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The Brokeback Cowboys of Ohio's Gay Rodeo

Screwing with the straight-laced stereotype of Ohio.

by Skyler Reid
23 September 2014, 5:00am

All photos by Skyler Reid. Jody Harvine (left) of Terrell, Texas and Frank Mazzo of Azle, Texas wait outside the arena entrance for their event to begin.

My stereotype of Ohio is of straight-laced Midwesterners with an affinity for football and God, but I just watched grown men and women put tighty-whitey underwear on a goat. Competitively. This is totally screwing with my preconceptions. Welcome to the gay rodeo.  

In early August the Buckeye State hosted its first gay rodeo in Tallmadge, which is just outside Akron, which is just 40 miles south of Cleveland. The International Gay Rodeo Finals will be held in Fort Worth, Texas—a state that's been gay rodeoing since 1984—this coming October. The Ohio event may sound like a small feat, but the crowd of hundreds of mostly Wrangler-clad visitors that strode through the dust-filled arena represented a big win for gay rodeo, a community that's recently found itself in an unexpected flux.

 Participants attempt to put underwear on a goat during the "goat dressing" competition, one of the gay rodeo's "camp" events. 

The first gay rodeo was held back in 1976, a fundraiser in Reno, Nevada for muscular dystrophy sufferers. Idiosyncratic though it may be, the “queens and cowboys” mix worked out and the gay rodeo circuit grew rapidly in its early years.

Now, almost 40 years later, gay rodeo is facing a new challenge: maintaining its ranks. In 2013 the number of local chapters in the International Gay Rodeo Association—the be all and end all of the gay rodeo—that had closed down in the International Gay Rodeo Association overtook the number of chapters that were still active, a first in the organization's history. Three more chapters folded this year. There are now 23 local associations in the US and Canada, comprised of 3,350 members, but the tide isn't in their favor. Some participants suspect that it's a result of the increased acceptance of LGBT people: the rodeo is no longer a necessary sanctuary for the rural gay community. Others blame it on the economy and the high cost of living the classic, rural lifestyle: buying and maintaining land, equipment, livestock, and not to mention trucking a 1,000-pound animal hundreds of miles across the country to participate in multiple-day rodeo events, often with little to no financial return. Either way, the community is struggling.

Participants competing in the "wild drag race," one of the gay rodeo's "camp" events, try to drag a bucking steer across the arena while their teammate, in drag, tries to remain on top.

“Things have changed. Rodeo has changed,” John Beck told me. He’s a genial, tough-as-nails 65-year-old who's easily spotted by the long red feather sticking out of his white cowboy hat. Beck, a lifelong cowboy, is ostensibly the living godfather of the gay rodeo. “And for me, I'm old school in my training and old school in horses and I'm old school in my thoughts.” Admittedly, “old school” might not be how most people would describe an openly gay Nebraskan who dreamed up the “wild drag race,” an event where a team of three try to get a drag queen on the back a bucking steer.

It's these differences that distinguish the gay rodeo from mainstream rodeo. Aside from the standard rodeo fare—roping events, speed events, and rough stock events, like bull riding and other really painful shit—there are also a number of “camp” events: the above-mentioned tight-whitey on a goat, formally called “goat dressing”; steer decorating, which involves tying a ribbon to a steer's tail; and the wild drag race. The frequency of Janet Jackson tracks sneaking in over the PA, between the needling guitar of Blake Shelton and crooning of Tim McGraw, might also be unique to the gay rodeo circuit. And having a “for men” personal lubricant company as one of the main sponsors.

A participant competes in the barrel racing competition on the first day of the rodeo.

The other difference—the “meaningful” difference—is that the gay rodeo is explicitly all-inclusive. There are de facto gender divides on the rodeo circuit, in part due to cultural norms, in part due to explicit rules, whereas gay rodeo pushes for full participation in all events. It's a line that the organizers trumpet, an opportunity for everyone to compete equally and openly, a privilege that’s sadly uncommon. Barrel racing, a speed-based event, is explicitly a part of the Women's Professional Rodeo Association and isn't offered at Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association events, the largest rodeo organization in the world. Rough stock events like bull and bronco riding require an existing competition record in order to compete on the professional circuit. For example, a rider has to have already won $1,000 (£600) at the event, but aren't actually offered on the women's circuit. Gay rodeo keeps it simple: just sign up. The more, the merrier.

