If Dionysus grew up on the Canadian prairies, bacchanals would have more of a beer focus and a definitive bovine air. Far from Olympus, the 15th annual Canadian Rockies International Gay Rodeo was held June 27-29, 2008 at the Symons Valley Ranch, just a horsehair north of Calgary.
Always held the on the weekend before the legendary Calgary Stampede Parade, the gay rodeo has become iconic in its own right, attracting thousands to the weekend’s rodeo events, dinners, dances and pancake breakfasts.
The weekend is completely volunteer-operated and run by the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association: a group of hard-core organizers and their 200 allies who come together to produce the weekend.
Lorrie Murphy, the 2008 Rodeo director, pauses in her busy afternoon to beam about the weather. “This year has been excellent,” she says, “great weather, great competitors and a great audience.”
“The rodeo really draws the community together. We bring about 4,000 people together to watch, spend time with each other and win ribbons. There is so much generosity here — a lot of camaraderie and friendship,” she enthuses.
The crowd is diverse, intergenerational as well as international. European Andreas Jaenisch says, “I was here last year by myself and liked it so much that I asked six friends to come with me this year. There is nothing like this in Germany, it is so different from a gay pride event — it’s another kind of gay living.”
Indeed, the gay rodeo has the slightly vertiginous quality of being an actual sanctioned rodeo with the usual stable of events such as bull riding, calf roping and pole flagging — with prize money and belt buckles to boot. The rodeo is an unusual confluence of urban and rural queer cowboys and cowgirls. There are the faux urban cowboys alongside, real cattle ranchers from Southern Alberta, and many variations in between — often scantily clad.
“I think the rodeo is part of our Western heritage,” says Calgarian Tonya Callaghan. “And there are some interesting parts of the Rodeo that you won’t find at the Stampede — like all of the homos! I have brought two friends here from Montreal who needed to see some western hospitality.”
Unique parts of a gay rodeo are the “camp” events such as goat dressing, steer decorating and the wild drag race — a dangerous event that involves a team of three getting a drag queen to mount an uncooperative steer.
Ross McWhirter has been camping at the rodeo for five year and says barrel racing is his favourite event. He adds, “It’s great to meet up with everyone — some of whom you might only see once a year.”
McWhirter is camping this year in the Ranch’s main camping area. “The good spots are rare and hard to come by,” he says. “For years we have been in the overflow grounds, but this year we got one of the six spots that came free in a lottery, and we can have them forever as long as we keep coming out.”
An after dinner stroll through the many boulevards of RVs and tents, one notices groups of all sizes, talking, drinking and being merry. Campers mingle amongst the gingham covered picnic tables, wandering dogs, and pride streamers. There are prizes for the best decorated campsites as well. Dale Murray and Al Bessing have picked up a half-dozen first-prize ribbons to date. Their construction this year — a pink flamingo fountain extravaganza — looks sure to win the prize again.
As the evening approaches at the arena, a handful of horse handlers are handsomely exercising their charges, warming them up for the next day’s rodeo events.
In the setting sun the bacchanalian aspects of the weekend are beginning to crest. The beer is flowing and the day-trippers from Calgary are descending on the ranch to be part of one of the largest dances of the year. In a surreal moment the group of seven — Germans — march in wearing matching baby blue jerseys with pink lettering: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. Cowboys cheer. Dionysus smiles.