The high-pitched call of horses breaks the cool morning air as Chuck Browning stands near the corrals outside Banning, California, working the lasso he hopes will separate him from the scores of other rodeo cowboys milling about the show grounds.
The others nervously fire their ropes at anything that doesn’t move — trash barrels, chairs, and fence posts — readying their aim for the day’s first event, the calf-roping contest.
At 52, with a sturdy frame and slate-blue eyes that evoke a young James Arness, TV’s Marshal Matt Dillon, the 5-foot-10-inch, 220-pound Browning is the undeclared favorite of events that range from breakaway and team roping to chute dogging, a pure wrestling match between man and steer.
Squinting his eyes beneath the brim of his hat, absentmindedly working the lariat, Browning talks about things a competitive cowboy might be concerned about just about now: how the mid-50s temperatures might work to his advantage, how the previous night’s rain means less dust out on the rodeo grounds.
The Phoenix resident, who works in IT when he’s not riding horses, owns a five-acre ranch near South Mountain. He knows the younger cowboys will all be gunning for the old man who, over the years, has won 245 award buckles in 220 rodeos.
He remains a tough act to beat, and on this morning, feels the silent stare-downs, sizing him up. Browning’s been around; this ain’t his first gay rodeo.
That’s right, this is America’s other rodeo, where old friends aren’t afraid to offer an open embrace, tipping back their caps to get in close, and women compete alongside the men in events that would make regular rodeo riders stampede for the gates.
Take goat dressing, where two entrants work together to slap a pair of white BVDs on an unsuspecting goat. Or the wild drag event, where a trio including a cowgirl and a cowboy in drag manhandle an angry bull with its pointy horns.
Novelty events aside, these gay rodeos are dangerous games. Over the years, Browning has subjected his body to countless blows, bruises, and concussions. He’s broken his left ankle twice during bronc-riding events, from which he retired a few years back. He shattered his left wrist protecting his face from the swinging head of an angry horse in Salt Lake City, and broke his right arm not long afterward, an injury that required 32 screws and two titanium plates to fix.
His body has been banged up with animal head slams, kicks, and painful ego bruises.
While both violent endeavors, there are differences between gay and straight rodeos — some subtle, others not so much. In the gay bronc-riding event, contestants need to make a six-second ride to qualify, compared to the eight seconds on the regular circuit. And the payout here is decidedly less. Over this spring weekend, Browning has entered a dozen events, at $25 a pop, just hoping to make back his entry fee and cover a few expenses.
None of these gay cowboys, including Browning, is in it for the money. If a contestant won every event over two days, he’d earn $2,500, but that never happens.
Browning might clear $5,000 in the 10 rodeos he attends each year. But after paying expenses, he takes a loss. He rarely even has a sponsor to help defray costs, relying on the money he earns in his regular desk job to make rodeo ends meet.
But that’s just fine with these gay ropers and riders. For 40 years, they’ve reveled in their own gay games, free of the smirks, whispers, and condescension they’ve encountered at straight rodeo events. For many, the rodeo harks back to a childhood spent around livestock on ranches and farms, long before they had to deal with issues of sexual orientation.
Around here, everybody competes without question, whether you’re a tobacco-chewing tough guy, a gritty butch woman roper, or someone with a decided wiggle to your Wranglers. Nobody gives a damn. The bottom line is how many award buckles you wear at the end of the day.
While many younger gays and lesbians have questioned the need for a gay rodeo in today’s more integrated society, Browning revels in the events. Still, he recalls the one time he and rodeo partner Brian Helander mixed it up with some straight cowboys at a bull-riding contest outside Mr. Lucky’s bar in Phoenix. It was the closest they came to competing in a straight rodeo.
Cowboy testosterone hung in the air that day, and the pair tried to fit in among the tough guys who congregated outside the bar. Neither rode the required eight seconds, but things were going well enough. Then at one point, Helander put his hands on his hips and unconsciously announced: “This is such a cute little arena!”
Browning took him aside and whispered: “I think you blew our cover with that one, Brian.”
Try to imagine any traditional rodeo with a storyline like this: A bareback bronc-riding star with Hollywood looks (Chuck Browning) meets a male competitor with an odd stage name (Todd Tee Tramp) in the corrals. Romance blooms. The pair become a couple, and the star teaches his protégé some of the secrets of staying in the saddle with 2,000 pounds of angry beef bucking beneath you.
The two break up but remain hyper-competitive. Then, at an event in Oklahoma City, the star barely ekes out a win over his former lover in the international bronc-riding finals.
Well, that’s just one of the subplots to 2005’s GidyUp! on the Rodeo Circuit, a documentary about life in America’s gay rodeo.
For Browning, the story represents a long ride from his Western-branded boyhood. He was born in cowboy country — Casper, Wyoming — the youngest of five children, and grew up with an innate feel for big skies and wide-open spaces.
Every summer, the family visited Browning’s great-grandfather’s Colorado farm, where they trained Tennessee Walking Horses. The kids could ride all they wanted. They often went bareback, fell off, cried, and got back on again. They’d accompany the real cowboys on roundups and cattle castrations. Browning can still remember the smell of the branding iron and watching the men fry up the fresh cow testicles they called mountain oysters. They tasted like chicken liver, he recalls.
Even then, Browning heard resistance to the tribe he’d later join. Gays were called faggots. And nobody, he learned, wanted to be one of those.
