(lively music begins) - When you think about the LGBT community, you don't really think, "Oh, rodeo and cowboys and cowgirls."
That's not what comes to mind at all.
(laughing) (audience applauding) - Most people know about the radio, but have you heard about the gay rodeo?
I just learned about it from my friend who loves line dancing and a good rodeo.
I was surprised to hear that something that seemed so hypermasculinized, like a rodeo, had a spinoff that was just as tough, but a little bit more colorful.
(audience cheering) (lively music continues) The gay rodeo began in the 1970s, and it became a safe haven for all of those who had faced discrimination in a traditional rodeo setting.
- The great thing about it is, I could be open.
- I couldn't be open the way I wanted to walking down the street.
So here was a place that I could open up.
That was what really struck me.
This is my place.
This is where I need to be.
(lively music ends) - The first thing that I wanted to do when I heard about the gay rodeo was hop on an airplane and go visit one myself, but rodeos are on pause right now because of the pandemic, so I turned to the Internet.
That's when I met Cowboy Frank, the man behind the Gay Rodeo History website and a master cataloger who's traveled to hundreds of rodeos, filming and archiving every event.
Frank was nice enough to share his archive of videos with me so that I could at least experience the gay rodeo virtually.
He also helped introduce me to gay rodeo contestants from across the country, and with their help, I've learnt a lot about the story of the gay rodeo.
It's a story about perseverance through periods of hate and also about the acceptance people can find through a chosen family.
(energetic music) That guy on the horse is Greg Begay, an all-cowboy rodeo competitor with several all-around awards and even some world records in the roping events.
- I grew up on the Navajo reservation in the northeast corner of Arizona.
Sorry, there's flies.
(Josef laughs) In my senior year of high school, I kind of was searching, like, "Is there a gay rodeo?"
- So you just looked it up?
- Yeah, like, I Googled it, and then one time my mom busted me 'cause it was left on the search bar, and I was like, "Oh, my God."
- Oh, no.
- I really had to just hide it.
- I used to love going to rodeos when I was a kid, and so when I learned about the gay rodeo, my first thought was, "What's the difference between the traditional rodeo and the gay rodeo?"
Well, to start, both rodeos have a lot in common, from bull riding to barrel racing to calf roping.
But unlike the traditional rodeo, the gay rodeo is often regarded as not a serious sport.
But that's just not true.
The gay rodeo is every bit as rigorous.
What do you think people commonly misunderstand about the gay rodeo?
- When you say gay, it's just a flamboyant kind of term, and it's not.
People are out there getting drug around the arena or burning their fingers just like everybody else.
- One thing that I've heard that sets gay rodeo apart from traditional rodeo is that both cowboys and cowgirls have competed in similar events.
- For traditional rodeo, men ride the animals and rope the steers and stuff, and women do barrel racing.
That's pretty much it.
- [Josef] In 2019, some traditional rodeos just began including women in the breakaway roping event for the first time.
- In the gay rodeo, since the very beginning, women and men compete equally in all events.
We have women bull riders and we have men barrel racers.
- [Announcer] Look at him go across that finish line right now.
- [Josef] The gay rodeo also has some unique camp events that you can't find anywhere else.
You've got steer decorating, goat dressing, and a wild drag race.
(announcer chattering) (audience cheering) - [Announcer] Good job over there.
- The last significant difference between the traditional rodeo and the gay rodeo dates back to its founding.
It all began in 1976 at the Washoe County Fairgrounds in Reno, Nevada with a man named Phil Ragsdale.
- He wanted to come up with something different as his fundraiser for that year.
- [Josef] After local ranchers rejected his idea of gay rodeo, Phil gathered five cows, ten calves, one pig, and a Shetland pony to start his own, with all the proceeds going towards a Thanksgiving dinner for senior citizens.
- He had a lot of trouble finding animals because the ranchers wouldn't let gay people touch their animals.
Exactly why, I was never quite sure, but that was the environment of that period.
- [Josef] Phil's hard work paid off.
When the gates opened, over 125 people showed up, and to this day, the gay rodeo is still held as a charitable event.
- All the gay rodeos are nonprofits.
They have to be.
It's part of the rules.
Most of the straight rodeos you go to, especially the big ones, they're profit-makers.
Their intention is to put on a show and raise money as a business.
- Phil's successful launch of the gay rodeo was a pivotal moment for the LGBTQ community, but it was only the first of many battles still to come.
As the gay rodeo gains popularity, drawing over 10,000 spectators and forming new chapters across the nation, they also face complaints from animal rights organizations like PETA and were targeted by conservative religious groups.
- In 1988, the Finals rodeo was gonna be held in Reno, and the facility canceled their contract.
And they found a farmer or a rancher in a town about 50 miles east of Reno that was willing to do it, and the local group of anti-gay people, they had it stopped.
Some of our competitors, the sheriff's office had rifles pointed at them.
- In the 1980s and '90s, the gay rodeo was hit especially hard by the AIDS epidemic, and many members, including founder Phil Ragsdale, died.
- It ripped through gay rodeo.
They lost literally hundreds of contestants and people involved.
But we got past it.
We still lose people from time to time from HIV-related diseases.
I myself have been full-blown AIDS since 1981.
Exactly how I'm still here, I'm not sure.
- In 1985, several leaders and a man named Wayne Jakino established the International Gay Rodeo Association as a sanctioning body for gay rodeos.
Wayne became IGRA's first president and standardized rules for all contestants, making it possible for the first World Gay Rodeo Finals in 1987.
Now, almost 35 years later, the gay rodeo faces a new challenge: maintaining its rank.
Back in its heyday, the IGRA boasted around 5,000 members.
The last recorded count in 2013 dwindles to roughly 1,600.
More chapters of the gay rodeo are now defunct than active, and while the more popular circuits still garner thousands in their stands, most call it a success if 100 attend.
This is Jade Fauver.
She just joined the gay rodeo two years ago, and in 2020, she was crowned Ms. NSGRA by the North Star Gay Rodeo.
Why do you think there aren't as many young people in gay rodeo as there have been in the past?
- They just don't know about it.
- I joined the GSA at my college and I'm outreaching that way.
I feel like they just don't know.
- How do you get more young people involved in gay rodeo?
- I have no idea.
(laughs) If I knew that answer, I would've done it already.
Some blame the declined interest on the high cost and low financial return.
Others question if the gay rodeo is necessary, especially with the LGBTQ rights movement gaining so much traction over the years.
Why does there need to be a separate rodeo?
- So many people have worked so hard in order to give us what we have.
To me, when I hear that, it's just like somebody saying, "Why do we need Pride?"
Because it's who we are and it's what other people have given us.
- Feel like the gay rodeo's provided us a place for people that were into the Western lifestyle that were gay that wanted to hang out and still compete if they were shunned away or if they just didn't feel comfortable anymore.
Gay rodeo currently is still like that.
- What is your favorite part about the gay rodeo?
- The camaraderie.
Other than just enjoying watching good-looking guys, in my case, guys, in other people's case, the gals, we are basically one big, happy family.
We've got some that cause trouble, but you'll find that in any family.
But we all come to each other's rescue.
- [Josef] And that's the thing about the gay rodeo.
Even from its conception, it's always been about community and equality and some badass cowboys and cowgirls who are defying social norms and playing by their own rules.