Rodeo: Real Gay Cowboys and Brokeback Mountain
As Brokeback Mountain hit mainstream movie theaters in early 2006, TLC launched a TV series about rodeo. "Beyond the Bull" profiles world champion bullriders as regular guys who are belt-buckle deep in wives, kids, girlfriends and groupies. Was this a heterosexist propaganda ploy timed to counter the hit movie's gay cowboys? Especially 20-year-old Jack Twist, the gay rodeo rider played by Jake Gyllenhaal?
Yup, it's time to talk about rodeo and the gay people in it.
Rodeo is one of our most American sports, with roots as deep as baseball's. As an action-packed extreme sport that lends itself to TV showcasing, rodeo now gets routine coverage on ESPN. The sport reached exhibition status at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. Rodeo even has its own TV reality show — "Cowboy U" on CMT.
Riding high, Brokeback Mountain became a culture icon overnight. The film also kicked up a political dust storm. After all, right-wingers view the cowpoke as a core symbol who embodies the purest in family values. One Christian blogger screamed, "Now they're out to destroy the American legend of the cowboy. God help us, and John Wayne forgive us!" In Congress, Senators from sagebrush states are pushing a resolution declaring July 22 as "National Day of the American Cowboy." Meanwhile, on the rodeo scene, some contestants assure the media that, in all their years around the arenas, they never met a real-life Jack Twist.
I have to smile at this denialism. I grew up on a historic Montana cattle ranch that was steeped in cowboy tradition. Back through American history, few occupations were more conducive to secret man-to-man love than cowboying. Indeed, frontier men may have gravitated to this job so they could enjoy the company of other males.
If gay cowboys have never been visible in professional rodeo, it's because the sport has gone so conservative that it makes the NFL look more liberal than the ACLU. Going by what we know of other sports, there must be a few closet cases on the lists of world champions for the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) and Professional Bull Riders (PBR). But so far none has dared to come out.
So instead I will profile a few rank-and-file contestants who pioneered simply by being there — by competing in mainstream rodeo when they were young and closeted. Their stories are important because they give us some texture of an ongoing gay presence in the sport. Important profiles also come from the gay rodeo circuit, which is not affiliated with PBR or RCA.
Dirty Dangerous Work
Rodeo is said to be "the only sport that grew out of an industry" — meaning the vast 19th-century livestock business that flourished west of the Mississippi, from Mexico north to Canada. To find the roots of gay rodeo riders — and gay rodeo itself — we have to dig in this soil of the Old West.
Already in colonial times, cattle and herders dotted the English-speaking east coast and the Spanish-speaking southwest. But after the Civil War (1861-1865), with native tribes being slaughtered or swept onto reservations, millions of square miles of grassland in the Western interior were suddenly open to grazing. The livestock industry exploded. By the 1880s, there were millions of cattle on the prairies and plains. For a couple of decades, my family's ranch, the CK, was one of the big shippers — we averaged 15,000 steers to the Chicago stockyards every year. Beef was suddenly abundant and cheap, and Americans rushed to eat it.
To handle these millions of cattle, the cowboy proliferated too.
People also called him a cattleboy, cowpuncher, cowpoke, drover, wrangler, vaquero, buckaroo, ranahan, rannie and waddie. He was a skilled working stiff — the horseback equivalent of an autoworker or coal-miner. Ethnically he might be white, American Indian, Mexican mestizo, Hispanic, Creole, African, Canadian Metis — or mixtures of the above. "Boy" referred to his menial status, whereas the word "cowman" designated a rancher.
Cowboys did all the dirty dangerous work that made millionaires of cattle kings like my great-grandfather Conrad Kohrs. And they did it at a time when there were no unions, workman's comp, industrial safety regulations, pension plans, or health insurance. Since there was also no mandatory retirement age, a working cowboy might be 70. An outfit's youngest rannie — usually called "the Kid" — might be 15 or 16, since there were no child-labor laws.
Often a cowboy had a "past" — army deserter, former slave, criminal on the run from the law in another state. So he might introduce himself simply as Arizona Bill or Dutch Joe. Nobody asked questions. There were no Social Security numbers to track you with. All that mattered was whether you could be trusted with a horse and a lariat.
