It’s been hard to miss members of the International Gay Rodeo Association around Northeast Ohio this week. They all travel together, in blue jeans, vests, and cowboy hats. It’s the first time the group has integrated its sport into the International Gay Games.
Rodeo Director Judy Munson says the group was in awe entering the Q in Cleveland during opening ceremonies over the weekend. "A lot of us had never been to a Gay Games, so it was all new,: Munson says. "And we’re all in our red shirts and cowboy hats and everybody was just so excited so, it was a very emotional thing for us, we loved it."
The association has more than 5,000 members around North America. It’s the largest organization in the world coordinating rodeo events specifically welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender people.
Similarities and differences
A gay rodeo has all the mainstream events like barrel racing, bronco riding and bull riding. But, it also adds some flair. Camp events include wild drag, with one cowboy in women’s clothes; goat dressing, putting men’s underwear on a goat and steer decorating, which involves one person putting a ribbon on a steer’s tail while the partner removes a rope around its horns.
The main difference, though, is that men and women can compete in all the events. So, men can barrel race and women can ride bulls and wrestle steer.
"I got hit by a steer, by a horn, yesterday while doing chute dogging. But I got second place, so it was worth it," says Robin Dennis of Atlanta. She's sporting a big bandage on the side of her head. She’s been competing for about two years. "Everything about this has been about community and love and caring and joining together to show everybody that we are just like everyone else, there is nothing any different from us, except who our partner is. And I think we’ve shown that."
The Rodeo Association is hoping its presence in the Gay Games generates interest worldwide. Three women from Australia, who have never even seen a rodeo before, signed up for Gay Games. With a rainbow feather in her cowboy hat, Renae Currie of Perth is having the time of her life.
"I found out a few months ago that I could put underpants on a goat and come competitively. So I booked my plane tickets and spent a lot of time trying to convince other people to come with me. With the help, I’ve been reasonably successful in at least covering or finishing the events."
15 years of evolution
While it’s unknown to some countries, the International Gay Rodeo Association has been around for nearly 30 years. Joe Rodriguez first heard about it when he was in San Francisco.
"It was the time when, no pictures were allowed, no interviewing, no filming because riders weren’t out at the time. There’s much more pride. We certainly know that we’ve gotten the respect of the straight rodeo circuit, and the people who have an appreciation for straight rodeo now know about gay rodeo."
Rodriguez is nicknamed Paniolo Joe -- The Hawaiian Cowboy -- where he’s originally from. He says the gay rodeo association evolved in the 15 years he’s been riding bareback broncos. They’ve had to break stereotypes of what cowboys and girls are supposed to be.
"In the early years, there’s always been the protests, local folks who don’t want a gay rodeo in their backyard. But this is our heritage. Whether we’re gay or straight, we’re Americans who take great pride in the Western heritage of cowboying."
A welcoming Summit County community
The stands at the Summit County Fairgrounds were filled with spectators for the Gay Games rodeo on Sunday. Many people who attended said it was their first time at a rodeo of any kind. The competitors who win receive prize money, ribbons and belt buckles for first place. But they say just being a part of an inclusive team is what matters most.
Rodriguez and Rodeo Director Judy Munson say they don’t experience many protests these days. And Munson says the Summit County community has been welcoming. "I mean the ladies that volunteered from Summit County, they’re out parking cars for us! I said, ‘You don’t have to stand out there all that time and park cars.’ And they said, ‘No! It was so much fun, you guys are great, we’re having such a great time!’ You change people’s opinions one person at a time and these kinds of things, they come and they see that we’re just like everyone else."