Vancouver
3 min

Ever try bronc riding?

Alberta gay rodeo offers a wild western time

Credit: Shelagh Anderson

What is the biggest queer event on the Canadian Prairies? If you thought it was the invite-only sale at Holt Renfrew, guess again. Think chaps, horses and big hats-yup, it’s the gay rodeo.



“Actually, our rodeo is the second largest gay event in Western Canada, second only to Vancouver Pride,” says Greg Holsworth, board member for the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association, or ARGRA for short.



Held annually the weekend before the iconic Calgary Stampede, ARGRA is busily preparing its 11th Canadian international gay rodeo. Holsworth says the event has grown many times larger since its inception. “Last year we had 120 competitors and 1700 people out on Saturday to watch them, 1200 on Sunday,” he explains. Moreover the rodeo has had an international draw with competitors and participants from as far away as South Africa and New Zealand.



That said, ARGRA primarily markets to Western Canadians, and has increasingly moved past being a Cowtown-only event. “We get good representation from Edmonton, and last year PumpJack in Vancouver organized a bus of contestants and participants, and this year I’ve been told they are bringing two!” Holsworth laughs.



This gay rodeo has all the staple events that make a rodeo complete: 13 in all, such as calf roping, bareback bronc riding, and barrel racing. However a gay rodeo adds a few “special” events. For ARGRA that includes, goat dressing, steer decorating and the popular “wild drag race.”



A wild drag race consists of a team of cowboy, cowgirl, and a third person in drag. The triumvirate then have to move an antagonistic steer from a bucking chute, direct the animal across a 70-foot line, and finally get their drag person mounted on top.



Apart from the auxiliary events, what makes a gay rodeo different from its straight counterpart? “Let’s face it, rodeos are good times.



“We are just as country and butch as other rodeos; it’s just that we are gay,” Holsworth suggests. “Maybe the biggest difference is the sense of small ‘f’ family. Everyone really comes together at a gay rodeo. And it’s exciting-getting on a steer in a dress is dangerous sport. I’ve done it.”



Flipping through photos of past rodeos, one sees pictures of robust, apple-cheeked dudes of all genders smiling lazily, comfortable in their western skins. As a native Calgarian, I have always been more than a little suspicious of cowboy drag, yet these people look like they have twigged onto the secret of contentment.



Asking around, I quickly found an urban gay man who has been going to the rodeo for five years running. Jamie Martyn, florist and bonhomme in downtown Calgary, says, “the rodeo is so much darn fun” he would not consider missing it.



Moreover, there is a general consensus that ARGRA has a fairly noble soul. Completely managed and run by a 300-plus active volunteer base, the organization donates 10 percent of its after-rodeo cash assets every year. “We really value the community that supports us and we have made it a priority to give back,” Holsworth says. $15,000 was recently distributed to Calgary AIDS and breast cancer non-profits, as well as an innovative web project called youthsafe.net.



The website, which networks gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth to safe community resources, is a new start-up organization in Calgary. Paul Sereda, youthsafe.net committee member says, “ARGRA’s generous donation made a huge difference for us in our ability to launch the site in the manner it deserved.”



Although connected to its local community, ARGRA also exists as part of a larger gay-rodeo circuit, the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). “We put the ‘I’ in IGRA,” says Holsworth, “as the other 21 gay rodeos are all in the States.” The Canadian gay rodeo also differs from its US counterparts in that it takes place in only one venue, Symon’s Valley Ranch, as opposed to a posse of host hotels and restaurants. So popular is ARGRA’s formula that it will play host to the annual IGRA convention this October, roping in all of those US gay rodeo organizers.



ARGRA’s seasoned facility is also the source of its greatest anxiety. Symon’s Valley Ranch exists just on the north edge of a rapidly expanding city. “The fear is that eventually the City of Calgary will absorb Symon’s Valley, leaving us to look for a new home,” Holsworth says. The board has started researching alternative sites this year; still, they hope that their future move is in a distant future.



In the immediate future, ARGRA’s 11th Annual Canadian Rockies International Rodeo takes place Jul 2-4, and features country singer Aaron Pritchett and drag queen Nuclia Waste headlining the Friday night cabaret.



CANADIAN ROCKIES INTERNATIONAL RODEO.

Jul 2-4.

Registration: www.argra.org.

403-541-8140.