Aug 25, 2021

The Lone Ranger and Tonto: The First Gay Couple

When I was a kid in the 1960s, we were all about astronauts and outer space.  Cowboys were strictly for squares. We had a few cowboy toys, presented by clueless adults, but  we didn't dare bring them out with other kids around, and we would watch a tv Western only if it had science fiction elements, like Wild Wild West.  So, except for a few parodies, we knew nothing about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, the most blatant gay couple of the first generation of Boomers.

First appearing on the radio in 1933, the Lone Ranger was a Texas Ranger (a sort of Wild West police officer) who was ambushed along with his squadron and left for dead.  He was nursed back to health by an Indian named Tonto (apparently his creator, Fran Striker, didn't speak Spanish), and the two of them rode off to right wrongs.

The radio series was immensely popular, and led to an endless series of toys, games, cereal give-aways, comic books, Big-Little Books, movie serials, and feature films.

Boomer kids often heard their parents discussing fond memories of huddling over a radio listening to an announcer intone "Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear!", after which the Lone Ranger would say "Heigh-ho, Silver! Away!"

Did none of them figure out that these were two men living together, never displaying the least interest in women, and one of them said "Heigh-ho"?

The radio series lasted through 1956, but first generation of Boomer kids was most familiar with the tv series (1949-57), starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.  I've never seen it, but apparently there's no heterosexual interest, and Tonto needs rescuing quite a lot.

Clayton Moore (top photo) was a former circus acrobat who broke into Hollywood in 1937 and starred in many Westerns, detective dramas, and even science fiction before and during The Lone Ranger. Afterwards he didn't do much acting; he didn't want to.  He had already become the idol of kids everywhere.  Apparently he was not aware of the gay subtext.

Jay Silverheels (born Harold J. Smith) was a Canadian Mohawk Indian, who got his start in movies as a stuntman.  He, too, had a long career before The Lone Ranger, playing mostly characters named Black Buffalo, Yellow Hawk, and Spotted Bear. Afterwards he continued to work, playing Indians in Laramie, Branded, Daniel Boone, Gentle Ben, and The Brady Bunch, and a non-Indian on Love American Style.  Apparently he was not aware of the gay subtext, either.

But lots of gay kids were aware.  In The Best Little Boy in the World, a classic gay Boomer autobiography, John Reid states that he first figured "it" out through his fantasies of the Lone Ranger and Tonto riding into the sunset together.

The 2013 re-invention starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer effectively heterosexualized both characters.


  1. They were both in their 40s when they played the Lone Ranger and Tonto. Today we want all of our heroes to be young twinks.

    1. Or twunks.

      The obvious question is the nature of their relationship. Because of you're an Indian, there isn't just one culturally acceptable way to enter a sexual relationship with another man. Which is fair, since there are so few times that sex with women is culturally acceptable.

  2. Sidekicks, the difficulty is how much of it is even gay subtext and not just moral panic. But that's usually superheroes, jungle men, or science fiction. They're often related to the main character or clearly coded as related as well. So much so that sidekick pairings are often seen as incest by fan bases.

    With Tonto, he is clearly an adult and there's no familial coding. Which is probably why I'm more merciful to that ship than other sidekick shipping.

    I honestly don't think most actors know how much gay subtext there can be in the role they're playing. Let's be honest: Starting with the Boomer generation, the modern reader, at least in the States, has assumed close bonds between males was a gay thing. Nobody prior to World War II assumed that. But post-war we see this sort of homophobia creeping into everyday interactions. It gets worse as you get closer to present day: I remember a post about why old men, wait for it, are naked in the locker room. (On the plus side, everyone flamed him for being an idiot.)

    1. One of the reasons gay subtexts are easy to find in pre-World War II texts but increasingly difficult afterwards is the ideology that male affection signifies gayness. There were still bromantic pairs, but they were carefully heterosexualized by adding girl-crushes. Think of all of the tv series openings where the male lead does a double-take at a passing lady, to assure audiences that he is heterosexual.

    2. Just look at Kinsey. Over 1 in 3 men will cop to jerking off with another dude, no scandal until the female volume. Today, that statistic has been sacrificed to the god of "1 in 10", tiny and stable gay community.

      The funny thing, 6's are 2%. It's technically a progressive, not modal, distribution, but when dealing with millennials and zoomers exclusively it becomes a skewed distribution, with 1's being more numerous than 0's.

  3. The 1940s comic books have many homoerotic covers- I specially like one in which the Lone Ranger is tenderly carrying his boy friend Tonto- now that love

  4. Gay subtext or not. I have been in love with Jay Silverheels since I was a small girl - 4. My first celebrity crush and the only one that never went away. Subtext or no, I do not care. My little fantasy world will stay intact.


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