The chute flies open and out comes a bucking bronc, with a rugged cowboy astraddle, trying their best to stay mounted – this iconic image is associated with rodeos across the West. And since 1975, a similar scene has played out in gay rodeo. Conceived as a fundraiser for a Reno senior citizens’ Thanksgiving dinner, the Gay Rodeo originated in Nevada.
Facing discrimination, the rodeo organizers were initially unable to find any farmers or ranchers to lease them the necessary livestock. But they persevered. Interest in the rodeo spread across the U.S., first to California and then to Colorado and Texas. For LGBTQ farmers and ranchers, the rodeo offered a vital social outlet and an opportunity to meet other likeminded rodeo competitors.
In 1985 the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) was formed to provide some standardization of rules across the various state rodeos that had sprung up. Wayne Jakino, the founding president of the IGRA described the rodeo community as one that lets “competitors feel good about themselves and open closet doors.”
Gay rodeo events include everything in a traditional rodeo, from calf roping and pole bending to bull riding. Events are equally open to all genders and the competitors are entirely amateur. There are also a few events unique to the IGRA, known as “camp” events. These include steer decorating and goat dressing. There is also the “wild drag race” during which one of the three team members must dress in drag.
Shortly after the founding of the IGRA, Blake Little, an award-winning portrait photographer, began shooting photos of gay rodeo. Little’s black and white images captured candid scenes in and around rodeo arenas across the country.
Blake Little became so enamored with gay rodeo that he learned to ride steers and bulls, eventually being named the Bull Riding Champion of the Year in 1990 by the IGRA. Little continued to take photographs between competitions, in part to steady his nerves and distract himself from overthinking his next bull ride. His photos raised awareness and opened doors. Little remarked, “The gay rodeo pictures are of a community that tends to be in a more conservative environment because Western culture just tends to be more conservative. It’s a powerful thing for people in Western culture that are straight or have more conservative views to see these people as real, as essentially just like them.”
Eventually Little’s photos ended up on display in an “Out West” exhibition, which was conceived of in 2009 by author, playwright and filmmaker Gregory Hinton. The exhibition included art and memorabilia that highlighted the presence of the LGBTQ community in Western culture. Little’s photos were compiled into a book.
Today, IGRA events are held across the U.S. from Little Rock, Arkansas to San Diego, California and in Canada at the Canadian Rockies International Rodeo, near Calgary. The rodeo season ends with World Gay Rodeo Finals. Charitable giving continues to be a part of Gay Rodeo, with more recent rodeos donating to the Muscular Dystrophy Association and AIDS foundations.
While the bulk of the International Gay Rodeo Association’s records are archived at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, you can learn more about gay rodeo, the “Out West” exhibition and the contributions of the LGBTQ community to the American West in the Gregory Hinton papers.
Post contributed by AHC Writer Kathryn Billington.