SADDLE UP | Mitch, right, one of the co-owners of Circle J Ranch, and a camper take the horses out for a ride around the ranch. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

Gays defy stereotypes by communing with nature, cowboy style, at Circle J

Life+Style editor

It’s Mike’s 50th birthday, and so the usual Saturday night dinner bash at the Circle J Ranch is more of a celebration than usual. Not just because of the milestone birthday, either.

Mike, one of the four co-owners of this gay campground, had been in the hospital until earlier that week after a bad turn following chemo treatments, and it was touch-and-go for a while. Today, though, Mike appears to be the picture of health.

It’s hard to say how much of the promise of the outdoors contributed to his recovery, but you won’t find anyone here who doesn’t find something therapeutic about being out in the fresh Texas air.

Don’t expect log cabins and Conestoga wagons, though. Dinner here isn’t served out of a chuck wagon by a toothless cowpoke named Cookie slinging hash. The “farmhouse” (if you wanna call it that) is a rambling ’70s ranch-style with an enclosed porch, swimming pool and air-conditioning; across a field, a spacious but spartanly serviceable bunkhouse holds a dozen or so beds for campers who have neither RVs nor tents.

If it looks less like camping than you recall from John Wayne westerns, it’s still something different from what you expect of the gay community.

Horses are available to rent, and you can see some longhorns grazing in the pasture (though one of the owners says they are “more for ambience”). There are hiking trails, and at night, without light pollution from neighboring cities, the darkness of the primeval, with the starry sky ablaze with twinkling lights is beautiful.

There’s an undeniable connection to the land, a camaraderie borne in the dry winds and piney landscape of East Texas.

This weekend they expect about 40 guests (that’s average, though it’s hard to predict), but on a holiday weekend like Memorial Day, attendance shoots up to 200 or more. It doesn’t feel too busy, though; plenty of folks stake their camp out in the woods, away from the farmhouse, for some commune-with-nature time.

None of the guys who prefer to linger around the bunkhouse seems to mind; it’s not like anyone judges anyone else.

“It’s a different kind of experience within the gay community,” says Randy, another one of the owners. “People come here from the city, escaping stress and work. It really brings the stress level down being out here; you can see it an hour after they arrive.”

Randy is one of six children — the only gay one, but also the only one of his siblings to produce a grandchild for his parents (a daughter, co-raised with a lesbian couple) and the only one to go into the family business of ranching (albeit with a detour as a mortgage banker for a spell).

Circle J is a working ranch of 101 acres in Van Zandt County, about an hour’s drive southeast of downtown Dallas. Gun Barrel City, which for a rural area boasts an astonishing two gay bars (including Friends, deemed one of the friendliest gay joints in the nation by a national gay publication), is the nearest town of note, though about a mile from the ranch is where Ozarka bottles its water from the local aquifer. (The locals all agree that Ozarka is clean, fresh water — but they get it from their taps, and don’t much appreciate the company taking it from them.)

There’s a definite Texas sensibility here, even if almost everyone at the Circle J is gay. Walk by the cars parked outside, you’ll see pickup trucks with “McCain/Palin ’08” bumper stickers alongside rainbow flags and HRC “=” decals.

The men here tend not to fit into the metrosexual stereotype of a gay man; they seem more like the stereotype of a Texas cowboy: Resistol hats, tight-fitting blue jeans, handlebar moustaches and western shirts with mother-of-pearl snap buttons. Except, of course, they are gay.

Which means they don’t fit any stereotype at all.

“We get people from all over. And we are conservative,” says Randy, who fits exactly the physical description of a cowboy. “And by conservative, I mean Sarah-Palin-Tea-Party-supporter conservative. Lots of gay people live rural lives and come from rural roots.”

But that hardly matters. Politics aren’t the main topic of conversation around the campfire.

The campfire, in fact, is one of the highpoints of a weekend here. Located on the upside of a hill just across a pond from the ranch house, it’s nuzzled in a clearing surrounded by a natural outcropping of rocks — a kind of organic henge around which guests commune over beer.

The men — and it’s all men; the Rainbow Ranch a few hours away is co-ed and family-friendly — come from all walks. Gary, the straight brother of one of the owners, is visiting from Chicago; he seems unfazed by what he jokingly refers to as the “overt homosexuality” of the guests.

Although the average age of guests skews toward the 40s, this weekend there are several men in their 20s here as well, out to enjoy what Circle J has to offer.

GOOD EATS | Circle J co-owner Paul, right, pours out pounds of mudbugs for the ranch’s Saturday crawfish boil. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

“We come here a lot,” says one guest, who lives in Allen with his longtime partner. “Being from Kentucky, I like being outdoors. We started with tent camping, then got a pop-up [camper]. Now we have a 34-foot RV,” with all the perks of home (a/c, a kitchen, roomy accommodations).

They go to Rainbow Ranch, too (there are about a half-dozen gay campgrounds throughout Texas, all of which are supportive of each other), but what brings them back to Circle J time and again is the people.

Circle J, which has been around for about seven years, was clothing-optional until last year. That’s when a disgruntled former guest complained to the local authorities and the sheriff came out, telling them they would have to register as a “sexually-oriented business” if they wanted to keep the policy. They decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and canceled it (although, when you’re out in the woods, who’s to know?) The result has actually been an uptick in business.

“Those who had been intimidated by nudity decided to check it out,” says Mitch, one of the co-owners. (It is not a cruisy place, really, though certainly that happens.)

Mitch himself was new to camping — and to gay life — until relatively recently. Originally from Milwaukee, he was in the military and married to a woman for much of his life. He came out with a vengeance in 1996, leaving the service, divorcing his wife and moving to New Orleans; within a year, he was competing as Mr. Louisiana Leather at IML.

That’s where he met Randy; they opened a gay bed and breakfast in NOLA before buying the Circle J eight years ago.

Mitch bristles at the use of the term “resort” to describe the Circle J, almost to the point of taking offense. He doesn’t want anyone getting the wrong idea.

“This is rustic camping,” he corrects. The best place to pee, newcomers are informed, is the nearest tree.

But there are some trappings of civilization. Cocktail hour is a nightly ritual, and guys play bocce ball to entertain themselves.

For Mike’s birthday bash, he and his partner Paul drove about 45 miles to pick up 20 pounds of crawfish for an old-fashioned mudbug boil. While Mike cooks — and everyone acknowledges, Mike has a way with Cajun food — many of the others chip in, taping down butcher paper and newsprint over picnic tables, drinking beer out of the complimentary tap.

All the while, the jukebox plays — everything from AC/DC to classical music to Madonna.

Hey, even in the country, gay men still like some Madonna. Some things just don’t change, no matter where you are.