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.
"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."
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.
"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."
Standing in the chute, brushing her waist-long hair, Bell watches Linda Peterson from Ogden, Utah, hold on to make the buzzer on a high-bucking bronco. Peterson gets kicked in the back getting off the horse, and leaves the arena limping. Everyone is talking about Peterson today, and her bull ride at the IGRA finals last year. She scored the highest ever of any bull rider, man or woman, on the circuit. Bell opted not to ride broncs today, but will join Peterson on bulls.
With two events to go before bulls, Bell says she is getting mental.
"It's 90 percent mental," she says. "Five percent being able to hold your own weight and 5 percent luck of the draw."
And a bit of superstition. Bell always wears one of the same two shirts when she rides. Both are rainbow-striped, one with white stars on a blue background. She wears the same blue hat. Always puts the right spur on first, then the bootstraps, butt pad, chaps, vest in sequence. Then she stretches, holding onto an eagle feather blessed by the medicine man on the Gila reservation where she works.
Bell is crouched in something that looks like a yoga pose, showing a belt with her name imprinted in the leather. She stands, revealing a smear of red paint on her chaps from where she hit the fence at finals. She then throws one leg up over the gate like a ballerina, and stretches.
"Watching Candy ride is like watching a dancer who loves dancing dance," says Jodi Hines, a former bull rider who coaches from behind the chute.
"Women find the center of their beings and put it on the center of the animal. Men try to overpower the animal. They think they're stronger than a 1,500-pound bull."
There was no gay rodeo back when Hines started riding bulls, so she says she rode in straight rodeos as a man. She competed up until about three years ago, when she broke her neck in a truck accident. Now she just coaches the riders. As the women prepare to ride the bulls, she says, "Now is when you mess with their minds. I can tell by the way they walk what their state of mind is."
One of the riders approaches Hines for advice. "I'm on Sandtrap -- which way does he circle? Where do I set my rope? I'm looking for the center -- right?"
"Sandtrap -- oh, I know Sandtrap. About two inches back -- you need it pulled just like Candy's. You don't want to ride him too tight -- it's all by feel," Hines replies.
The steers are gridlocked in the chute. Miss Patti, the assistant chute coordinator/drag queen from D.C., climbs atop the chute and steps on the steers' heads to push them back. There are cream and brown-sugar-colored steers. There are praying cowboys. There are pacing cowgirls.
The bulls are ugly with soft brown eyes. Blink, blink. There's Brahma Bull, Clinton, Sandtrap and Union. Union is Candy's bull. An interrupted meal of straw hangs from his mouth, and he doesn't look happy about his lot in life. There's the pre-rigging rope in front with a bell attached. The noise helps make 'em buck. The flank rope in back makes 'em buck, too, but doesn't tie up their balls like some people think.
Union snorts and butts his head against the side of his metal cage. Snot drips from his face, glistens for a moment in the sun shining through the chute slats before sliding into the mud. He treads muck with clumsy hooves, slips and slides, bumping his head into the chute.
The direction the bull is turned in the chute will affect how it comes out. Union usually comes out and circles to the left. Bell rides right-handed, but oddly enough she likes bulls that spin left.
Bell didn't get to ride bulls at rodeo finals because she was at the hospital getting her face sewn up after riding broncs. As she gears up for today's ride, Hines says to Candy, "This is the bull you didn't ride in finals. You're a pro -- ride like one."
This stock she rides at gay rodeos is not professional rodeo quality. These aren't the toughest, rankest, meanest bulls you'll find. But they're not lunch, either. These are bucking bulls. "If they didn't buck, they'd be at Wendy's or McDonald's," Hines explains.
Bell stands, head bent, arms braced against chute gate and wiggles her legs back and forth. Mouth guard in. Stroking the eagle feather. Claire Miller, a local bronco rider, helps brace Bell as she gets settled on Union. Hines pulls her rope. After a couple audible deep breaths, Bell gives the nod. The gate opens.
She holds on for a couple powerful bucks, but doesn't make the buzzer. Once she realizes she's out of harm's way, she gets up smiling, arms raised.
It's not the staying on; it's the getting on.
Back behind the chute, Hines asks the riders, "What do you think you did wrong?" It's a trick question. "Don't think -- that's what you did -- you thought."
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.
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.
Real gay cowboys?
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.
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.
"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.
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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.