Rodeo culture is often seen as something old-fashioned, locked into antiquated ideas of gender and masculinity. Rural populations pile into bleachers to watch burly farmhands hogtie up a pig or hold on to dear life trying to stay on the back of a bucking bronco as the smell of dirt, sweat and animals fills the air. But even for an event that is portrayed as something hypermasculine, there's a good bit of flash and showmanship that goes into it.
Members of the IGRA, or International Gay Rodeo Association, are well aware of the theatrics that are inherent to rodeo culture, and they know how to really camp it up. As IGRA bull riding competitor Brianna Lusk puts it, "Something as hypermasculinized as rodeo has its own counterpart that is just as tough but a bit more colorful."
Though the IGRA was officially founded back in the mid-80s, the history of gay rodeos goes back even further. The first gay rodeo was held on October 2, 1976, at the Washoe County Fairgrounds in Reno, Nevada. A farmer Phil Ragsdale was first inspired to find a way to help raise money for the local Senior Citizen's Annual Thanksgiving Day meal, and thought that a gay rodeo would not only be a fun and one-of-a-kind fundraiser but also be a way to help dispel a lot of anti-gay ideas that were popular at the time.
As is the story with the LGBTQ+ community's continued upward battle for acceptance, Ragsdale was met with mostly ignorance and outrage when organizing his first event. Many of the nearby farms would not rent their animals out to gay people and he was rejected by most event spaces he reached out to in order to plan the event. As determined as ever after finally getting approval from the Washoe County Fairgrounds, the story goes that Ragsdale wrangled up a few "wild" range cows and steers along with other farm animals for the event, when in actuality it is actually more likely that he was able to get under the table deals from other farms that wanted to hide the fact that they would work with gay people for fear of being associated with people who fell outside of rodeo's strict traditions.
For all the grief Ragsdale went through, the initial gay rodeo brought out 125 people. But even for those small numbers, history was made that day as the gay rodeo only grew in popularity in the following years. Ragsdale went on to found the Comstock Gay Rodeo Association in 1977 that eventually became the National Reno Gay Rodeo. After offshoots were founded in California, Colorado, Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma, the IGRA brought them all together when it was officially founded in 1985.
Today there are 16 branches of the IGRA across the United States and Canada that are making space for queer people in farming and agriculture who are often so far removed from other LGBTQ+ friendly communities.
"Gay rodeos gave us a safe space for people who were into or came from this western lifestyle but were shunned away from it," said Lusk, a Black and queer bull rider who grew up in the remote deserts of Colorado. Though it was scary to grow up in areas where anti-LGBTQ+ is the norm, and more popular gay-friendly areas are often out of touch with the struggles of rural queer people, the IGRA offers both a celebration and a certain safety net for all its members, "It's kind of like a mini pride every time we get together, we always have a great time."
Events at the gay rodeo directly parallel those of a typical straight rodeo — bareback riding, tie-down roping, and barrel work are popular events. Where the traditional rodeos are often locked into rigid gender traditions, men mostly perform in events like animal roping where women will do more barrel work, everyone is encouraged to compete in any event they want no matter their sexuality or gender. But the crowds really respond to the campier elements of the rodeo like goat dressing, in which competitors wrestle with a bucking goat to dress it up in women's lingerie.
Drag is also a huge part of gay rodeos. As a bit of a send-off to the tradition of crowing rodeo royalty, the IGRA takes winning drag kings and queens from every regional event and celebrates them with a national competition at the National IGRA Competition held every fall, not unlike a country-style RuPaul's Drag Race. In a time when drag queens are becoming major celebrities through shows like Drag Race but there is little representation of drag kings who camp up the harsh lines of masculinity, the IGRA can arguably be seen as more welcoming than other queer spaces in that regard.
"We like to be goofy and we like to have fun," says rodeo queen Alexis Cole who was crowned as Miss IGRA in 2019, "but because we have the word gay in our title does not make us any less of an athlete. We're out here, getting hurt and dirty just like any other rodeo."
While the IGRA is open to anyone competing, encouraging even straight fans and allies to compete in their events, it allows people to be their whole authentic selves without having to choose between their traditionalist upbringings and their queerness. Couples can feel closer at gay rodeos and are able to show their love and support for their partners in a public space unlike they can elsewhere in conservative areas.
Sonny Koerner and Marc Larson are two former buck riders from Washington D.C. who were active on the circuit until 2019. Koerner says that joining the gay rodeo was a comfort unlike anything they've ever felt before. "I had never imagined that being gay could coexist with the life I grew up with. When we found the gay rodeo it felt like coming home."
The events in these rodeos are dangerous and people are often injured, but Koerner admits that it's a part of the thrill for many competitors. "I get to kiss him good luck as his horse sets off into the ring, we would never be able to do that at a straight rodeo." This danger comes before the hate crimes that many IGRA members have been victims of by straight rodeo members, but IGRA members know to look to each other for the support and community they need to face the dangers.
Gay rodeos are still a point of contention even over 40 years since their inception, and the blowback often comes from across all political party lines. IGRA rodeos don't mesh with the more conservative ideas of rodeo, and more liberal individuals support any gay person's right to live and perform as they please but not what they consider to be animal abuse — "Yes to gays, but no to rodeo" is a popular chant from democratic detractors.
"It's one of the few places where both political parties will be protesting up at the gates," says Koerner.
This has caused a downward slide in the numbers of members — the IGRA boasted 50,000 members at its peak but numbers have dwindled to 1600 in 2019 and have surely gotten lower since the pandemic. At points, the gay rodeo would attract upwards of 10,000 people, but other times an event is seen as a success if only 100 people show up.
It's not a new fight for the IGRA — historical events such as the AIDS crisis ravaged membership in the past along with the stress of protestors, but they still continue the fight not just for LGBTQ+ people but also for the missions they raise funds for. Phil Ragsdale himself has said that the gay rodeo "is for gay people first, charity second, and for anyone who wants to come and have a good time alongside us" before he succumbed to AIDS in 1992.
But the IGRA has continued the tradition by donating annually to LGBT+ causes despite dwindling memberships and finances, still prioritizing giving a space for people to come together, be welcomed, and have fun while raising awareness for a good cause.
Alexis Cole is still eager for the rodeo's upcoming events to start again in full swing this fall. "I'm proud that anyone can come watch with us, play with us... put on a dress with us." When asked why the IGRA is still going as interest wanes, she's adamant that the gay rodeo will always be necessary.
"So many people have worked so hard to give us what we have. To me, it's like saying why do we need pride? Because it's who we are and it's what other people gave us."