When I first caught wind of the Canadian Rockies International Rodeo, Calgary’s queer alternative to the stampede, the combination of gay and rodeo seemed to me both oxymoronic and subversive. I naively expected the event, presented by the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association, to be overwhelmed by a barn full of fist-pumping prairie queers preaching the politics of visibility and inclusion. Visions of a corral of renegade cowboys, appropriating the macho protocol of the Wild West, were too seductive for me to turn down.
So I happily accepted the opportunity to get elbow deep in manure and discover the true nature of the event.
It wasn’t anything like I expected.
Within minutes of checking into my hotel in Calgary at the end of June this year I was greeted by an apparition in the elevator. He was wearing black cowboy boots into which were tucked slim fitting light blue Lee jeans, cinched by a fat leather belt with a two-pound buckle and a neatly pressed blue plaid shirt. He also wore a fine black cowboy hat with a rainbow pinned into it. I couldn’t resist.
“S’cuse me mister,” I stammered. “But are you here for the rodeo?”
“Mmm hmm,” he replied.
And so I met Dan Charest, who competes in both gay and straight rodeos. He was visiting Calgary from Houston for the third year with his partner Dave. I hitched a ride with them from the hotel to the rodeo grounds and was able to pick their brains a bit about what the rodeo was all about and what the appeal is for competitors.
“The appeal is just as serious,” said Charest, “but more fun.”
This became clear as we arrived. There were hundreds of people on the grounds of the rodeo as we pulled up in a rented Malibu. I saw cowboys and cowgirls of all backgrounds and fashions. There were as many women as there were men and over the three days I would meet people aged seven through 70. Organizers say the event, now in its 15th year, attracts about 4,000 fans.
The first gay rodeo occurred in Reno, Nevada back in 1975 as a fundraiser for the local muscular dystrophy association. Although there were some initial hiccups when trying to secure the animals, the annual event was born and other chapters opened up across the west. Many of the gay rodeos still raise money for local causes and Charest remembers that in Colorado the focus at the onset was primarily to promote HIV/AIDS awareness.
But for most of the competitors in Calgary, the rodeo is just about having fun in an inclusive environment that’s open to all levels of competing.
“If you go to one of the pro rodeos and ask to compete they’ll look at you and say, ‘Are you kidding?'” said first-year rodeo contestant Marian. “But with this rodeo my family’s the only one who says that.” Her attitude was pretty consistent among all of the competitors.
Jana, an 18-year-old cowgirl, was competing in barrel racing, pole bending and flag racing. Her father had been competing in the event for 12 years and she was thrilled to be participating for the first time. She said that the rodeo was “important to the queer cowboys because they see how much people support them. [Their queerness] doesn’t matter anymore ’cause they’re just like everyone else.”
“The straight rodeos are still homophobic,” said Charest. “Many participants are closeted and many guys are looked down upon. But they’re just as good, as we saw today.”
And he was right. All of the wranglers were phenomena in their own right. Even I went home with a ribbon after being coerced into slapping a pair of shit-stained briefs back on a braying goat during the “community goat-dressing” event. It was exhilarating. I think I’ll be there next year to do it again.