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

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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.

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