Guys waiting during the horse events. In the straight rodeo men do not compete in horse events. (Photo: Jaimie Sarra)
To my left, the billboard beside the highway shows a silhouette of a person in handcuffs and big block lettering — "STEAL COPPER LINE, DO HARD TIME." To my right, there's a wall of junked-out tires lining the sand. The air is harsh and dusty. The convenience store is the market. Cyclists ride with plastic bags on their handlebars. This is Banning, California — a desert country place. A town with Gramma’s Barbecue and feed stores and bumper stickers that read “God, Guns, & Guts Made America Great.”
Just one and a half miles off the interstate, I drive past some ranch gates and enter a whole different world, a place that serves cocktails all day long, where the smell of polish sausages fills the air, where belt buckles and t-shirts with arrows pointed down to the crotch and the words “Ask Me About My Buckle” are for sale. There are tons of cowboys and cowgirls. At first glance, it might seem like a regular rodeo. Look closer. This is the Hot Rodeo -- a member of the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association.
Wes Wilkinson grew up on a 575-acre farm in Missouri. The Wilkinsons raised 150 head of black angus cattle (for beef), 120 head of sheep (wool and lamb), 30 pigs, chickens, and a couple of work horses for farming. At the first peep of light, Wes tended to his chores, throwing feed to the animals, cleaning out coops, picking up or wiping down, cooing, and brushing. He began to resent this lifestyle of constantly tending to things. All the beginnings and endings of livestock on a seamless loop powered by the sweat and worry of his family. Wes could not wait to leave the demands of farm life. In the late '80s he did just that. Wes moved to California — a place where he did not have to live through his hands, and a place he could live fully.
In 1997, he attended a barn dance event held by the Gay Rodeo Association. He learned how to country line-dance, two-step, and finally, truly, be comfortable. The same year, he registered for his fist gay rodeo, which was held in the small town of Ramona, California (35 miles northeast of San Diego). He competed in the Wild Drag Race event, which incorporates a wild steer, a cowgirl, a cowboy, and a person dressed in drag. That person in drag was Wes.
He’s been hooked ever since. In May 2000, Wes worked the door at a barn dance when he locked eyes with Jeff Barr. A year later, they bought a five-acre piece of land with an old dilapidated ranch house on it. They spent the next two years taking it apart and building it back up to suit their dreams, board by board.
Back at the Hot Rodeo 2016, the first event is calf roping, one of a handful of events that are not done at the straight rodeo. The others are chute-dogging (this is when a cowboy or cowgirl wrestle a steer to the ground coming out of the pen), goat dressing (a team of two put a pair of underwear on a goat), and drag racing. The drag race is when a team of three (one of whom is in drag) tries to put their teammate in drag on a steer and walk it across a line.
One thing you’ll find on the International Gay Rodeo Association site and not on other rodeo sites is a statement of Animal Welfare:
"The International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) hereby endorses and adopts the promotion of animal welfare and the humane, responsible treatment of animals in their housing, feeding, training, exercising and competition. We shall strive to assure that our events are purposefully tailored and executed to provide animal and human participants the safest environment possible and shall act to immediately disqualify or reprimand any contestant, official or contracted personnel found to be treating animals in an inhumane manner."
So, for example, in the goat dressing exercise, each goat has to be rested after eight dressings.
Another big difference between the gay rodeo and the straight rodeo: Both women and men compete in all the same events. In the straight rodeo, women aren’t often able to compete in steer wrestling or bull riding, they only compete in the horse events. Here, everyone does everything.
In calf-roping, the competitor stays in the gates, the calf is let out, and the contestant swooshes his or her lasso around and tries to get it over the calf’s neck.
“It’s all in the wrist, so gay guys are really good at this," jokes Wes. These calves are small. They’re only one to two months old and about 75 lbs. They’re called drop calves, I'm told, because when they’re born they drop to the ground, and that’s what starts their hearts.
Watching everyone in the competition get butch, puff out their chests, and spread their peacock feathers is quite the sight to behold. Add in the mountains in the distance, the hay stacks laid about -- there's something thrilling in the air, even before they get that rope lassoed over a calf’s neck.
Next up is a team roping event that involves two people on horses and one steer. These types of events, I am told, are born out of the Texas Rangers riding out in the open. This is how they would get to the cattle to give vaccinations or perform castration. At the Hot Rodeo, this is performed to the sound of the music and the livestock contractor hollering “Hip! Hip! Hip! Hip!” Then there are the small crop whips and slaps on horse butts, and the occasional shout-out to one of the more popular sponsors: “Gun oil lubricant, for when you want your ride to last longer than six seconds.”
For these team events, Wes tells me, you have to know your partner really well. You have to able to communicate nonverbally — where is he going? What’s coming next? I ask Wes if, in this case, he thinks gay rodeo might have an advantage.
He agrees readily. "[If] you’re sleeping with this guy," he says, "you know everything about him.”
This is a place where people get names — Dirty Dan, Stud Monkey, Wild Wes, Rapture, and Teenie. A place that's safe. Teenie, who describes herself as three-foot-nothing (but actually stands about five feet tall) is as stubborn as she is short. I learned this from her playful banter, teasing me as I jumped back every time the steer got near -- “Oh, watch out, get back now!” -- and the way she held on to her steer’s horns and skidded around the arena for as long as time would allow. Teenie does not give up.
