How gay rodeos are upending assumptions about life in rural America


The mistaken assumption that rural America is hopelessly backward and bigoted erases centuries of same-sex relationships in rural communities. He tells young gay men that they must flee their rural hometowns to distant cities in order to find safety and acceptance.

That’s why we value the work of photographer Luke Gilford so much. For “National Anthem,” his collection of images on display at Manhattan’s SN37 Gallery, Gilford photographed attendees of the International Gay Rodeo Association. Many of his subjects have fought for decades to be considered legitimate riders in the rodeo world, bringing their rural sensibilities and homosexuality to arenas across the country.

As scholars of gender, sexuality, and the American West, we’ve spent years studying gay rodeos. Through the Gay Rodeo Oral History Project and other research, we were able to shed light on the experiences of Gilford’s subjects and reveal the complexities of rural America.

We know that queer people have always belonged to rural areas and have always participated in rural traditions. And we hope the shameless presentation of queer, rural rodeos disproves the lazy dichotomy of urban queer progressive versus rural homophobic conservative.

The Straight White Cowboy Fantasy

The cowboy has long been a symbol of American values ​​and manly masculinity. But this understanding of the cowboy hides a more complex reality.

Cowboys were once the outcasts of Victorian American society. They tended to be poor nomads, and work on the ranches and cattle drives attracted a racially diverse workforce, including black, Hispanic, Native American, and Chinese residents of the American West.

As the frontier way of life faded in the late 19th century, a nostalgia for cowboys quickly emerged in American culture. Artists like Frederic Remington and artists like Buffalo Bill Cody glorified them through their art and Wild West shows.

In the 1950s and 1960s, movie westerns featured actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Almost all of these depictions portrayed the cowboy as white, straight, and masculine. Black and Aboriginal cowboys, as well as horsewomen, are gradually disappearing from the national imagination.

The origins of gay rodeo

The symbolism and iconography surrounding cowboys matter a lot. In the 20th century, the American West became intimately associated with an American national identity. The image of the cowboy, if he looked and acted a certain way, determined who could and could not be a “real” American.

Yet many queer people living in rural areas in the 1970s and 1980s refused to give up their claim to a rural – and American – identity.

They were inspired, in a way, by the emergence of the urban cowboy phenomenon in fashion, film and country music. The cowboy was just one of the models of desirable masculinity that emerged after World War II for gay men. Urban gay bars have adopted country-western motifs, attracting a clientele of “budding” urban cowboys and rural transplants seeking a community that reminds them of home. Soon there was a real enthusiasm and appetite among gay people for a rodeo of their own.

Phil Ragsdale, a businessman from Reno, Nevada, organized the first gay rodeo in 1976 as a fundraiser, with proceeds going to the local senior center and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The National Reno Gay Rodeo was held annually from 1976 to 1985, attracting tens of thousands of spectators. In 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association formed, bringing together other gay rodeo associations, standardizing the rules, and creating a formal circuit for participants.

Rural gay men then created other spaces that could exist beyond the imagined constraints of rural and urban life: gay country-western bars, square dances, and blocking bands.

Although not all gay rodeos are from rural backgrounds, many are. They often describe leaving their own small towns and rural communities for a queer life in the city. Rather than encountering a comforting sanctuary, some struggled to fit in.

In an interview for the Gay Rodeo Oral History Project, gay rider Joe Rodriguez described the discomfort he felt moving to San Francisco: “It was day and night coming from a rural community where I grew up , moving to town, but it still wasn’t right, wasn’t the right person.”

He didn’t feel at home in the city until he found a community with other gay cowboys.

The space between

Homophobes tended to condemn the gay rodeo as an attack on the cowboy’s traditional place in American culture. Gay men were considered too effeminate and too weak to wear the same outfit as John Wayne.

Opposition intensified with the AIDS epidemic, alongside the rise of an emboldened political and religious right. Four years after the first gay rodeo, America elected Ronald Reagan, a stalwart conservative who played cowboys on the big screen, as its 40th president.

Gay rodeos have struggled to resist the wave of discrimination and tragedy.

As gay rodeos worked tirelessly to raise money for charity, some non-LGBTQ organizations began refusing to accept donations from rodeos affiliated with the International Gay Rodeo Association.

Death and loss have become a fact of life.

“I had a lot of friends,” recalled a rodeo named Brian Helander, “and I can say out of probably 100 people I would call friends, probably three survived.”

Yet as self-proclaimed “queer cowfolx,” they continued to occupy spaces they had been told they had no right to, and they filled their rodeo arenas with gay dances, rodeo events camp and drag artists to raise money for AIDS and other LGBTQ organizations. By creating a space that allowed for overlapping — and sometimes conflicting — identities, gay rodeos upended some long-held understandings of homosexuality.

Above all, they have made it their mission to shatter entrenched notions about who has the right to claim the identity of a cowboy – and, by extension, an American.

Rebecca Scofield, associate professor of history; Director of the Department of History, University of Idaho and Elyssa Ford, associate professor of history, Northwest Missouri State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.


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