A participant catches a brief nap near a back entrance to the rodeo arena. 

“We've seen people we haven't seen in nine, ten years,” said Andy Pittman, a soft-spoken cowboy with a well-groomed walrus mustache. Pittman stood outside the Tallmadge arena as a light sprinkle started, waiting for his chance to run the barrel racing course. He and his partner, Louis Varnado, had been out of the rodeo since 2009, when costs, like for many other participants, started piling up. They began focusing more on their specific sports—in Pittman's case, speed events on horseback like barrel racing and pole bending. But this event in Ohio was worth returning for. “We're trying to bring back gay rodeo to the Washington, D.C. area,” said Pittman. “This was perfect.”

Andy Horner (front) and her partner Jennifer Nuss, both from Marion, Ohio, prepare Horner's horse for the barrel racing competition.

The Ohio event was the first rodeo held in conjunction with the perennial Gay Games, an international LGBT athletics and culture festival which hosts competitions in 35 sports. This year's events, held in Cleveland and Akron, drew in 30,000 visitors and added about $40 million to the local Ohio economy in the space of one week. By comparison, a good rodeo on the gay rodeo circuit might raise $10,000 (£6,000) for charity. “We want people to understand gay rodeo, see gay rodeo, get involved with gay rodeo” said Judy Munson, the director of the Ohio rodeo. “We just kind of want the world to know what we're about.”

Herbert Seamons, better known on the gay rodeo circuit as Red Hodeo, waits at the back of the arena.

Ohio was originally part of the Tri-State Gay Rodeo Association chapter of IGRA, founded in 1990, but it folded after only a few years. Other chapters that have covered the territory in the past have also failed and, in 25 years, Ohio has never hosted a gay rodeo “So for a year it's like, Gay Games is coming to Ohio,” said Herbert Seamons, a tall, gregarious chatterbox who goes by Red Hodeo in his rodeo life. He’s not regularly open about his sexuality, so I was surprised when he unwaveringly gave me permission to use his real name in this article. A resident of Michigan and a visible lynchpin for the community, Seamons has been shamelessly pushing for this rodeo for the past year. “This is our first chance to rodeo in Ohio. We gotta do this,” he said. “This is our big chance.”

Holding a gay rodeo in a new state can be a challenge—finding a venue, live stock suppliers and volunteers—but it also means a new audience and a chance to recruit new participants. “I get goosebumps just thinking that it's here,” said Jen Nuss, 32, one of the younger participants in the events. Nuss, who had never before run in a rodeo, lives with her partner, Andy Horner, and the two are competing in the barrel racing event, running horses in a clover-leaf pattern around barrels on the arena floor adorned with Budweiser logos—the oh-so-American lager is the rodeo's title sponsor. Together, the two raise horses and participate in their local National Barrel Horse Association chapter here in Ohio. Horner participated in NBHA Youth World Championships and had the fastest time of the female barrel racing participants on the gay rodeo's first day.

By one estimation, the median age of IGRA members is 47. It's essential for IGRA to bring in members like Nussman and Horner: young people who still live the rural lifestyle of classic Americana dreams, albeit with a certain Brokeback Mountain edge.

Andy Pittman (left) and his husband Louis Varnado wait outside the rodeo arena ahead of the barrel racing competition. 

“Our culture of people, the gay people, have fought for years and years and years to just let society know who we are, what we are and what we're capable of doing,” said Beck. He's seen the changes firsthand, and relates back tales of the death threats and attacks he endured as a gay man in rural Nebraska in the late 70s: his barn “mysteriously” catching fire, his dog being killed, finding the bloody message “Move or die. You're next,” on the windshield of his brand new Chevy Chavelle. He told me that he immediately called the sheriff after the death threat. When the police arrived they found a bomb underneath his car.

Despite his past trials, Beck is clearly still hopeful. Young people these days, he told me, are growing up in a different world. It's not perfect, but it's better.

The future of the gay rodeo, he figured, is still up in the air. “We've survived 33 years. We're not going to die out tomorrow. And you know, we have to keep out our Western style alive.”

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