The Other Gay Barebacking

Hank is torn. In theory, he should adore k. d. lang for coming out proudly and defiantly. But Hank, a gay cattle rancher, has other priorities. "I won't buy her CDs anymore because she stopped buying beef," he says. "I think she'd enjoy the rodeo, though."

Growing up in the central plains, Hank was a frequent rodeo competitor. That's what praire kids did. Bulls and bucking broncos were left in the pasture, however, when he ran off to college and grad school; he figured he'd become a city slicker.

Then, in 1992, Hank attended his first gay rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. "That was where I felt, 'Oh my god -- I'm not alone!' There's a whole community."

From delayed, hardscrabble origins in Reno, Nevada in 1976, the gay rodeo circuit has swelled into a flourishing North American tour with as many as two dozen stops in peak years. In mid-January, the Road Runner Regional Rodeo in Phoenix kicked off the 2001 calendar, which will feature 18 rodeos, including unlikely destinations like Salt Lake City and Little Rock as well as the seventh annual Canadian Rockies International Rodeo in Calgary -- the "international" dimension of the parent International Gay Rodeo Association.

A veteran of six rodeos, Hank (no last name, please) is already jacked about the upcoming hoe-downs. With their three-day schedule of dances, prime-rib-and-baked-potato dinners, concerts by country stars, total attendance approaching 2,000 and a full slate of traditional rodeo events -- from chute dogging to barrel racing, plus camp events like the wild drag race devised to encourage beginner participation -- the gay rodeo is a celebration of western heritage with an inclusive, machismo-free twist.

"There's such a sense of freedom," says Hank, 44, who refused to go to his boyfriend's aunt's wedding last summer ("maybe if it was her first wedding") because it was the same weekend as a rodeo. "I'd experienced that feeling before at the Gay Olympics," he continues, "but these are my people, people from a rural background who happen to be gay. If you're young, gay and rural you don't have to run off to the city and become a hairdresser."

To engage part-time, wanna-be cowboys, gay rodeos generally feature a wide range of events guaranteed not to cripple participants. (For instance, goat dressing, which involves, naturally, dressing a goat in a pair of jockey-style underwear.) But overall, with bucking half-ton bulls to be conquered, events are challenging enough for professionals. "It's not a sissy rodeo," says Robert (not his real name), a gay rodeo regular. "You've got to be tough. You're working with real live animals. There's danger in it -- I've seen quite a few people get injured and packed out."

Accordingly, the greater the danger, the greater the stakes. A handful of old school cowboys who make the gay rodeo rounds, travelling from the Southern Spurs Rodeo in Atlanta to the Sierra Stampede in Sacramento, earn a living from their winnings. Of course, they have to supplement earnings by competing in mainstream rodeos. But if there are closeted gay men playing in the NHL (and there are), then the pro rodeo world -- one of the 21st century's last bastions of machohood -- is certainly no exception.

For Robert, 37, the gay rodeo circuit has offered Stetson-capped salvation. Still dealing with his recent homosexual awakening, he's found community and acceptance on the tour -- and won some prize money, too. He almost broke into the Top 10 last year against some tough competition in Phoenix in January. Not bad for a guy who, as a teen, watched from the sidelines while friends and family members competed.

"It was very intimidating," he says about the traditional rodeo atmosphere he was surrounded by while growing up. "I didn't feel comfortable there. I had all the opportunities in the world ... my closest friends and neighbours rode rodeo, so it wasn't that I didn't have the right connections. I just didn't feel comfortable."

Two years ago, when he came out to his family, a lot of things changed for Robert. He began attempting to reconcile his rural background and demeanor with a sexual orientation considered (at least stereotypically) to be very urban. Support from his family helped -- after Robert explained that he was gay to his mother, his mom told his father, who surprised Robert by saying "nothing's changed. You're still the same person you were before. We accept you the same as we always did."

But there was still that disconcerting rural-urban hurdle to clear. And taking in his first gay rodeo after stumbling upon the scene through a friend has been a tremendous confidence booster for Robert.

"I'm more at ease with myself now," he says, reflecting on his fledgling stint on the tour, which began last year at the annual Las Vegas extravaganza. "I don't feel as intimidated by other people. I'm more sure of myself."

Though rural communities have a reputation for homophobia, Hank considers the countryside a tolerant environment. As long as you're a contributing member of society and rein in the outlandish behaviour, he says it's relatively easy to be a gay rancher. "I'm not going to walk down the road holding my boyfriend's hand and kissing him," he says, "but my neighbours don't walk down the road kissing their wives, either. People are accepting of you as long as you carry your own weight. Don't put rural people down. Most have satellite TVs and they get Will & Grace."

Of course, there have been a couple of homophobic incidents at gay rodeos. Some yahoo fired off a few rounds outside the Corona ranch in Phoenix a couple years back, according to Calgary rodeo director Kevin Murray, and organizers of a rodeo in Washington state's bible belt once received a telephone threat.

"It was a wonderful setting," laments Murray. "There were beautiful hills. But there might have been snipers in the hills." (Last year's Calgary rodeo also sparked some controversy: members of a Denver-based gay clog dancing troupe say they were harassed and denied entry into Canada by customs officers at the Sweetgrass border crossing after a vehicle search turned up wigs and female clothing that female impersonators planned to wear while performing at the rodeo.)

Yet those anecdotes are exceptions. Heck, at the inaugural Salt Lake City rodeo in Mormon-soaked Utah last year, the mayor served as the grand marshal and media coverage was positive. "If Salt Lake City can host a gay rodeo and be wildly successful, there's nowhere we can't go," says Doug Graff, the IGRA's California-based spokesperson, 1999's "Mr. Gay Rodeo" for fund-raising purposes, and a talented bull rider who'll be back in the saddle whenever his torn rotator cuff heals. "That's our mission,' he continues, "to support country-western heritage and lifestyle in the gay community.

"I can't tell you how many times I've gotten choked up about doing what we're doing and loving it so much," Graff adds, describing a transcendent moment in Albuquerque where a rider from Utah rode a bull that had never been tamed before with jaw-dropping grace and beauty.

With Bud Lite on board as a sponsor, gay rodeo is growing, another example of the mainstream world accepting the legitimacy of gay culture and the gay dollar. "We've worked with some major redneck stock contractors," says Graff, "but thank God for the almighty green dollar."

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