Rodeo is an occupational competition with roots in the ranching and livestock industries. Professional and amateur competitors participate in various contests that reflect daily work and lifestyle of ranching. In the late twentieth century, a circuit of rodeos was created for LGBTQ participants and audiences. Although Gay rodeo initially began because openly Gay participants did not feel welcome to rodeo events, Gay rodeo has developed its own rodeo folkways and is more celebratory than reactionary.
The first Gay rodeo on record was in 1976, and was sponsored by the Imperial Court System (ICS), Reno Nevada Chapter, as a fundraiser for senior citizens. The ICS is an international organization of drag royalty, with members who adopt regal titles, present themselves in royal outfits at special functions, and raise money for charity. The Washoe County Fairgrounds were secured, but no ranchers would lend animals for a Gay event. Eventually, some “wild animals” were found (to conceal the names of actual donors). The rodeo took place, with a contest to award titles reflecting the Imperial Court, cowhand style, for King of the Cowboys, Queen of the Cowgirls, and Miss Dusty Spurs.
In 1977, the event became the National Reno Gay Rodeo. The awards became Mr., Ms., and Miss National Gay Rodeo, and money would go to the Muscular Dystrophy Association in the name of Reno Gay Liberation. In addition, other performances relating to Western rural folkways besides the rodeo proper were incorporated. These nighttime activities included country and western dancing (square dance, two-step, line dance, and clogging) and casino gambling.
The idea of a Gay rodeo spread to nearby states, which formed their own associations in California, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma. In 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) was formed in Denver, Colorado. The IGRA is a blanket organization for Gay rodeo that codifies rules, sets the time and place for the World Gay Rodeo Finals, and raises money for LGBTQ charities.
Rodeo and Community
Gay rodeos attract thousands of people, many of whom travel hundreds of miles from their homes and ranches to find a sense of community. Along with the rodeo competition there are dance competitions, music, comedy, exhibitions of line dancing, and western swing. Vendors sell Western gear such as boots, hats, and bolo ties emblazoned with Gay symbols like the pink triangle and the rainbow flag. Areas are set aside for charities and Gay social organizations to build support for their causes.
Under the direction of the IGRA, approximately 20 rodeos take place annually across the United States and Canada. Gay rodeo blends urban Gay and rural Western culture. Structure, formal rules, and general operation of Gay rodeo reflect the greater LGBTQ community’s ethos, especially regarding issues of gender equality, sexual orientation, and inclusion.
Of particular note is gender parity in the offices of president and vice president, and the retention of rodeo royalty from the IGRA’s origins in the Imperial Court System — a Mr. IGRA (male), Ms. IGRA (female), and Miss IGRA (drag)— the people most responsible for organizing the fundraising activities that take place throughout the year.
Participants and the PRCA
By far, the largest percentage of participants in Gay rodeo consists of White, rural Westerners who grew up in ranching communities where rodeos were organized under the principles of the Professional Rodeo Cowboy’s Association (PRCA). The founders of Gay rodeo copied those familiar structures, including rules, events, prize competitions, and adapted them to create a community festival with its own personality and characteristics. There are three categories of events in Gay rodeo that parallel PRCA rodeos: rough stock events, horse events, and roping events. Unlike standard rodeo, men and women compete together with the exception of team events, where they are judged separately and receive separate awards.
The events which are singularly characteristic of Gay rodeo are camp (performance of hilarious irony and absurdity, often with exaggerated effeminate behavior) events. These are spectator favorites that also provide the Gay community the opportunity to respond with humor to the stereotyping of LGBTQ folks. All events are team events.
In response to the notion that Gay men are inherently creative and artistic, there is an event called steer decorating. Teams of two contestants work together as one partner tries to take a rope from a steer’s horns, and the other tries to tie a ribbon on the steer’s tail. When both succeed, the person tying the ribbon must hit a timer. A second camp event is goat dressing. Teams of two have to catch a goat and fit a pair of men’s jockey shorts on its back legs and rump.
This event subverts Gay stereotyping on several levels. It pokes fun at the notion that Gay men are fixated on sex by de-sexualizing a symbol of male sexuality, the jockey shorts, featuring them in a nonsensical, non-erotic situation. Secondly, Gays become the saviors of decency who clothe the goat, shielding its nakedness from public view. Lesbians also participate fully in this event, further undermining the exclusive maleness associated with jockey shorts.
Wild Drag Race
The most enlightening of all camp events is the wild drag race. This is a team effort with three people on a team: one man, one woman and one person in drag (a man or woman). The steer is in the chute with a halter and a rope, and the cowgirl is on the other end of the rope. The cowboy and the person in drag are positioned 40 feet from the chute. When the chute opens, the cowgirl attempts to pull in the steer and the cowboy holds the animal in place for the person in drag to climb on and ride it across the finish line halfway down the arena.
The wild drag race is the most popular event at Gay rodeo, for it uses theater, humor and rough action to incorporate the most incongruent elements of urban Gay culture with rural lifestyle. It is held late in the afternoon after a multitude of serious riders have been thrown from the backs of horses and trampled in the mud by steers, after arena volunteers have been chased at full speed, run over to guard walls, or risked their own safety to divert runaway animals from harming a downed rider.
For the wild drag race, these same cowpokes reappear in red crinolines out of the antebellum South, or in gossamer fairy wings, or dressed as a Bible-thumping zealot with tersely-flipped hair and black orthopedic shoes, or as the caricature of a high school cheerleader who is popular for her huge breasts and winsome personality but underneath is really horrible.
The team structure of the wild drag race also breaks the stereotype that various identities in the LGBTQ spectra do not interact well together. In this event, they depend upon each other and become role models of diversity and creativity in teamwork. None is indispensable. But it is the team member in drag who, despite the handicap of flowing gowns, tangling hair, men’s business suits, and color coordinated accessories, must inevitably ride the steer across the finish line so the entire team may win.
Perhaps due to empathy for those who suffer abuse regardless of species, humane treatment of animals is paramount. The use of injured, sick, or undersized stock is prohibited, as are beating or prodding, metal or fiberglass rigging, equipment that is too tight, and caustic ointments. Any animal that appears to be in danger of injuring itself is released from competition, and injured animals receive immediate attention from the on-duty veterinarian. IGRA strictly enforces rules against cruelty to animals that go beyond what is required in non-IGRA rodeo. One example of more humane treatment in rodeo performance is the practice of breakaway roping in calf-roping competitions done from horseback. When a calf is roped, tension on the line causes the rope (and calf) to break free from the rider, reducing the chance of causing injury to the animal’s neck.
Lawrence, Elizabeth Atwood. Rodeo: An Anthropologist Looks at the Wild and the Tame. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984.
LeCompte, Mary Lou. Cowgirls of the Rodeo: Pioneer Professional Athletes. Urbana, IL:
University of Illinois, 2000.
Miller, Craig R. “Gay Rodeo: A Celebration of Western Rural Heritage and Urban Gay Culture.” Manuscript presented at American Folklore Society Annual Meetings, 1993.