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The morning mist has burned away, and the long, auburn hair of rodeo contestants #108 and #109 glistens in the midday sun. They are dressed in matching black pantsuits, Western-shirt collars upturned, decorated with orange flames. Jaws set with determination, they stretch, focus in preparation.
The tips of their black boots nose up to the starting line. Two sets of manicured hands shake out the tension as they await the starting signal. Then they are off. Streaks of black and orange race toward the unsuspecting goat. With expert precision, teamwork and relative ease, the panties slide onto the goat, and the ladies race back toward the starting line. In a dramatic attempt to shave seconds off their time, #108 dives for the finish, does a head-over-heels roll, ends on her knees, arms up in victory pose.
In celebration, she rips off the flowing auburn wig revealing -- a middle-aged man with a receding hairline. He throws the wig into the mud as if it were a sweaty towel, and prances around the arena.
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"I felt just like Brandi Chastain when they won the World Cup," he says later.
Wig back in place, the drag queen from Virginia takes her place amid a sea of tiaras and Stetsons. Cowboys, cowgirls and drag queens from across the country and Canada take their place in the royalty procession at the 16th annual Arizona Gay Rodeo Association (AGRA) Regional Roadrunner event.
The AGRA rodeo draws nearly 2,000 people each January, and donated $20,000 in proceeds to charities last year. Arizona's is one of 20 gay rodeo associations across the country, from California to the Atlantic states. The AGRA is almost always ranked in the top three competitively, and hosts one of the most consistently successful rodeos. Since its formation in 1985, AGRA has provided a forum for Arizona's gay cowboys and cowgirls. The seeming paradox of gay and rodeo cultures gives a home to those whose country style may not fit in with the rest of gay culture, but whose sexual orientation definitely does not jibe with the regular rodeo. And where Western culture seems to be on the decline in the mainstream, it is alive and well within the Valley's gay community.
Over the years, the Arizona gay rodeo has gone from marginalization to local tradition. An event that used to hide from the straight press, and much of the gay community, has become popular with gays and straights, country and city folk alike. Rodeo competitors, fans and curious onlookers come to Arizona from across the country, Europe and Canada to participate in one of the more colorful events the gay community has to offer.
Dominic Lampasi came all the way from Long Island for a trip to the Grand Canyon this year, and stumbled upon the rodeo. He watches the goat-dressing antics from the side of the arena. "To heck with putting underwears on a goat, let's take some off," he jokes.
His baggy jeans, backward baseball cap and mirrored Oakleys seem as out of place at a rodeo as his New York-cool attitude. But no more incongruous than a stiletto-heeled drag queen standing in cow pies.
"What's a nice Italian boy from Long Island doing at a rodeo? I didn't know anybody out here, but I knew these guys would be a lot friendlier and down to earth than most people. It's a quick sense of family. A Betty Crocker, ready-made family."
Reno, 1976, and nobody's even thought of a gay rodeo circuit. But a group of drag queens has set up a social club called the Imperial Courts. Every year there is a new pair of royalty. The King of '76, Phil Ragsdale, thinks it would be a hoot to have a gay rodeo as a fund raiser for the Courts. He can't get a stock contractor to provide animals, so he has to go out and buy the stock himself. There are no rules or structure, but it's a fun party. By 1982, 25,000 people are paying to attend the Reno gay rodeo.
"For the first time ever, gay country and Western people were getting together to socialize," says John King, owner of Charlie's, a popular gay cowboy bar in Phoenix. King and his business partner, Wayne Jakino, attended the Reno rodeos, and had a dream of a mini rodeo circuit, where people would travel around the country and compete. It would be an inclusive community effort, and all the proceeds would go to charity.
In 1983, King and Jakino split off from the Reno event and put on their own gay rodeo in Colorado. By 1984, Colorado, California, Texas and Arizona formed the gay rodeo circuit, and the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) was born. King says he had to try six different places before he was able to get rodeo grounds for the first Arizona gay rodeo in 1986.
"We were turned down by the sheriff's posse's grounds because it must be 'a family-oriented event,'" King says. "In Gilbert, I was glad we sat with our backs to the door. Everything was so hunky-dory with the promoters until we mentioned it was a gay rodeo. You could see the red starting at the neck and moving to the foreheads of these people."