Arts & Entertainment
5 min

A city slicker explores Calgary’s gay rodeo

Cowboys, cowboys, cowboys!

WILD DRAG: 'People tend to focus on the drag queens that you see running around,' says Greg Holsworth. 'We're gay. That's true. But we're a rodeo...we have bull riding, we have all of that.' Credit: Matt Mills photo

I’m a city boy from Toronto and Vancouver. I’ve seen cowboys and rodeos on TV and I’ve admired Tom of Findland’s cowboy-themed work, but when you’re surrounded by cowboys in the flesh for the first time and you embrace the rodeo and western vibe for a weekend, you gain a whole new appreciation for just how incredibly sexy, alluring and just plain personable cowboys are.

You also come to realize how much fun Calgary’s Gay Rodeo is.

“We get people coming out every year from the city and they think it’s going to be just a bunch of hicks,” says Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA) trustee, Ashley Anderson. “They think they’ll be watching stuff that’s really boring and it’ll be all about old twangy country music and huge belt buckles, and if you don’t conform to that, you’re going to feel really out of place. We get people who say that every year, and every year they come back and they bring their friends.”

I did feel a bit out of place to be honest. There were times I thought I was the only guy around without a cowboy hat. I wore painters from Old Navy, and a tank-top and running shoes. I had city slicker written all over me.

But all I had to do was walk around the campground for 10 minutes at Symon’s Valley Ranch just north of Calgary on the Rodeo’s opening night, Jul 1, and I made friends enough to last a lifetime not to mention just the four days of the rodeo.

“I had a misconception the first time I went to Black and Blue [Montreal’s big gay circuit party],” says Anderson. “I thought ‘my god, it’s going to be all these gorgeous people, rich, and great and stunning. They’re all going to be half-naked and perfect. They’re all going to be totally snobby. That was the image that I had.

“I went and they were so nice. And yeah, there are gorgeous people there-well, there are gorgeous people here too. Once you get over that, they’re just people, and they’re nice. You have a way better time. That’s opened my eyes, so I’m conscious of when people look at the rodeo and say, ‘well I don’t know, I don’t have a hat and I don’t know how to dance.’ There’s always someone who will show you.”

Anderson was kind enough to take the time to show this city slicker how to two-step at the Barnburner dance later that night.

There’s something much more intimate, erotic I guess, but intimate-deeper-more-human about the two-step than the garden-variety oompa-loompa dance that I’m familiar with in the gay club scene.

When cowboys dance, they actually grip onto each other face to face. If you grabbed onto some man at a circuit party and asked him to waltz, he’d look at you like you had nine heads. It was delightful, refreshing and pretty romantic.

“Everyone always says, ‘you’re in rodeo? What? That doesn’t fit the image I see of you.’ “I don’t walk around in Montreal dressed for the rodeo,” says Anderson, who studies in Montreal. “One of the guys who’s on my rugby team was like, ‘oh, well you’re gay and you play rugby and you’re into rodeo. But you’re just a guy. You’re just not as exciting as I thought you’d be.’

“I took it as a compliment,” says Anderson.

Cowboys are very sexy. It’s really a kind of drag analogous to leather-wear or corporate drag. Cowboy drag evokes a kind of hyper-masculine sexuality. One of the sexiest things about it to a newbie like me is that it seems so effortless. I didn’t imagine cowboys spending time in front of the mirror before they go out so make sure they look as good as they possibly can. They’re just naturally hot.

“Nobody looks bad in it,” says Anderson.

“It’s funny,” he says,” because you see all the guys and it is a very stereotypically masculine kind of thing, right? But then you start to know about the clothes and the gear and all that stuff. You start to be able to spot the really expensive western wear, but you have to know the brands,” he continues. “The buckles are a big deal. They take the place of hugely brand-name jeans. It’s different things that you start to notice; different status symbols.”

“There’s something about a pair of Wranglers that just make a man look very, very good,” says Greg Holsworth.

Holsworth is the director of public relations for the Canadian Rockies International Rodeo (CRIR).

We’re sitting at ringside under the blazing sun, and we’ve just watched Holsworth’s husband, TJ, compete in something called the Wild Drag Race. TJ and his two teammates raced against the clock, and another team of three, to convince a 500-pound steer-a big ornery cow with horns-to allow a guy in drag to ride it a few metres across a line in the dirt.

Steers don’t much like being ridden, so the wrestling match between steer and men-in-drag has almost limitless comedic value. It is a lot of fun for everyone; everyone but the steer, I suppose.

Mainstream rodeos, naturally, don’t have drag events. Wild Drag is a silly, fun event in the gay rodeo that seems designed, aside from the sheer entertainment value, to give people who come to the rodeo with no rodeo or livestock experience a way to participate in the events.

But all the events associated with traditional rodeo are here, too.

“You know what? People sometimes forget that we’re first and foremost a rodeo,” says Holsworth. “I hate to say ‘like any other rodeo you’d see,’ but we have all the same events that happen at any other rodeo, except goat dressing, steer decorating, and wild drag. Those are unique to the gay rodeo circuit.

“People tend to focus on the drag queens that you see running around,” he continues. “We’re gay. That’s true. But we’re a rodeo. We have calf roping. We have team events on horseback. We have bareback-bronc riding. We have bull riding, we have all that.”

The gay rodeo is an integral part of Calgary’s gay community. They are not for profit. They take no government funding. They have no paid staff but over 300 volunteers, and they return over $10,000 a year to community organizations in Calgary.

This was the 12th year for the rodeo. When they started, they didn’t even have real livestock. The Calgary event has grown to be the biggest gay rodeo in North America-there are 26-and it’s the only rodeo that has rodeo events, dances and camping all in one location.

“We’re one of the biggest gay associations in the city of Calgary and in the province of Alberta,” says Holsworth. “This event, the Canadian Rockies International Rodeo, is the second biggest GBLT event in Western Canada after Pride Vancouver.

“We come from a cowboy culture,” he continues, “so it’s a natural fit in our minds in a province where there’s a huge cowboy background. We like to think that we provide and encourage the western lifestyle and the western culture within the gay context. The two are not an oxymoron. In our minds it’s a natural fit.”

“I got involved in this six years ago,” reminisces Holsworth. “Friends of mine were already involved and they said, ‘why don’t you come out and volunteer?’ Before I knew it, I was a board member. I was competing and I was doing all these crazy things I thought I’d never do. I’m from a small town. I never thought I’d compete in a rodeo and here I am doing it.

“The people who volunteer, who have the time and ability to make this happen, are usually the ones who are very passionate about it and will compete and want to organize and do this. It’s an amazing pool of volunteers.”

The next gay rodeo in Calgary is scheduled for Jun 30-Jul 2, 2006. I had a great experience and I think I’m hooked. I’ll be there.

If you go, plan to camp and make a weekend of it. Leave your inhibitions and preconceptions at home and, hopefully, you’ll have at least as much fun as I did.