Photo by Josh Sandulak.
Canada's Calgary Stampede has never really been my bag. I never manage to get up early enough for free pancake breakfasts, I’m not interested in the midway—I’m afraid of most rides—and I don’t really like crowds. Generally, I tend to mentally glaze over and passively enjoy the country music wafting out of every establishment in the downtown core, marveling at the sheer spectacle of an entire metropolis sporting hay bails outside of skyscrapers.
After the recent flood in Calgary, it’s been heartwarming to see the way citizens have banded together to save the Stampede; the grounds were essentially under water less than a month ago but organizers cleaned up in just a few weeks to hold Calgary’s largest cultural event. I wondered if maybe this was the year I’d finally start to give a shit. I got a job serving at a western themed bar to make some extra cash for ten days, serving tequila to corporate parties while country bands played in the background.
I did end up getting into the spirit of Stampede, but it wasn’t from hearing over 200 covers of "Folsom Prison Blues." It was because I went to the gay rodeo and realized how goddamn sexy cowboys are. Fuck.
About 40 minutes east of Calgary in Strathmore, the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association holds their annual rodeo and music festival during the last week of June. It’s very legit. Rural men and women from all over the Midwest come to compete in traditional rodeo events, like steer wrestling and barrel racing. Chatting with participants and attendees, I got my first real exposure to the rugged masculinity of the true rural Alberta cowboy. And after a day of chatting with some sexually assertive gay men, the sex appeal of the cowboy became about as obvious as getting hit in the head with a horseshoe.
If you’re not already aware, cowboys undeniably exemplify a conventional sexual stereotype just waiting to be objectified by men and women. Big and broad shouldered, sometimes a little on the heftier side, most rodeo participants sport hip hugging jeans, collared shirts, and dusty leather chaps. Watching the rodeo events, it’s impressive to observe the grace and speed with which cowboys can move on horseback.
Photo by Josh Sandulak.
I think there are many reasons why the cowboy has resonated for so long as a sex symbol. Part of it likely harkens back to the old school attraction of the “capable man”. Let’s face it, most of us can barely set up our internet, let alone ride a bronco. I can see the appeal to Generation Y, especially since we more and more attach value to the authentic, the analogue, and the organic, trying to grasp some sense of tangible quality in our often overwhelmingly synthetic, cerebral, and highly metropolitan lifestyles. It’s the same reason why people spend $10 on mason jars in boutique “general stores.” We all kind of want to be a cowboy, the physical manifestation of this quest for the authentic, the salt of the earth, which happens to be wrapped up in a handsome, tanned, tall drink of water.
There’s a certain romanticism to the cowboy as well. The western film’s common myth proclaims that the protagonist will always do the right thing, often with great sacrifice. If you’ve ever seen High Noon, Shane, or Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, you know that the cowboy can be both a reckless and cavalier loner, and a brave and stoic hero.
Gary Cooper: unstoppably dreamy.
Perhaps it’s this long cultivated ethos that explains why people enjoy dressing the part—and why I found myself totally loving it. From July 5th to 14th, every guy in Calgary was walking around in wranglers and a crisp white button-up looking like Jason Stackhouse. Suddenly, I was attracted to accountants and engineers who would normally be wearing suits with bad, pointy loafers. Previously, their aesthetic banality would have set off a red flag in my mind; this person is likely boring, votes Conservative, or prefers Metallica records to The Black Album. But for one beautiful week, I tricked my brain into thinking I was surrounded by a bunch of Gary Coopers.
Jesus motherfucking cowboy-loving Christ, there is just something so attractive about the cowboy archetype. It only took a bunch of gay men to clue me into it. I spent so many years avoiding the spectacle side of the Stampede that I disregarded the whole men rolling around in the dirt and riding beautiful horses aspect.
Clearly, I’ve been blowing it.
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