Steers and Queers

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

He calls it cowboy drag.

Many aspects of the gay rodeo are aimed at an audience that doesn't necessarily consist of "real cowboys." The goat dressing and wild drag events are aimed at a nontraditional rodeo audience. So is the indoor stage next to the rodeo arena providing a steady barrage of drag shows for those who tire of bulls and horses. Vendors sell their wares, and the beer flows freely. Many of the spectators come as much for the side shows as they do for the horsemanship.

This is Ken Horton's first rodeo. He's only half watching the roping competition, as he jokes with his friends about the style of the cowboys surrounding him.

Rodeo participants await the next event at the 16th annual Arizona gay rodeo.
Paolo Vescia
Rodeo participants await the next event at the 16th annual Arizona gay rodeo.

"Those Wranglers look painted on," Horton comments.

He's no urban cowboy, but came from Orlando with two friends to enjoy the festivities. He laughs at the idea of competing in these events.

"Oh, come on -- I sell insurance," he says.

Horton says although he's not a cowboy, all the gay bars in Orlando are techno, and he prefers a waltz. The gay rodeo is a refreshing change of pace for him.

And it's true that even many of the gay rodeo contestants aren't "real" cowboys/girls, in that many don't make their living this way. Some are professionals by day, and weekend-warrior rodeo competitors. Still others just enjoy the style and the friendly people, and know little about livestock.

But for some, like Candy Bell, this is a lifestyle. Always has been. She shares her three-and-a-third-acre ranch with five horses, one cow and two ducks. She shares her cramped trailer with two dogs, seven cats and a pygmy goat. Her critters are her anchor out here in Sacaton. They keep her busy and keep her from getting lonely or bored. Her dogs and her shotgun keep her from getting scared. What more does a lady need?

It's a Wild West mentality and lifestyle that is dwindling, as you have to move farther and farther out to find some peace and quiet. Bell has been here only a year, and the yuppies who moved in near her property are already complaining about the horses. And she is standing her ground.

Country music plays faintly from a small stereo, providing a soundtrack that doesn't demand to be heard. Bell built this room as an addition to the narrow trailer, so the animals would have a place to roam. A wooden step up leads to a living room/kitchen, where her belt buckles are displayed, and her lucky shirts hang. The utilitarian bathroom is situated in a space that should just be a hallway. You could pee, wash your hands and take a shower without ever getting off the pot. If you were so inclined.

These cramped living quarters are offset by the expansive world just outside the trailer door. Bell points out Orion's belt, and searches for the dippers as she walks back to the horse stables. As she walks through the stables, the horses whinny, vying for her attention. She pats each one, whispering niceties, and telling their stories.

One of the quarter horses was donated to the gay rodeo for a raffle a few years ago, and was won by a drag queen from Vegas who lived in a condo. Bell bought it from him. Six years ago this cow was a roping calf at the rodeo. It was sick, and the handler was going to destroy it. Bell saved it, and nursed it back to health. Now it is 2,000 pounds of cow.

She has built small bridges over the washes on her property so she can cross when it floods. Just across one is the bull riding practice area. One "bull" is a pole, cemented into the ground, with a barrel attached to it. There are wooden handlebars in front so someone can rock it back and forth, and spin it side to side. The second practice bull is suspended between swingsetlike poles, and it rocks back and forth like a grown-up version of seesaw horsies at the playground. For a decade, this has been her passion.

Bell has worked for the Gila reservation for 14 years in the department of environmental quality. She says things have improved on the reservation since the casinos were built. But things didn't improve for her. She finally gave up gambling three years ago. She doesn't liken gambling to bull riding, though it's a nagging comparison. The rush. The risk. She realized that by continuing to ride rough stock into her old age, she was gambling with her health.

Bell won the steer-riding buckle at this year's rodeo, and feels pretty good about ending on that note.

"I know I'm gonna miss it," she says. "But I won't miss the injuries."

She will continue to participate in the rodeos, and plans to take up roping. Bell says even without the excitement of riding rough stock, the rodeo still calls to her. In light of the solitude she lives in, the communion, the alternate family is the main attraction.

"It's the place I feel connected to others," she says.

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