It Ain't His First Gay Rodeo — Chuck Browning Has Been Bucking Stereotypes for Years

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.

On a Saturday morning in early May,
Browning’s rodeo groove starts off slowly at Banning’s A.C. Dysart Equestrian Center. With the death of Sugar, Browning had to borrow a Quarter Horse named Woodruff for his rides. Maybe that set the tone for the weekend. Wearing No. 5830 on his back, Browning misses his only toss in the calf-roping event and later kicks himself. “I lost my train of thought. I thought I had a good loop on the rope, but I didn’t follow through.”

Helander, a decade older than Browning at age 62, ropes his calf, winning points. “That’s how you do it, folks,” the announcer says.

In this event, like many of the early competitions, the younger cowboys seem to be taking the money.

An effeminate cowboy in a red shirt, a Michigan man who goes by the name Red Hodeo, gets people laughing as others encourage him on this first rope. “Oh, you’re putting so much pressure on me already!” he cries. He misses.

Later, Hodeo expresses admiration for Browning, one of the veterans of the scene. “Everybody knows him,” he says. “He’s famous.”

That assessment does little to help either Browning or Helander in the team roping event, where one partner lassoes the calf’s back legs and the other its horns to bring it down. Both riders miss. Once again, the younger cowboys take the day.

By now, the grandstands are starting to fill with folks who’ve paid $20 a ticket to immerse themselves in a gay culture that’s far from the stereotype of nightclubs and outrageous behavior. They cheer at everything, including when the rainbow flag joins those of the United States and Canada in a horse parade. They cheer when sponsors are announced for each rider, especially for the cowboy who’s sponsored by his husband. For this rodeo, Browning has received a few dollars from sponsor, a site offering chat rooms for gay rodeo enthusiasts.

And people laugh when the announcer pitches one of the event’s main sponsors, Gun Oil, a male lubricant: “When you want your ride to last longer than six seconds, use Gun Oil.”

Phil Ragsdale, considered the founder of gay rodeo, needed livestock — lots of it.

The year was 1976, and Ragsdale was the “emperor” of the newly minted Silver Dollar Court in Reno, an organization that sought to combat gay and lesbian stereotypes. He had this idea: Why not have some old-time Western fun while raising money for a good cause — the annual Thanksgiving Day dinner at a local senior center? But he needed cows, calves, and maybe a horse or two to stage the first-ever gay rodeo.

The task would prove as difficult as a bareback bull ride.

Trouble was, area ranchers refused to allow gays to use any of their animals. Somehow, just hours before the scheduled kickoff at the Washoe County Fairgrounds, Ragsdale scrounged up five range cows, one pig, and a Shetland pony, thanks to a sympathetic rancher. Yee-haw! The rodeo was on.

Some 150 contestants showed up for that first event on October 2, 1976, with awards given to “King of the Cowboys” and “Queen of the Cowgirls.” The roughest-riding drag queen was designated “Miss Dusty Spurs.”

Gay rodeo created a minor media buzz, inspiring Ragsdale — with his blue jeans, cowboy hat, and long sideburns — to up the ante. In 1977, he expanded the events. Still small-scale, the new National Reno Gay Rodeo donated $214 to assist muscular dystrophy research.

Set in overwhelmingly conservative Nevada, the events attracted cowboys and cowgirls from California, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona looking to take part in this new country-and-western party under the sun, complete with 24-hour casino action.

Dance troupes sponsored events for square dancing, clogging, line dancing, and two-step. Brass bands marched in the rodeo arena, carrying flags of their state affiliations. Kicking goats were dressed in tighty-whities, and rodeo clowns embraced the gay lifestyle rather than poking fun at it. But the rodeos weren’t just for country folk; they drew urban cowboys as well.

“In the 1980s, urban gay men who had never been exposed to rodeo or the country-western lifestyle embraced the sport for social and community reasons, and sexual opportunities,” says gay scholar Gregory Hinton, who has studied the role of gays and lesbians in the settlement of the American West. “It accepted everybody. You didn’t have to grow up on a ranch.”

Within five years, gay rodeo grandstand crowds grew to 10,000, and each event raised tens of thousands of dollars for muscular dystrophy. What could go wrong? Lots, as it turned out.

Christian and Mormon groups called the events unnatural and un-American. One critic wrote to the Reno Evening-Gazette that “the termites of civilization have brazenly oozed out of their closet to proclaim that they have the right to maim, molest, and embarrass society.”

What started as a safe place for gays to perform rodeo had turned ugly. Riders faced death threats. Banners unfurled outside events labeled homosexuality a curse and a crime.

But the gay rodeo would not be corraled. Eventually, comedienne Joan Rivers became a grand marshal, and organizers expanded their fundraising efforts to include a new and mysterious disease that loomed on the horizon: AIDS.

In 1981, a New York Times headline declared: “Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals. Outbreak Occurs among men in New York and California — 8 Died Inside Two Years.” The battle had begun. Gay rodeo events began donating proceeds not just to muscular dystrophy but for AIDS research.

Two years later, 121 people in the U.S. had died of this new “gay plague.” Thousands more were infected, with no treatment in sight. Groups such as “Act Up” launched nationwide protests, demanding that the U.S. government take the death toll seriously.

Gay rodeo was a sanctuary from the ugly politics that swirled around the march of the disease. But there was trouble ahead. After complaints about bookkeeping irregularities by the Washoe County Fairgrounds operators, the IRS in 1981 confiscated the books of Ragsdale’s group and shut it down for good, claiming not all of the proceeds were reported. To this day, activists believe the action was taken because of fear of AIDS by local officials.

