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Bull riding is about a lot of things. It isn't about thinking.
The barrel-chested, muscle-bound cowboy lumbers back behind the chute after a successful run on bulls, and drops his pants. This cowboy is competing in all 13 events today, which doesn't leave time for modesty. Standing in the mud half-naked, he clumsily works his way into a spandex skirt and a gold lamé padded bra. A curly, blond hooker wig completes Chuck Browning's transformation from cowboy to something else altogether.
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The Wild Drag event is another particular to the gay rodeo. A three-person team of a woman, a man and a person in drag must mount the drag on a steer and ride it to the finish line. It is one of the more hilarious events, as well as one of the most dangerous. At the '97 finals, Browning got his face caught on the steer's back hoof, which required a trip to the ER.
"When you have a three-inch rip in your face, it's difficult to get lipstick off," Browning explains. "But I told my rodeo partner I don't care what you have to do -- if I get hurt in that event and am going to the hospital, you better get that drag costume off of me."
Browning does the drag event for fun, and is a man's man even in purple spandex. He's been competing for seven years, has won four all-around buckles, and seven IGRA finals in six different events. He grew up in Casper, Wyoming, went to school in Montana, and moved to Phoenix in lieu of marrying his college girlfriend.
"Being from Wyoming, you just really don't want to be gay," Browning says. "It's not something those people can deal with."
He says he doesn't just compete on the gay circuit because he is afraid to be around straight cowboys, although he admits that he has to watch himself when he goes to straight country bars. At Mr. Lucky's, a straight bar with a bull-riding pen in back, he was almost busted.
"My rodeo partner said, 'Oh my God, what a cute little arena,'" Browning says. "I told him, 'You can't be like that here.' I had this feeling like instantly I turned out wearing nothing but pink."
Charlie's was the first gay bar Browning ever went to, and he says he has always felt at home there with other people from small towns all over the country. He points out that the rodeo circuit is like a big family reunion, a concept important to many of the people involved for whom rodeo skills are passed down through the generations.
Take Sandra Anaya, a roper from Tucson who competes with her brother, Andy. Neither knew the other was gay, until Andy told his sister that he had been competing on the gay rodeo circuit. They've been competing together now for about six years. The siblings learned to rope from their father, Michael Anaya, who was well known among ropers in his day. Now, Sandra is passing her skill on to her 10-year-old son, who is at the rodeo this weekend watching his mom and uncle compete.
"It's all I've ever done," she explains.
For many, the rodeo is about getting back to familial roots. Scott Tickler, a.k.a. Victoria London, Miss AGRA and Miss IGRA, grew up in Medford, Oregon. His grandfather used to ride bulls, and his father competed in rodeo events. He left home at 17, and left behind all things country.
"I left as soon as I realized the only difference between Medford and yogurt is that yogurt is a living culture," he says. "I had to get out. I had to leave."
Tickler fell back into rodeo about 10 years ago when he started doing drag. "It's familiar to me; it's something I have knowledge of," he says. "Even when I was doing my little 21-year-old blue spiked hair thing, rodeo was still part of my background."
Browning says he was initially taken aback by the presence of drag queens at the rodeo, but has come to realize they raise a lot of money for the event, are a valuable asset and are part of this rodeo family.
"I think it's great when people take the time to realize there's a lot of different variances in the gay world," Browning says. "People draw the stereotypical view of what a gay man is. There's a lot of differences out there."
Gary Godfriedson of British Columbia might be considered a cowboy snob. He came to Phoenix during rodeo weekend to buy horses, and just happened to stay at the same hotel where the royalty competition was held.
"Real gay cowboys are nothing like this," he explains.
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The first drag contestant for Miss AGRA looms on the stage above him, wearing a Barbie mix-and-match, tear-away skirt and looking like Little Bo Peep on acid. She launches into a country rendition of "Amazing Grace," and Godfriedson rolls his eyes. He says the drag queens are as hyperfeminine as these cowboys are hypermasculine, and both are a bastardization of the real thing.