A rank-and-file cowpuncher was usually poor — he owned his clothes, horse gear, rope and bedroll, maybe a harmonica or Colt .45. He did have pride in his person — clothes, boots and gear were good quality. His hat varied in shape — a wide Spanish brim in sun-fried Texas, a narrow brim on the windy northern plains. But the horses he rode usually belonged to the boss. Well into the 20th century, his wage was $40 a month and board — less if he was black or Mexican.
Some cowboys banked their wages for decades, aiming to homestead somewhere and live out the sunset years in comfort. But many a cattleboy blew his pay in the nearest honkytonk — alcohol and gambling addictions were common. He might have chronic health problems — bronchitis and rheumatism from sleeping on the ground in cold rainy weather — not to mention old aches and pains from wrecks with horses. When he got too old or broken-down to work, he sometimes wound up homeless. Suicide was not unknown among ailing elderly cowboys who didn't want to wind up in a bed at the county poorhouse. Because there was no welfare or Medicare, many ranches (including ours) took care of indigent ex-employees till they died.
One has to ask how this hard and thankless life ever got so romanticized. In the 1800s, novelists like James Fenimore Cooper were already gilding the frontier lily. But the big romantic job started after 1900, when the art of Western artists Charles M. Russell and Frederic Remington was popularized on calendars sold across America. That painted figure of the lone cowboy silhouetted against the Western sky had a deep appeal, and a nostalgia value as the Old West disappeared. Cowboys were also mythicized in bestselling pulp novels cranked out by Zane Grey, Max Brand and others.
But it was Hollywood who recast the hard-drinking rough-living 19th century hired hand as a 20th century hero. Played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Ronald Reagan, Roy Rogers and others, the cowboy became a symbol of "manly clean living" and "family values." Surely his canonization as a saint is one of the world-champion feats of public relations — culminating in the title of "Cowboy President" for Ronald Reagan. One prominent American who never bought the cowboy myth was country singer Willie Nelson. His "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" told how cowboys were viewed as trash by many "nice" people in town.
Yet despite the cowboy's iffy social status, he was a proud, prickly, independent, tough-minded man. He knew how to defend his dignity. The boss couldn't run a cow business without a skilled labor force, so he learned to handle "the boys" with care.
Cowboys also knew how to make their stark lives bearable-even fun and entertaining at times. After supper, in the bunkhouse, the boys might swap yarns, play cards or dice, and howl with laughter as they played practical jokes on one another. Even on roundup, with all hands tired and busy, there might be a little storytelling at the campfire. During the daylight hours, the boys could find a few minutes for spontaneous sport-like roping a wolf for the hell of it. As Annie Proulx said, "When you live a long way out, you make your own fun."
But the cowboy's favorite sport was the hard-core occupational variety. Like bronc-riding on a cold morning.
An ungentled horse was called a bronc (from Spanish bronco, meaning wild). On most ranches, horses weren't ridden till they were full-grown at 5-6 years old. The first few rides were an athletic contest — a man matching his wits and reflexes against those of a 1000-pound horse.
Hang and Rattle
You ran one of those wild things into a corral. You roped him, hobbled his feet so he couldn't kick you in the nuts, and slapped a saddle on his quivering back. Then you took a deep breath, climbed on and yanked the hobble-rope loose. Naturally the horse thought you were a mountain lion on his back. So he frantically tried to unload you in any way he could think of. Cowboys had colorful names for these moves — hogging, sunfishing, highrolling, frogwalking, corkscrewing. The horse might slam you against the corral fence, even throw himself backwards to try and mash you.
Who would win — man or animal? If you "hung and rattled" (stayed on), the horse tired of the fight — and finally figured out that you were harmless. From then on, he was a dependable mount.
Sometimes the horse won, and stayed an incorrigible bucker. Every big outfit had one or two of these hellions, that the boss kept around for entertainment and sporting value. Not every cowboy could ride these bad ones. It took a real buckaroo (from Spanish vaquero) to be a "bronc stomper." He didn't think of himself as an athlete, but he was — he had a lean build that melded core strength with lightning reflexes, instinctive timing and balance. The combination helped him to stay ahead of a bronc's violent and unpredictable movements.
After the Civil War, these little ranch competitions began to be organized into public sporting events called "stampedes" or "roundups." Eventually the new sport adopted the Spanish word for roundup-rodeo.