Still, as a college student in Montana, that alternative lifestyle beckoned a confused young Browning. He met a lifeguard who was effeminately gay but couldn’t relate to that persona; it just wasn’t him.
But then, who was he? Eventually, Browning figured out the connection between his sexual orientation and country ways. After all, wasn’t the cowboy lifestyle all about a bunch of men working hard and living together in close quarters?
So there it was: Chuck Browning was a gay guy who loved horses and the Western lifestyle. But being gay in Montana or Wyoming was a risky life.
In his early 20s, Browning moved to Phoenix, a more cosmopolitan area, but still the West, where he hoped to find cultural kinship. He started working as a personal trainer, and a client who sensed his sexual orientation asked if he went out. The guy turned Browning on to Charlie’s, a gay bar at Seventh Avenue and Camelback Road.
“I walked in, and there was nothing but guys on the dance floor two-stepping,” he says. “I knew I was attracted to men, but didn’t know how it all worked. Who asks who? Do you have relationships and marriages or just flings? I had no concept of anything.”
He became a Charlie’s regular.
In 1989, Browning saw an ad posted inside the bar for a gay rodeo. He was gay, and he liked rodeo — he’d attended many as a kid — so he signed up to volunteer. At that first rodeo, he saw bartenders and other Charlie’s regulars compete in bronc riding and other events. Browning fell hard for the whole scene, like he was sucker-punched.
“I died and went to paradise,” he recalls. “Here was everything I am in one place. It was a revelation.”
His rodeo career started slowly. The idea of jumping bareback onto a charging, bucking bull seemed out of reach, so Browning entered other events. Later, at the gym, he met Helander, a registered nurse and product of Manitoba’s rodeo country, who discovered he was gay long before suspecting he might be rodeo material.
The two bought horses the same year, in 1994. They attended some straight rodeos as spectators but soon tired of the gay-bashing. It was never one-on-one, but the collective stance was clear: Gays weren’t real cowboys; gays weren’t welcome.
The gay rodeo was different. “The smell of the dirt, well, it just beckoned me to my roots,” Helander says. “I knew right away, this is where I feel comfortable. This is where I can get dirty. This is where I can be me. In gay rodeo, I felt authentic.”
Over time, the pair became partners in various events. The relationship was never sexual; Browning seemed perpetually single, while Helander considered himself the marrying type. “Chuck was good at things, and me others,” Helander says. “We were both good steer wrestlers, both young and athletic. We understood the physics of the event.”
That was 21 years ago. By then, Browning was out, even to his family. In 1992, he broke the news to his mother over a hotel breakfast. He was grieving the loss of his first serious partner, Ken, who had died of an AIDS-related illness. His mother was accepting; his father, not so much.
Both would come to celebrate his gay rodeo ways.
Browning continued to forge a new role as an openly gay cowboy. He cried when he saw the film Brokeback Mountain, feeling the sexual pull and broken lives of the gay characters.
He sold his Phoenix townhouse and bought his South Mountain ranch, a cozy spread with a pasture filled with Bermuda grass where he could properly care for his growing stable of horses. Rising each day with the sun, donning his jeans and work shirt, he relished the peace and solitude, learning that horses treated with care and respect returned the favor in the rodeo ring.
Over the years, he bought and trained horses with just the right competitive instinct for rodeo: anticipating the rider’s moves, working as one to track down any escaping livestock.
His first was Sugar, a Paint Horse whom many said was too small for rodeo. But Browning believed. He rode Sugar for 12 years, and she lived another 12 before she died earlier this year. For Browning, the death of a horse is a stake to the heart.
“You are that horse’s caretaker. You’re supposed to make sure they have everything they need,” he says. “They come first. You’re the last person to get fed or taken care of.”
But horses can’t tell you when they get sick; it’s the trainer’s job to know. “When you lose them,” Browning says, “you doubt yourself, thinking over and over, ‘What didn’t I see? What could I have done?’”
For years, before he retired from bareback bronc riding, Browning had an equally complex relationship with another animal: the rodeo steer. Over the years, he rode 500 bulls in competition. Inside the chute, lowering himself atop the animal, knowing that in a matter of seconds that potential energy beneath him would become wildly kinetic, well, the lump in his gut never got any smaller.
The first bull he rode was named Vinton. After that came a succession of animals named after drag queens. They were all full of fight. “The bull is an athlete as well. He’s trained from day one, so he knows what is expected of him,” Browning says.
Just before the chute opens, a flank strap is affixed to the animal’s hips. “They’re pissed off. They don’t want that thing there,” he says. “They want that rope off. They want you off.”
Over the next six seconds, it’s all about concentration until that horn goes off.
The angry dance of bull and rider unfolds in slow motion. Browning tries to locate by feel the center of the animal’s gravity and stay right there, matching its every motion with his own. “During those rides, I didn’t pay attention to the crowd or the announcer. Sometimes, I could hear Brian yelling ‘Get your hand up! Square your hips!’ My goal was to keep riding until I heard that horn go off, and I could get off that animal.”
Browning’s last bull ride came in 2008 at an event in Denver. Officials couldn’t get the horn to work that day, and even though he’d been atop the animal for six seconds, he waited instinctively for the horn blast. “I thought, I’ve been out here long enough. I need to get off.”
Just then, the bull launched him into the air. Browning landed on his head and shoulders. For 15 long seconds, he had no feeling from his head down. His sense of feeling revived, but that was his last bull ride. That same year, Browning was inducted into the International Gay Rodeo Association Hall of Fame.