"The Biggest Freak in the World" - Side Show's Bill Russell on Coming Out Among the Cowboys

By Bill Russell
10 Jun 2014

Bill Russell
Bill Russell

As part of Playbill.com's 30 Days of Pride, Tony Award-nominated Side Show librettist Bill Russell shares his story of coming out and how his small hometown responded.

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I was born in Deadwood – as in Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane and the HBO series – because my hometown, Spearfish, didn't have a hospital back then. Those towns are 12 miles apart in the Black Hills of South Dakota. My grandparents were cattle ranchers over the state line in Wyoming and everyone called my father "Cowboy."

In interviews about writing Side Show I'm frequently asked what drew me to the subject matter of conjoined twins and human oddities. And I always answer that growing up gay in macho cowboy country I felt like the biggest freak in the world so it wasn't much of a leap to relate to these unusual people.

I wasn't into sports in school and definitely had an effeminate affect, so I took a lot of abuse. One of my most humiliating moments was being nominated for homecoming queen in open assembly.

Though I knew I was attracted to men from a fairly young age, I fought it with everything I had in me. Thankfully, I lost that battle. I didn't come out until I was 23 — but then with a vengeance.

Spearfish High has an all-school reunion every five years. I attended the first one just when an album which featured my lyrics was released. I was writing for and managing and duo of women who went by the name Jade & Sarsaparilla (their album was recently re-released and is available at amoeba.com). They were phenomenally talented and beautiful and in a relationship which we started writing into. It was definitely edgy for them to be singing love songs to each other in the mid-70s.

Because of the album's release, the Rapid City Journal, the largest newspaper in western South Dakota, did an interview with me. And in it, I came out. I did the interview just before returning to Boston, where I was living at the time, and it was published after I'd left the area. I had told my father I was gay and he wasn't happy about it, but when it became public knowledge he went ballistic, left town for a few days and didn't speak to me for about three years.

The next summer was my 10th year class reunion — a dinner at the American Legion Hall. As I was walking into the basement venue, I suddenly thought, "Holy shit! I gave that interview last year. Everyone knows I'm gay." Seldom have I been as paralyzed with fear. Then our homecoming queen saw me across the room and shouted, "Bill! You came back!" And that put me right at ease. During the dinner, I was aware that some of the guys were keeping their distance but most of my former classmates were very friendly.

Afterwards a lot of people were going to the new hot spot in town — the bar at the Holiday Inn. So one of my good friends and I drove up there. As we were parking we noticed a group of guys in a corner of the lot. They were passing around a bottle of Canadian Club and called for us to join them. There were a couple in the group who had really given me a hard time in high school.

But nostalgic spirits were running high and the whiskey was making them run higher. One of the guys said, "Bill, some of us were talking about that interview you gave last year." I was a little apprehensive of what was coming next but he said, "And we think you had a lot of guts to do that." Nice! And then he added, "And I just want to apologize for any shit I gave you in high school." Wow — who doesn't dream of that??!

So we continued passing the bottle and another guy said, "Who would have thought? Ten years later Ken has his own business, Roger works for the state, Jerry's in grad school and Bill's (wait for it) — a homosexual." And I said, "Well, I don't do it professionally. But I'd like to!"

Since that time, I take every opportunity I can to remind people in that area that they have an out gay native son. I frequently host evenings of my songs performed by local talent at the lovely Matthews Opera House in Spearfish and always talk about being gay.

In 2003 I was invited to be the key note speaker for the first Black Hills Pride. And my speech was in the afternoon at Mt. Rushmore. About a hundred people turned out for the mile march to the monument. I spoke at an outdoor amphitheater beneath the huge granite heads of Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson and Roosevelt (Teddy).

The amphitheater is completely in the open and needless to say there were a ton of tourists visiting. As I was in the middle of my speech and said something about being gay, a man way up at the back loudly yelled, "BOOO!" A couple of the organizers ran up to talk to him. He felt it wasn't appropriate for his young children to hear the word "gay." I have two words in response to that — "Puh Leeeeze."

Five years ago I married Bruce Bossard two days before the 30th anniversary of our first date. Since I was pulling together a wedding announcement to send to the "Times" (it was published — every bride's dream — well, this one's at any rate), I decided to send it to all the local papers around my hometown.

I discovered that to have a wedding announcement in the Rapid City Journal you had to pay $45 and submit a form. When I got to "Bride's Maiden Name:" on the form, I decided to call. "This form doesn't apply to my situation." They dutifully took the information and my $45 and it was published the day after our wedding.

A week later there was an angry letter to the editor in the Sunday paper complaining that the people of South Dakota had voted that marriage means one man/one woman and the paper should not be publishing the wedding announcement of two men. The following Sunday there were five letters rebutting the first one, saying things like, "Their marriage is legal in many states," "We know Bill and this is important news" and "They paid their $45 like everyone else so why not?" Definitely heartening.

I've been bringing Bruce back to the Hills with me for 30+ years now, and I actually think the neighboring ranchers have a harder time accepting that we don't own a car than they do with us as a couple.

Not long after Stonewall, a lot of leaders in our community started encouraging everyone to come out as publicly as they could, and I do believe that has made all the difference in our growing acceptance. Thinking of "gay" as something that doesn't affect your life or your neighborhood makes it easy to dismiss or hate. Being made aware that your family member or co-worker or friend or Cowboy's Russell's son is gay and out and proud makes it harder to categorize us as the "other." Even the cowboys seem to be getting the message.