In 1885 Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show put bucking and roping contests on the program, along with the choreographed Indian fights and stagecoach holdups. When Wild West shows disappeared in the early 1900s, rodeo stayed. Now the public was hungry for more variety, so new events like steer wrestling and wild-cow milking were invented.
By World War I, many a Western community was building its facility for an annual rodeo — equivalent to the baseball stadiums and football fields that dotted the Midwest and East. Around the arena was a high fence strong enough to withstand direct hits by broncs. Behind the arena, corrals held the bucking and roping stock. Facing the grandstand was the dramatic row of side-release chutes for the bucking events. Eventually the loudspeaker was invented so a cowboy could hear his name thunder all over the rodeo grounds.
Rodeo Gets Creative
Through the early 1900s, rodeo mostly stuck to the traditional work-based events — roping and bronc-riding. You paid an entry fee for each event. Everybody's fees went into a prize-money pot, sometimes with added money from the rodeo committee. You could win the "day money" for the best performance on that day's go-round in your event. Or you could win "best all around champion" if you swept the go-rounds in several events. In addition to the prize money — 25 or 30 bucks in those days — you might get a trophy belt buckle with a fancy inscription engraved on it.
Rules were written. Timekeeping was introduced for the roping events — the fastest roper won. For bronc events, you had to stay on the horse for 8 seconds. The judges scored how well you rode, and how well the horse bucked. But around 1920, one new event made rodeo history. This was Jack Twist's specialty — Brahma bullriding.
Across the southern U.S., those hump-necked droopy-eared Brahma cattle had been imported from India. Brahmas belong to a category of humped cattle called zebus, that are thought to be the oldest of domesticated bovines. They tolerate a hot climate so Southern cowmen had been using them for crossbreeding. Inevitably some creative promoter put a cowboy on a droop-ear's back and discovered that Brahmas and Brahma crossbreds were astoundingly athletic. A bull might weigh a ton, but he could jump the arena fence like a deer if it suited him. Limber as a gymnast, he could unleash high kicks, vertical leaps, belly rolls, dizzying spins, neck-snapping feints and turns.
The cowboy had to ride him bareback, with one gloved hand wrapped tightly into a rawhide rope cinched around the bull's midsection. The rope was rosined to help his grip. The 8-second rule applied, along with judges' scores.
Bulls could be more dangerous than broncs. Once a bull threw you, he might go after you on the ground with those horns of his. Cowboys called this type a "headhunter." Worse — if your hand got hung up in that rope when you bucked off, the bull kept spinning and sunfishing with you attached. So you were flung around by one arm like a rag doll, possibly even trampled horribly, before you could be freed.
Introduced at the Fort Worth rodeo in 1920, bucking bulls quickly became the climax event of every rodeo — and the apex of machismo in the sport.
A rodeo producer now had to contract for a whole string of "rough stock" that would buck reliably well. Contestants drew their rides out of a hat, so each one had to get a fair shot at a money ride. This created a new business — rodeo stock contractor — and a steady market for misfit horses and bulls with an attitude about humans on their backs.
The most unrideable animals became celebrities. They were worth a lot of money, and lived long lives with good veterinary care. Some bulls know their jobs so well that they are actually quite gentle, except for that 8 seconds in the arena, when they turn into a hoofed hurricane. The minute the whistle blows or the rider is off their back, they trot calmly to the gate. Cowboys call them "union bulls."
Serious injuries and deaths did happen to rodeo stock. Humane societies complained about rodeo, so the sport finally got more proactive on animal welfare.
Rodeo was hard on humans too — not just injuries, but crooked judges who took payola, and crooked promoters who embezzled prize money. Blacks and American Indians were often denied entry. Cowboy pride ensured that these abuses wouldn't be tolerated. So in the 1930s, outraged contestants formed a grassroots union that would launch athlete activism in the sport. Eventually the Rodeo Cowboys Association (RCA) took control of world-championship competition and enforced fairness to everybody (except to women, who were barred from RCA competition in the 1930s).
For the world champions, those gold or silver belt buckles — often designed by leading Western artists-were equal to Olympic medals.
Around 1960, when young Jack Twist came along, he would have been a rank-and-file member of RCA, carrying his sexual secret unnoticed in and out of the arenas. The movie actually romanticized Jack — he was no Hollywood cutie like Gyllenhaal. In the original story, Annie Proulx describes him: "Jack seemed fair enough with his curly hair and quick laugh, but for a small man he carried some weight in the haunch and his smile disclosed buck teeth."
