Steers and Queers

Arizona's gay rodeo is one of the largest and most competitive in the country. And that's no bull.

The rodeo finally found a home at Corona Ranch, and has been there for 16 years. Paranoid about publicity, its organizers managed to avoid coverage in the straight press by setting up a policy that no reporters were allowed on rodeo grounds unless they attended an orientation meeting. They published the announcement in the gay press, and it went unnoticed by the straight press. If reporters showed up at the rodeo grounds, they were shown the published statement, and told to try again next year.

"We were very insistent that we were a gay group that wasn't asking anything from the straight community," King says. "We're putting on a gay show for the gay community. We don't want you, we don't need you, and as far as you're concerned we don't exist anyway so just leave us alone. It's very country."

So much for inclusion. But after all, King explains, the whole concept behind the gay rodeo stems from alienation.

The gay rodeo holds a royalty competition and chooses a Mr., Ms. and Miss to represent each state as King, Queen and (drag) Queen.
Paolo Vescia
The gay rodeo holds a royalty competition and chooses a Mr., Ms. and Miss to represent each state as King, Queen and (drag) Queen.
These contestants from Calgary compete in the goat-dressing event. This event takes the longest because of the high volume of entries. The high volume of entries is because of the lack of actual skill required to put panties on a goat.
Paolo Vescia
These contestants from Calgary compete in the goat-dressing event. This event takes the longest because of the high volume of entries. The high volume of entries is because of the lack of actual skill required to put panties on a goat.

"If you grew up in Phillipsburg, Kansas, or Mt. Pleasant, Iowa, where I was, or any farm or ranch place, the first thing that happens around age 18 or 20 is you realize you're so different that you can't live in your hometown," King says. "As soon as you arrive in the city in your boots and tight Levi's, you get ostracized because you're different."

So a gay country person packs away the hick clothes, and denies where he's from.

"When Charlie's came around, people could walk in and hear country music," King says. "And people are talking, using words like 'reckon' and 'fixin'' -- words that we had eliminated from our conversation in order to fit in."

And it isn't just the superficial differences that set the gay country-Western scene apart from the rest of gay culture. It's those "cowboy values."

"At Charlie's, country people don't have to change any of their values," King says. "And our values we knew from the time we were 8 years old and at a church social. You get to know somebody first, you date them for a while, and then you have sex. In the '70s and '80s we were considered way behind."

King admits that he was still a bit behind the times back in '85 when they were setting up the official rules at the first gay rodeo convention. He spoke in front of the group about why rough stock events absolutely shouldn't be open to women. When the group recessed, four female rough riders surrounded him in the hall demanding to know why they couldn't ride bulls.

"They got right in my face," King says. "I looked around at those four women and I scratched my head and decided to change my mind."

Over the years, gay rodeo has evolved within, and muscled its way, in terms of respect, into the gay community. Charlie's is one of the most stable gay bars in the Valley, and with a consistent membership of about 125 people, AGRA has one of the largest followings of any gay organization in Phoenix.

"It used to be if you were to wear a cowboy hat into a gay bar, you were considered bottom of the barrel and socially undesirable," King says. "All over town during rodeo weekend everybody welcomed the guys in cowboy hats."


One fundamental distinction between the gay and straight rodeos: The gals in cowboy hats are also welcome -- even on the rough stock.

At Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association events, the women mostly race horses around barrels. The gay rodeo serves up some gender equity and, goats and lingerie aside, some no-nonsense competition. After Reverend Charlie Coppinger, the recently outed and ousted chaplain to the state Legislature, gives the prayer, cowboy hats go back on and it's time to bring on the bulls.

There are six women riding bulls today. Among them is Candy Bell, a local mainstay. This rodeo marks her 10-year anniversary, and her retirement from riding rough stock. Bell is a 42-year-old self-described adrenaline junkie who does it for the thrill, but also the camaraderie of the rodeo.

"There's an unspoken bond among the rough stock riders because you know you can be killed," she says.

In her tenure, Bell has won the IGRA finals twice on bulls, four times on broncs, seven times on steers. She won the bull-riding buckle in 1998 on the pro women's circuit. She was ranked third in the world on broncs that year, and fifth in the world on bulls.

The cost: a punctured lung, a bruised heart, broken ribs, and a horn in the back. Not such a bad laundry list -- for a bull rider.

"I brag about being a bull rider and still having my teeth," she says. "You're gonna get hurt; it's just a matter of when and how."

She wears a constant reminder of this in a jagged scar that curves around her eye and runs the length of one side of her face. She hit the gate after a bronco ride at the women's pro rodeo finals in Texas last November, and earned 120 stitches to the face.

"When I bruised my heart, nobody could see it," she says. "I have to look at this every day."

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