Teenie also explains that she brings straight women from Colorado to compete here, and they can’t believe how nice everyone is. “One woman’s horse was hurt so someone else let her borrow their horse. She couldn’t believe it. They’d never do that at the straight rodeo.”
But don’t get the wrong impression. This is still a rodeo, and no event better encapsulates the rodeo than bull riding. The riders wear chaps and some put bells on. The chute opens and the rider comes out holding on for dear life.
Today, the first guy gets bucked and the bull stomps on his arm. I hold my breath. Falling off is inevitable — it’s just a matter of not getting stomped. Having the wind blown out of you. Inevitable. People break their necks, people die. One guy in D.C. had a steer’s horns slice through his neck.
Hanging on the fence, wincing but unable to look away, I ask, “Why on earth would anyone do this?”
The gate opens and the next contestant is atop a bull, one hand on the saddle, one in the air. He holds on for eight seconds, lands with a bump, and then jumps up delighted.
“Adrenaline,” says Dirty Dan, but I have trouble hearing him over the whooping and hollering.
In 1975, gay rodeo forefather Phil Ragsdale was able to secure a date to hold an event at the Washoe County Fairgrounds in Nevada, but none of the farmers or ranchers were willing to rent livestock for an event sponsored by the gay community. The day before the event, Ragsdale broke down and purchased his own livestock, and the very first Reno Gay Rodeo opened with five cows, ten calves, and one Shetland pony. Over the next several years, the rodeo drew larger and larger crowds, and raised tens of thousands of dollars for charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation.
But as the rodeo grew in popularity, so did the conservative backlash. In 1980, Christian protesters marched against the rodeo outside the fairground fence. In 1981, Nevada’s Mormon lieutenant governor, Myron Leavitt, complained that "They're inviting 7000 queers to come to the northern part of the state for a rodeo. … They call them queers because they've got a screw loose. I'm strongly opposed to queers using public property. ... It's illegal, unnatural and abnormal behavior. ... I think they're sick."
Daniel Hansen, founder of Nevada’s Independent American Party, wrote in letters to the editor of the Nevada State Journal that “The termites of civilization have brazenly oozed out of their closet to proclaim that they have a right to maim, molest and embarrass society ... Homosexuality, like all parasites, survives by preying upon the healthy. If left unchecked, like cancer, it will destroy the body politic. History is our witness." And, “license and social irresponsibility cause venereal disease, divorce, highway deaths, mental disorders, and the destruction of civilization and nations.”
That same year, the Chief Deputy DA of Washoe County made a decision that denial of the Gay Rodeo’s access to the fairgrounds was a violation of their First Amendment rights, so the event went on as planned. In 1982, the Rodeo drew 20,000 people, with Joan Rivers as grand marshal — despite the ongoing protests.
In 1983, a newly formed anti-gay Pro-Family Christian Coalition, who called themselves The Patriots to Normalize Reno, launched a newly energized effort to dismantle the rodeo. The Patriots referred to gay people as “perverted, poop-packing punks.” They circulated petitions and collected nearly 7,500 signatures to prevent the rodeo from happening. The Rev. Walter Alexander of the First Baptist Church was quoted in the Sun Valley referring to gay people by saying, “I think we should do what the Bible says and cut their throats.”
Finally, the Washoe County Commission admitted it couldn’t do anything to stop the rodeo and the event went on as planned, but the attendance was greatly diminished from previous years. Anonymous telephone calls to Reno’s television stations warned that snipers were poised to shoot rodeo attendees. The 1984 rodeo was an even greater disaster, with stifled attendance; the Comstock Gay Rodeo Association left Nevada State Fair Inc. with an unpaid bill of $7,530.
There was no gay rodeo in Reno in 1985, 1986, or 1987. But what died in Reno began flourishing everywhere else: Chapters were founded in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, California, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Wyoming, Oregon and even Calgary. Today they have formed what is now the International Gay Rodeo Association. IGRA is alive and well, with 13 rodeos in the circuit. It all culminates in the world gay rodeo finals, which will take place in 2016 from Oct. 21 to 23 in Las Vegas.
At the gay rodeo, whether you're a rodeo lover or not, it's hard not to feel the sense of care between participants. Back in Arizona or Texas, some of these contestants are still hated for being gay. One livestock contractor tells me he’s even lost some clients when they find out he contracts with the Gay Rodeo. But everyone here looks out for each other. Here at the gay rodeo, you are in close proximity to both a celebration and a wild rebellion.
The final day, I noticed Wes was late to compete and, contrary to the previous day with the matching shirts and kisses exchanged between each event, he was alone. It turned out Jeff got sick the night before and they spent the evening in the ER. When they got back to the rodeo grounds, they noticed their two chocolate labs had been let out -- someone made sure they were secured to a post; their tails were wagging.
“They must’ve known something was wrong since we weren’t here,” says Wes. “That’s what this is. This is family. We take care of each other.”