Gay Cowboys — Yes or No?
Closet love between cowboys grew out of the loneliness and hardship in that job.
In the 1800s, a fall roundup or an 800-mile trail drive meant being away from civilization for weeks or months. Even for heterosexual cowboys, female companionship was scarce. Indeed, in some areas, women were still in such short supply that it was acceptable for cowboys, miners, etc. to dance together at honkytonks. Ranches didn't want the boys fighting over women, so most had no women employees. You had to wait till Saturday night, or the end of the season, to visit the whorehouse in town. But town sex could also give you syphilis and gonorrhea — not curable in those dark days before penicillin. Like men in the army or on ships at sea, even the hetero hands may have turned to each other for sexual relief when the boss wasn't looking.
Across the northern U.S., the winters were long and harsh, so employment lasted only from May to October. Fall roundup was the finale of the work season. In the early 1900s, when my family's ranch still had a big operation in eastern Montana, with 75,000 cattle ranging on free grass, our roundup might need 50 men and 500 horses. After we got maybe 15,000 steers loaded on trains and shipped to the Chicago stockyards, we paid off most of the boys, keeping a skeleton crew through winter. The rest had to find a warm burrow somewhere till spring.
These circumstances tended to discourage most cowboys from marrying and settling down. Most were itinerant bachelors, "saddle bums" who drifted from ranch to ranch. According to Montana artist Charlie Russell, who cowboyed in the late 1800s, "Cowpunchers were careless, homeless, hard-drinking men." Only in the Spanish-speaking southern U.S. did a few big outfits encourage their vaqueros to have families and live on the ranch year-round.
Most ranches had a bunkhouse where the boys slept and ate and hung out together. On our ranch, the 1880s bunkhouse still stands-a long log building, with woodshed, washroom, kitchen, dining room, and dormitory room with narrow iron beds. When I was a kid in the 1940s, it was still operating in the old-time way. The place was snug but spartan, heated by wood stoves, with a table and chairs for card games. A vintage AM radio provided news and music. Chaps and other gear hung from hooks along the log wall. Each man kept the rest of his few possessions in a box under his bed. The latrine was outside, 50 feet away — a long walk on a cold night.
To combat the loneliness of this life, male-male friendships sprang up like the spring grass. Even heterosexual bonding tended to be strong. In frontier times, Western men used the word "partner" for these bonds. Two single males would pair up, living in close association, sharing everything, maybe starting a business together.
There was also an economic reason for partnership: the low pay. In those days, society expected a man to own a house, and prove his ability to support a family, before he got married. But a dirt-poor cowboy could hardly afford to feed a wife and kids on $40 a month. As one old cowboy song put it:
When all your bills are settled, There's nothing left for beer.
Typically, a pair of men operated on the old adage that "two can live cheaper than one." They'd work the ranches for years, getting themselves hired as a team. They'd save to file on a homestead or buy a little ranch, own it as joint tenants, and maintain visibly separate sleeping quarters. Often a "Kid" paired up with an older guy so he could learn the ropes with an expert.
Traditional cowboy songs often revealed deep grief over the death of a partner in a shooting or roundup accident. In one old song, "Utah Carroll":
In the land of Mexico in the place from whence I came, In silence sleeps my partner in a grave without a name. We rode the trail together and worked cows side by side, Oh, I loved him like a brother, and I wept when Utah died.
You don't have to be a Ph.D. in sociology to realize that some of these rawhide partnerships extended into discreet sexual intimacy.
I've come to think that gay cowboy love was silently accepted by many livestock owners as an unavoidable result of the circumstances. They let some of the boys have it because it made the loneliness and hardship bearable — as long as two partners were discreet and did their jobs. Ranches who treated men well got their pick of the best men, and that could include two buckaroos who were an item. The policy of not asking questions was conveniently invoked here.
But as the West modernized, as it filled up with towns and churches, this old-time tolerance slowly vanished. After 1900 the fencing of public lands made it impossible to swing the big herds. Ranches downsized and switched to more intensive methods of producing beef. Our own ranch dropped from 50,000 deeded acres and 2 million acres of leased grazing in 1900, to just 6000 deeded acres by 1940. Agriculture was mechanizing by then — fewer horses and men were needed to work livestock.
