Gay rodeo is changing attitudes in rural America.
by Karen Derr
The International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) holds its 2013 World Gay Rodeo Finals October 17–20 at the John Justin Arena in Ft. Worth. Finalists from all over North America will come to compete in “Cow Town” from as far away as Alberta, Canada. Each year, up to twenty gay rodeo competitions are held in places like Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, and most of the western states, to qualify for the annual World Gay Rodeo Finals.
Ken Pool, a rodeo announcer and former IGRA rodeo director, grew up in Tomball, Texas, in the sixties and seventies. He recalls that he had no gay role models back then in Tomball. In 1976, Phil Ragsdale organized the first gay rodeo as a charity fundraiser in Reno, Nevada. Reportedly, Ragsdale had trouble getting local ranchers to provide livestock for a gay rodeo. Pool says, “Gay rodeo was started because we didn’t have a place to compete; we weren’t welcome at other rodeos.”
Pool continues, “While this is no longer as true today, gay rodeo still has a great function by being open and welcoming. Straight people who join us appreciate that.” And Pool says straight rodeo athletes are now competing in IGRA events all over the country. “They come for the camaraderie. The level of competition is good, but the level of fun is much greater than other venues. I believe this is real outreach and education. These are people who have horses; they’re not involved in a traditional urban gay environment. They wouldn’t necessarily be involved knowingly with gay people.”
Today, many women are involved in the rodeo both as competitors and as volunteers. “When you talk about outreach to straight people, we’re very inclusive. If a straight woman wants to ride bulls, there are very few places she can go to do that except here,” explains Pool. There are competitions for both women and men in all events, so women can ride broncs and men can barrel race and pole bend. All participants compete against whichever sex they identify as. Contestants this year in Fort Worth will compete in bull riding, bareback bronc riding, steer riding, chute dogging, roping events (such as team roping and mounted breakaway roping), and speed events such as barrel racing and pole bending. Both men and women ride the same rough stock livestock under the same rules and requirements. Roping teams can be made up of any combination of men and women.
Besides the inclusiveness and camaraderie, the level of professionalism of the IGRA is also a big draw. Both horse professionals and amateur horse enthusiasts are attracted to IGRA’s well-run rodeos. Pool says he believes this is the reason that IGRA rodeos are making an impact on rural America. As far as straight cowboys and cowgirls who choose to join in the competitions, he explains it starts with the families in the stands. “Suddenly there is a group of ten people who have never been to a gay bar, but they’re attending our rodeo, and they stay. And they bring friends back on Sunday, and next they say, ‘I want to compete.’” He adds, “The Denver rodeo has a whole contingent of straight families who want to be a part of the group because we are a nonprofit and they know we give money back to the community.” Each IGRA chapter’s events are fundraisers for that chapter’s local designated charities.
Pool, who was Mr. International Gay Rodeo 2005, likes to say gay rodeo is three-quarters rodeo and one-quarter circus. The IGRA may be breaking stereotypes, but the “camp” events add some comic relief as only gay rodeo can. These events include goat dressing, where a team of two puts jockey-style underwear on a goat. There is also a steer-decorating event, and the wild drag race is a three-person team—one in drag, and the other two helping the drag queen get on a wild steer and cross the finish line. Pool says it’s probably the most dangerous event at the IGRA finals. He reports that no one has ever been killed in the event, but several have been hurt. The “camp” events are great for those who want to compete but who are not skilled on horseback. The IGRA also sponsors educational rodeo schools for novices who want to learn how to rodeo. One such workshop was held last March in the Houston area at the Pasadena Fairgrounds. Most IGRA events also include country-western dance competitions.
While there is, of course, a level of danger for the competitors, the IGRA has strict rules regarding safety and animal welfare. The association has an international Animal Issues Committee whose LGBT cowboys and cowgirls track issues related to animal use, annually review animal use and welfare policies, and report directly to the IGRA annual convention.
According to Pool, the Gay Rodeo Finals draw in thousands of participants and are often second only to Pride events as the largest gay gatherings in a host city. This is the third year Fort Worth has won the bid for the event, which spans three days.
As for the seemingly opposing worlds of conservative rural America and gay rodeo, Pool states with the pride of a longtime organizer and participant, “People who come to gay rodeo are more concerned about how you treat your horse, or how well you ride, than who you are sleeping with afterwards.”
What: 2013 World Gay Rodeo Finals
When: October 17–20
Where: John Justin Arena at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, 3401 West Lancaster Avenue, Fort Worth, Texas
Karen Derr is a Houston-area Realtor and the founder of Boulevard Realty. She writes and speaks about home and small-business topics.