cowboys, but I knew they had to exist as I created Will and Larry. Western life has long been familiar with these quiet pairings among women and men, which have been going on ever since frontier days. The rigors and loneliness of Western rural life always meant that, economically speaking, two could do it better than one. So if you weren't heterosexually married, you paired off with somebody else. Most communities had their bachelor cowboys and widow ladies who had moved in together. Nobody used the word "gay" to describe them, though often these were closeted couples who spent many long years together. They were just part of the social scenery.
The straight and gay characters alike are a cross-section of town life as I knew it in southwestern Montana — from the struggling young parish priest who is confronting his gay sexuality, to the town's parish ladies, the librarian, the sheriff, the altar boy, the self-appointed book-burner. It depicts the complex relationships between country people and town people in a region like this.
To think of gay subculture in a town of 3000 people seems a stretch. But there was much gay color in that town that I couldn't cram it all into one book. Like Jan Stewart, scion of an old-time pioneer family, who was away for a long time, then came home a Buddhist and holed up in a little clapboard house by Cottonwood Creek. He had a job: translating Chinese Buddhist texts for somebody. There he was, living with his altar and sandalwood incense and five Siamese cats, living next door to Vivian Stuart Kemp, then in her 90s, a real old-time icon, last of the pioneer generation and a pillar of the town's society. Jan was Vivian's friend and surrogate son, so nobody in town dared to say a word crosswise against Jan, though he was the biggest flamer in southwest Montana. They've both gone to the Great Round now, so I can tell the story.
And finally there is the half-breed biker, Vidal Stump, who challenges the priest to choose between his vows and his heart. As someone who is part native American, and grew up in a rural community where there were many mixed-bloods like myself, I knew it was important to weave the story of the Metis (mixed-blood people) and the tribes into The Fancy Dancer , for the book to reflect Western life and history in a truly real way.
This novel stayed on the B. Dalton bestseller list for many months, and has remained a popular favorite among my books. Some readers tell me they like it better than The Front Runner. Maybe it's because the story deliberately veers away from the now-stereotypical picture of gay life as exclusively urban and sophisticated. In the last few years, other books and films have given more recognition to gay people living their hidden, often fearful and closeted lives, out in the great reaches of rural America, far from support networks in the cities.
To keep the story simple, I had to leave out some other wonderful potential story threads, based on real life in the town. But now those can be candidates for my autobiography. So I left a lot out, aiming to keep the story lean as a barbed-wire fence.