During World War II, the trend accelerated. Many a young puncher who was drafted into the armed forces and drove a tank or jeep across Europe came home to find that the newest farm machine had put him out of a job. By 1950 the bunkhouses were closing everywhere. At the CK we closed ours in 1958. For fall roundup, all we needed now was 3-4 hands. As a teen, I always helped my dad, my brother and the foreman move the cow herd between summer range and the home ranch.
When the livestock industry stopped being so dependent on that big workforce, I think that many Westerners started to ask nosy questions about that traditional buckaroo bachelorhood. A cowboy was now expected to marry.
It's no coincidence that rodeo went big-time and commercial during the same postwar period. As ranch jobs vanished, many cowboys drifted to rodeo — it was one of the few niches left in America where cowboys could still earn with their skills.
You could get into rodeo for just a few bucks. To rope or wrestle steers, you didn't have to own a horse. You could buy rides on somebody else's horse. To ride bareback broncs or bulls, all you needed was your riggin' and a gunny sack to tote it in. You didn't even need a new wardrobe. The plain workday chaps, the conservative white or Pendleton cowboy shirt, were fine for the arena. Not to mention the re-soled Justin boots, and last year's XXXX "beaver" Stetson. A rodeo cowboy might be broke, but he still wore good clothes to work.
The changing attitude towards cowboy relationships must have hit hard in rodeo. Contestants suddenly found their private lives under the harsh floodlights of gossip, kidding and social scrutiny. Indeed, I think that the raw heterosexism of today's rodeo, with its groupies, flag-waving and pumped-up parading of family men, is the sport's effort to leave behind that time when a cowboy might be more interested in his "pard" than the cute little gal in town.
The Brokeback story of Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar fit this historical trend like a horseshoe fits a hoof. By 1963, the year that the story starts, real cowboy jobs on cattle ranches were so scarce that Jack and Ennis wound up herding sheep. Ennis not only felt compelled to deny his love for Jack — he also felt he had to prove his masculinity by getting married. The story unfolds Ennis's grim struggle to support a family on the few rural jobs available in Wyoming.
"I'm nothing... and nowhere," Ennis tells Jack.
Jack had an option that Ennis didn't. He had rodeo. Most important, Jack had social opportunities on the rodeo scene. His curly hair and quick smile were good enough to snag a rodeo queen from a well-to-do Texas family. So Jack moved up the social ladder a little. Now he had the money to travel — not only to rodeos, but to Mexico for gay sex. But he was ready to give up all this comfort if only Ennis would go live with him on their own little place.
But Ennis knew this old-time strategy for closet "partners" was now risky. So he said no.
Jack Twist "at Work"
As the sport went heavily professional, the Fifties and Sixties would be called the Golden Age of Rodeo. In 1963, a real-life Jack waiting his turn at the bucking chutes would have rubbed shoulders with world champions like Larry Mahan, Gene Rambo, Casey Tibbs.
Jack Twist would have been just a face lost in that celebrity crowd. Annie Proulx wrote: "He was infatuated with the rodeo life and fastened his belt with a minor bull-riding buckle, but his boots were worn to the quick, holes beyond repair." So Jack often finished out of the money. One year he got $3000, along with a list of sprains and broken bones that would have crippled a city dude.
We can imagine Jack in the chute, getting settled on the back of that hot restless bull. He's drawn a good bucker, so maybe he can make a money ride. But this bull has horns — and he's known as a headhunter. Jack wraps and rewraps that 9-braid rawhide rope around his gloved hand till the "suicide wrap" is just right. But at that moment, he sure as hell is not thinking about Ennis's body. He tries to clear his mind for those eight endless seconds ahead — what moves the bull might make, how to stay with him.
As Jack pulls his hat down tight with his free hand, his heart is pumping and his mouth is dry.
The chute gate swings open. Five seconds into the ride, the bull snakes into a reverse spin, then a high roll. Ten feet in the air, Jack and bull part company. His hat comes off. He manages to jerk his hand out of the "suicide wrap" just in time. The bull is big, so it's a long way to the ground. Jack hits hard, breath slammed out of him. Then, instinctively, he sucks in his breath and scrambles up because, out of the corner of his eye, he has glimpsed the bull veering around and charging at him.