By then, gays in other states who wanted their own rodeos had defected from Ragsdale’s event. In 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association was formed in Denver to govern gay rodeos in the United States and Canada, with competitors earning points that enabled them to compete in the International Gay Rodeo Finals each year.

Then, in 2005, came gay rodeo’s lightning bolt: Brokeback Mountain, the pivotal film by director Ang Lee, which introduced to the world the image of the gay cowboy. The film’s popularity drew journalists from around the world to chronicle this emerging culture.

That year, the documentary GidyUp! on the Rodeo Circuit told a rodeo story with gay leading characters. The film, says GidyUp creator and producer Mitch Horn, sought to quash rumors that for gay men, rodeos were a way to prove their masculinity.

“Here was an entire culture that defied the stereotype that gay people were not comfortable in their own bodies and with who they are,” Horn says. “Three years later, I was competing in gay rodeo as part of my midlife crisis. And I met a doctor from San Francisco doing the same thing just because he saw my film.”

Also in 2005, former New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff competed in a gay rodeo in Oklahoma for another documentary. He later told interviewer Steven Colbert he believed that the manliest men in America were in Oklahoma’s gay rodeo.

In LeDuff’s film, a contestant talks about the call of the rodeo. He calls bull riding “the worst crack you could ever get a hold of. It’s the most dangerous thing you can do, and you can’t stand not to do it.”

Years later, in 2014, a new documentary, Steers and Queers: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo, included footage of a man riding a bucking horse, with the words “Cowboys are Strong … Cowboys are brave … Cowboys are …”

The camera shifts to two laughing gay rodeo competitors, one dressed in drag.

“There’s not a lot of difference between straight rodeo and gay rodeo,” one rider says as a drag-queen rodeo clown mounts a bucking steer. “Well, maybe they’re a little different.”

In the film, another gay cowboy is asked what it would take for him to quit the sport. He exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke, flatly responding, “a casket.” The message: Gay rodeo was here to stay.

These days, the IGRA has 26 affiliates and more than 5,000 members, both gay and straight. Yet Phil Ragsdale isn’t around to help celebrate gay rodeo’s continued success.

The “Father of Gay Rodeo” died of AIDS on June 1, 1992.

Browning leans against a corral, one leg tucked up under the bars cowboy-style, assessing his difficult day. He and Helander had a low score in the goat-dressing event. In the chute-dogging event, where a competitor wrestles a 500-pound steer to the ground by its neck, he misses nearly being gored.

He wasn’t so lucky in 1998 when he, Helander, and a cowgirl competed in the Wild Drag Event in Albuquerque. That day, Browning was dressed in drag, riding atop the bull when the animal’s hoof ripped into his face. He knew the bull had done damage.

“My mouth was suddenly two inches bigger,” he recalls. “The corner of my mouth had opened up down to my chin.”

He told folks to bandage it up so he could compete in the later flag-racing event. But soon Helander, a nurse, realized that his friend was hurt bad. Minutes later, the pair sat inside the emergency room of a local hospital. Browning had taken off his wig and dress but still wore the bright-red minstrel lipstick for the drag-queen ride.

Helander tried to rub off the lipstick but finally gave up. “Forget it,” he told Browning. “You’re ugly.”

The gash required seven stitches, helping to turn Browning’s face into a scarred road map of the rodeo life.

So if gays have won all sorts of social equality, why, then, is there a need for a gay rodeo?

That’s a question posed by Harvard-educated historian Rebecca Scofield in her Ph.D. dissertation on marginalized rodeo communities. Her research shows that gay men and women weren’t the first rodeo rebels.

The early 20th century saw female bronc riders, followed by African American competitors and prison rodeos — each challenging the notion that white, male, straight America was the protagonist of this Western narrative, defining the spirit of the sport.

Cowboys, as the myth went, were white, straight, and hyper-masculine. To qualify as the real deal, you had to follow in the lineage of John Wayne: strong, silent, manly.

Then in the 1970s, the gay community pitched another narrative. Rodeo was for everyone, and couldn’t be confined to a singular political view or sexual orientation. “These communities were renegotiating old beliefs,” says Scofield, now an assistant professor of history at the University of Idaho. “These gay men and women were making an announcement: ‘We grew up on ranches, too. We’re all authentic Westerners.’”

Four decades after its inception, gay rodeo continues to exist as a “separate but equal” arena, a distinction embraced by many older gays and lesbians. But not so much the younger gays, Scofield says. “Younger people say these niche spaces just aren’t for them anymore,” she says. “We’ve seen the death of gay ghettos, gay bars, and gay book clubs as part of the movement within the LGBT community to integrate with the outside culture at large.”

That leaves older riders like Chuck Browning still struggling to be accepted but proud to have created their own space. Even if the conservative West rises above its homophobia, many older gay cowboys would prefer to stick with their version of rodeo. “After all,” Scofield says, “it’s their community.”

The Banning rodeo was not Browning’s finest.

The second day went much like the first. Tossed ropes missed their marks. The tighty-whities stuck on the kicking goat’s legs. The angry steer in the chute-dogging event was having none of Browning’s ministrations. “That steer trashed my ass,” he says.

There was one positive spin: The younger cowboys did not clean house. Old man Helander pushed a few of them aside, winning buckles in both calf roping and chute dogging.

Browning will be back, though, for an upcoming event in Calgary, Alberta. He’ll be ready, his lasso swinging through the air, making that whizzing noise before striking its mark.

He remains a fixture in the Phoenix gay community, where he’s known for his exploits as a veteran rodeo rider. He’s still single but long ago abandoned the bar scene. And as the years pass, he’s considered giving up the whole rodeo circuit as well. The thought, he admits, “is tickling the back of my head.”

But for now, he’s donning the spurs. Because you can’t keep an old, gay cowboy down.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.