Pop culture trivia question: What is the Joan Rivers connection with gay rodeo? The answer is at the end of the article…
So… Where do Bears meet each other? Of course, every fun and furry guy’s shortlist will include: bars, clubs, Bear runs, Leather events, … and, indeed, those omnipresent hookup apps. But as anyone who has ever been lucky enough to attend a gay rodeo can testify, there a large number of hairy and hot-to-trot men who love their cowboy hats and Western-style boots, and who know how to jump into a line dance– or, at least, can appreciate some country music in between shaking their fuzzy butts to their favorite pop divas. There’s a huge crossover within the Leather/Bear world and the gay rodeo scene throughout the U.S. and Canada, particularly in the Midwest and Southwest where country-western themed nights still pack the gay bars. If Bears are famous for playfully embracing aspects of so-called “traditional” masculinity– unapologetic sexuality, a laid-back attitude, a fondness for flannel shirts and jeans, and (most importantly) knowing how to have some dirty fun with your buddies–both literally and otherwise– then it’s no mystery why the gay rodeos are a haven for Bears and the men who love them.
The first gay rodeo was held as a charity fundraising event in Reno, Nevada in October 1976. The International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), founded in 1985, became the sanctioning body for gay rodeos held throughout the United States and Canada. Fast forward to 2018, and the LGBTQ rodeo scene is an active and a colorful one, with events held across the country from Palm Springs to Pennsylvania. Participants travel from coast to coast, often bringing their own horses with them, to compete in a wide variety of events– some of which don’t even require riding a horse– or just to hang out with their fellow horse lovers and country/western aficionados. Rodeo competitors, of course, take the sport VERY seriously. They have the chance to go home with money, prize ribbons, or the highly envied belt buckles. But as the weekend comes to a end, it’s all about the party! Closing festivities are held on Sunday, when rodeo participants cool off and relax their well-worked muscles with BBQ, booze, mingling, and entertainment– which include drag shows and dancing. Like the International Imperial Court System or the worldwide Leather and Bear circuits, LGBTQ rodeo attendees become a family very quickly. The rodeo weekends are their chance to catch up and hang out with out-of-state social media friends– not only in person, but in the fresh outdoors air. Each IGRA-sanctioned chapter names their Royalty Team every year. Titles are given for Mr. (male identified), Ms. (female identified), Miss (drag queen), and Ms.Ter (drag king). The Royalty Team holds the responsibility of promoting LGBTQ rodeo culture as well as raising money for charitable causes through their Title year– and they get to wera a fabulous sash as well! Each year, the Winners of the Royalty Teams nationwide then compete for the ultimate title of Mr., Ms, Miss, and Ms.Ter International Gay Rodeo Association.
2018 features ten IGRA-sanctioned rodeos on the calendar, which will climax with the World Gay Rodeo Finals in Mesquite, Texas in October. The top 20 contestants in each event compete for the title of International Champion. With the original spirit of fundraising still strong, IGRA also assists in raising and donating thousands of dollars for LGBT-interest charities each year— as well as helping to spread an enduring appreciation for country western culture. The rodeos are entirely volunteer-run. In the tradition of complete inclusivity, everyone over the age of 18 is allowed to participate, regardless of level of experience, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation. Men and women can compete equally in all events; in fact, women are not only permitted to compete but are also welcome in the rodeo’s “rough stock” events: bull riding, steer and bronc riding, and steer wrestling. There truly is a place at the BBQ table for everyone.
If you’ve never been to a gay rodeo, this may be the season to break your cherry! Ride a horse, ride a cowboy, or do both… and hang out with some of the coolest men and women you’re likely to meet. For urban Bears like me, it’s a get chance to get out of the concrete jungle and breathe some fresh air alongside some very hot and hairy company. And besides, don’t you want the chance to tell your friends (to quote an enduring cinematic camp classic…) “This ain’t my first time at the rodeo!”
The next IGRA-sanctioned LGBTQ rodeos in 2018 will be Best Buck in the Bay in Duncan Mills, California, the weekend of September 14th through the 17th. This rodeo is brought to us by the Bay Area Chapter of The Golden State Gay Rodeo Association (GSGRA). Visit www.BayAreaRodeo.com for more info. After that is Big Horn Rodeo in Las Vegas, Nevada, the weekend of September 21 through the 23rd. This rodeo is presented by Nevada Gay Rodeo Association (NGRA). Visit www.NGRA.com for more information. To learn more about International Gay Rodeo Association, visit www.IGRA.com.
(Answer to trivia: Bear-loving comedienne Joan Rivers was was the Grand Marshall of the 1982 National Gay Rodeo in Reno, Nevada!)
(All photos by Jed Ryan. A previous version of this article appeared in Bear World Magazine in June 2018.)