Jack races for the arena fence with the bull's horns bumping his hip pockets. Just before the bull gives him an uninvited prostate examination, Jack climbs the arena fence like a scared cat, in time to hear the announcer say, "And it's a goose egg [zero] for Twist."
As the bull trots off to the pen, he steps on Jack's hat with a manure-plastered hoof. Another hard day at the office.
In 1983, Jack's story ends with a beating by gay-bashers, and his death at the age of 43. By that time, a real-life Jack Twist could have been out of the closet and competing at gay rodeos.
The first gay rodeo in history had been held in Nevada in 1976. Reno events producer Phil Ragsdale, who was also Emperor of the Imperial Court, had come up with the idea of an amateur gay rodeo as a fundraiser for the Muscular Distrophy Association. Local homophobia meant that Ragsdale had a time hiring a stock contractor and a venue. But finally the event came off at the Washoe County Fairgrounds on October 2. The Court raised thousands of dollars for charity.
Today, contrary to what some right-wingers say, gay cowboys who competed in mainstream rodeo aren't hard to find. I've been running into them for years as I travel the U.S. on book tour.
Texas produces a good crop of gay cowboys. Example: my good friend Don, who is a financial consultant in Los Angeles today. Don is 39, a handsome wiry blond guy with the curly hair of a Jack Twist — but not the buck teeth. Don's teeth are picture perfect, and he shows them in a slow cowboy grin as he tells his story.
Born in 1967 on a ranch near Dallas, Don rodeoed seriously during his sophomore and junior years in high school, when he was 15 and 16, and collected his share of trophies and belt buckles.
"Rodeo is part of the culture in Texas," he told me. "It's a letter sport in high school. You go out for rodeo like you go out for football. It's one of those things you do to prove your manhood the Texas way. I was an all-around guy — calf roping, bareback bronc, saddle bronc and bull riding. Saddle bronc was the scariest, in my opinion. A horse is bigger than a bull and it's a lot farther to the ground. But the bulls could be bad. I always prayed to draw a bull with no horns.
"My older brother was a professional bullrider, so I would sneak away with him on weekends and go to all the big rodeos across Texas. I loved everything about rodeo — including the partying, everybody drunk and getting into fistfights. I'd come home with black eyes and a split lip. My dad knew what I was up to, but he'd say, 'Just tell your mother you fell off your horse.' I wasn't out yet, of course, but I had a kinda boyfriend through high school."
Don aimed to follow in his brother's footsteps — he had to be 18 to turn professional. But during his junior year, he injured his back playing football. That finished rodeo as his #1 career choice. Business was #2. When he graduated from business school at age 22 and got ready to move to L.A., Don finally came out to his parents. They took it in stride. Don relates: "All my dad said was, 'Yeah, we used to have guys like you around. They were called confirmed bachelors.'"
Another gay son of Texas I met was an elderly Hispanic gentleman. I was speaking to an activist group in El Paso, and Ignacio came up afterwards with his straw cowboy hat in his hand, and introduced himself. He was silver-haired, still fit and spry, with that sun-fried face and neck that tells you he spent his life outdoors. Conservative cowboy shirt, silver belt buckle won at a rodeo, and expensive well-worn boots completed the picture. We spoke Spanish and Ignacio told me his story. For many years he knew he was gay. But he got married, conforming to the strict Catholic moral code that has ruled the old southwest families of Spanish descent since colonial times.
"Finally," he said, "I got up the courage to come out to mi familia, including" — he grinned proudly — "all my grandchildren."
Around 1996, when I got acquainted with the gay rodeo circuit, it was amazing to see how our creative version of this sport had grown. Inspired by Ragsdale's event, LGBT rodeo producers had emerged in other states. Among them: Wayne Jakino and John King of Colorado, Linn Copeland of Kansas, Al Bell of California, Terry Clark of Texas. Their achievements can remind us that "gay pioneers in sports" are not always the athletes. Visionary producers like these women and men were the ones who sparked the formation of local rodeo associations across the country. They hooked up the LGBT rodeo movement with country/Western gay bars, clogging and square-dance groups, equestrian centers, etc. In short, they created the package that is familiar to gay rodeo fans today.
