The Many Husbands of “Tiger King” Joe Exotic

Sure, we met John, Travis, and Dillon, but what about the big cat lover's other playthings?

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By now you’ve no doubt heard of Joseph Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel) a.k.a. Joe Exotic—he of the glorious two-tone mullet, dubiously legal Oklahoma big cat wildlife park, and bungled murder-for-hire plot. Netflix has brought Exotic’s truly bizarre tale of unrequited revenge to viral life with Tiger King, sparking interest in Exotic, his nemesis Carole Baskin, and the loopy cast of characters mired in their rivalry.

Among my favorites are Exotic’s three husbands: the defiantly shirtless John Finlay; the tall, dark, and tragic Travis Maldonado; and the hopelessly devoted Dillon Passage. They’re all very young, very impressionable, and at least when it comes to Finlay and Maldonado, whom Exotic married simultaneously, actually straight.

One wonders how Exotic, a middle-aged man with a personal style that says “If meth were a person,” can pull all this rough trade—I mean, these guys are some Oklahoma tens. And while Exotic was getting multiple heterosexual OK tens to marry him, I couldn’t even secure a second date with tried-and-true homosexuals. Good for him.

Of course, Exotic had innumerable temptations that a young boy of limited means and brains would be drawn to, from a massive collection of big kitties, a personal Xanadu of misfits of which he was the unquestioned leader, and, if we’re being honest, a way with lyrics and melody. Facts are facts, America, and Joe Exotic could craft a real-ass country bop.

Tiger King only explores Exotic’s relationships with his last three husbands, but he had at least two others. The first was Brian Rhyne, who died of complications related to HIV in 2001. The 2019 New York Magazine article “The Modern Barnum and His Equally Extraordinary Nemesis” includes details about his wedded life with Rhyne back in the ’80s, when marriage equality was but a distant dream.

After a couple of years, Joe returned to Texas, got a job as a security guard at a gay cowboy bar called the Round-up Saloon, and met his first husband, Brian Rhyne, a slender, sassy 19-year-old. They moved into a trailer together in Arlington, where they shared their bed with a pack of poodles and grew to resemble each other, with mullets and horseshoe mustaches and dressed in jeans and boots. On Saturdays, they would snort pink-tinged meth and go out to the bars. Sundays, they lazed around at home and watched Westerns on TV. Joe and Brian eventually got married at the Round-up. This was the late ’80s. Gay marriage wasn’t even close to being legal, but they didn’t give a fuck.

You really gotta admire Exotic’s gay gumption. And his game. According to Exotic’s friends, Rhyne’s death changed him, physically and emotionally. He started raiding Siegfried and Roy’s closet; he got so many face-lifts his sideburns grew behind his ears; he tattooed and pierced himself many times over, getting a Prince Albert he often topped off with a padlock; and he began hotly pursuing straight, rough trade.

The New York story also makes mention of another “husband” who came after Rhyne’s death, a 20-something Oklahoma man named J.C. Hartpence, who once held a gun to Exotic’s head and is now serving life in prison for murder. Undaunted by his near-death experience, Exotic moved on and started dating the fresh-out-of-high-school Finlay, persuading him to get on steroids, which in turn led to his fits of rage. At one point, Finlay threw Exotic into a wall, sending him to the hospital.

Netflix
The Tiger King himself: Joe Exotic.

Exotic brought another boy into his relationship with Finlay, a quiet Juggalo named Paul, who with Finlay flanked Exotic in their joint conjugal bed. When Paul left, Exotic replaced him with Maldonado, a stoner from Southern California with anger issues of his own and a love of guns that would be his undoing. Exotic wed both Maldonado and Finlay, but their marital ménage à trois was short-lived. When Finlay impregnated a woman on staff at the wildlife park, he picked up and left Exotic. Maldonado died after accidentally shooting himself in the head in 2017.

The widower didn’t grieve for long, delegating the hunt for the next love of his life to members of his office staff, who scoured Grindr and Twitter and discovered Passage. Within days Passage had moved in with Exotic, eschewing an air mattress in his cousin’s house for a life of lions, tigers, and queers. They were married just two months after Maldonado’s death.

The last time we see Passage in Tiger King, he seems resolute in his love for the incarcerated Exotic, who’s serving 22 years in prison for a number of shenanigans, including animal abuse and murder for hire. As for Finlay, he is having his “Privately Owned by Joe Exotic” tattoo on his lower abdomen covered up with something a little less conspicuous: the head of a bull. I’m not sure what the significance is, but I am sure, considering that Finlay also (thankfully) had his teeth fixed, this is about as close to a happy ending as any of Joe’s husbands have gotten.

Lester Fabian Brathwaite is an LA-based writer, editor, bon vivant, and all-around sassbag. He's formerly Senior Editor of Out Magazine and is currently hungry. Insta: @lefabrat