As gay rodeo grew, Reno remained a focus, with the International Gay Rodeo Association's National Finals held there. Today, in 2006, its calendar lists rodeos in 25 U.S. and Canadian cities. The old Imperial Court connection is still strong. No gay rodeo is complete without high camp — meaning drag rodeo queens and truck-loads of sequins! IGRA also pulls major sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and American Airlines.
Unlike pro rodeo, the rainbow circuit has stayed amateur by choice, so it is open to community participation. The old formula is pretty much the same: the core events, the announcer with his drawly patter, the colorful grand entry, the flags carried by galloping riders — Old Glory and Old Rainbow fluttering side by side. But the gender bars have tumbled here. Women get to ride broncs and bulls, while men get to compete in barrel racing, traditionally a female event. Last but not least, LGBT creative minds have created new events for tenderfoots — like "goat dressing," where you wrassle a pair of men's boxer shorts onto a goat.
Today few LGBT contestants work both circuits — after all, entering a pro rodeo means going back in the closet for a few days. Most of our champions have made their names exclusively in gay rodeo.
Notable example: Greg Olsen, the winningest cowboy in IGRA history so far. As a ranch kid born in Nebraska in 1960, Greg knew he was "different" when he was young. In high school he was out to a few gay friends, with whom he secretly went clubbing in the nearest big cities. Often he went to pro rodeos with his family but felt turned off by the heavy heterosexist atmosphere around the arenas.
Then, in 1986, when he was 26 and moved to Phoenix, Greg heard about the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association's first regional rodeo. On an impulse he decided to enter. Once he caught the fever, there was no stopping him. He went on to be seven times IGRA All-Around Champion Cowboy. In fact, his success stirred up criticism that gay rodeo was getting "too professional."
Greg was a fashion rebel in his polka-dot cowboy shirt. To support his arena career, he tended bar in Charlie's, a popular Phoenix country/Western bar, and also carried on a successful business as a farrier. His ranch near Phoenix was always crowded with friends and visitors. Even after injuries slowed him down, Greg continued to be a pioneering force in the sport till his untimely death in 1995, at the age of 35.
The U.S. is no longer that beef-eating nation of 1900. Diet-conscious Americans switch to chicken, fish and soy. So the cattle population has fallen from its record 175 million to just over 100 million. Today 98 percent of U.S. beef reaches the market via an intensive factory-feeding system that requires way less land and less of the traditional skills.
As a reflection of the new agribusiness scene, pro rodeo of 2006 is radically different from those cow-country contests of 1869. Fewer contestants are country kids now — the "urban cowboy" rules. City kids can overcome their fear of animals and learn bullriding in special schools, even college courses. Contestants train hard like any Olympic athlete. The familiar cowboy hat, which offers no protection against being kicked in the face, is giving way to a protective helmet with face mask.
Bullriding has gone so big that it's international, often a stand-alone event. Its association, Professional Bull Riders (PBR), is owned and operated by the ever-prickly contestants. Today's Jack Twist gets on the plane to ride bulls in Brazil and Australia. In his designer duffle bag, the bull rope and rosin are packed with a suit and tie. He has business cards and a website, and his bulletproof bullriding vest is plastered with sponsor logos. Top contestants can win $250,000 a year, with a few individuals topping $1 million.
Despite efforts at safety, there are still catastrophic injuries, even deaths — captured on footage that gets aired on "Real TV" and "Sports Disasters." 1994 was a bad year — five bullriders killed. Because of this, women are still barred from competing in the roughest pro rodeo events.
I asked Don what the attraction is — why any gay or straight rodeo rider would take these risks, when he could wind up not only broke but living in a wheelchair.
"For those eight seconds, you're a star," Don replied. "The whole world is looking at you. If you ride the bull, you don't just win — you get the bragging rights."
Whether or not rodeo ever joins the Olympic Games, its future as a mainstream U.S. sport looks secure. Some Americans do complain bitterly that today's professional rodeo is too commercial, too divorced from its roots. But the grassroots rodeo is still out there in many towns, for anybody who wants to find it. The old-time "ranch rodeo" is being revived.
Gay rodeo, too, is as grassroots as it gets. The two-legged athlete out there on the back of the hoofed hurricane may be non-heterosexual, but he or she is still pitting human skills against the skills of a powerful animal athlete. And the old question is still out there to be answered — Which of the two will win?
The Lavender Locker Room - Copyright © 2006 by Patricia Nell Warren. All rights reserved.