At this point in our glorious queer history, it’s safe to say that all the gay cowboy jokes have been told. Heck, the Brokeback Mountain parodies alone are enough to silence any giggling at the mingling of homosexuality and what has historically been portrayed as the epitome of the ultimate he-man.
So let’s get serious for a moment. Because the dudes and dudettes that ride steers, rope calves and dodge bulls at the annual Canadian Rockies International Rodeo and Music Festival (CRIR) are about as no-nonsense as it gets in this rough-and-tumble sport.
Formed back in 1991, the CRIR has grown from a tiny gathering of queer rodeo enthusiasts to a large-scale international event that features top-tier music acts and some serious competition from gays and straights alike.
“The first few years it was strictly LGBT,” says Rob Somers, trustee and past president of the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA), which runs the event. “There was a gay rodeo in the States that had been running since the mid-80s, and people had been traveling down there. But then it was decided that the time was ripe up here to put something together.”
It was not an easy undertaking. These were pre-equal marriage days, in a province not generally known for its inclusiveness regarding the LGBT community.
“There was a lot of resistance in the early days,” admits Jason Baker, the group’s current president. “We had to find a stock contractor, who supplies the bulls, the steers and all the actual animals, but we were turned away for just being gay.”
Fortune eventually smiled and ARGRA found a man who was willing to provide the stock without any fuss. “He’s just an amazing guy,” Baker enthuses. “When he first started I think he didn’t tell too many people he was doing the gay rodeo, but he’s become part of the family. He really is part of that western lifestyle, where you help out your neighbour if they need something.”
Now with a membership base of over 400 enthusiasts, ARGRA has participants traveling from all over the world to attend and compete. And unlike most rodeos, there are no gender limits on the events.
“It’s all equal opportunity,” Baker says. “In everything we do, men and women are equal and welcome to compete.”
That’s not to say there isn’t a little swish in this rodeo’s swagger. Along with the expected roping, riding, flag racing and pole bending, ARGRA also features competitions like the wild drag race and, Baker’s favourite, goat dressing.
“It’s hilarious,” he says. “You run out, put underwear on a goat, and then run back. I do that one. That one’s definitely my speed.”
Somers gets a little more down and dirty, competing in chute dogging and calf roping. “I was really bad at it at first,” he confesses. “But everybody is so willing to help each other out. It was an incredible adrenalin rush, and I really enjoyed the camaraderie and the skill it took.”
Given the location and the sport, it’s a little surprising to hear that ARGRA has been mercifully free of anti-gay protests or targeted homophobia. The only protest they’ve experienced thus far has been a half-hearted gathering of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals supporters.
“They brought their dogs, but they forgot water for them,” Baker recalls. “We took some out for the dogs, and invited the protesters to look around. We have nothing to hide here.”
It’s true that rodeos in general have garnered some bad press in regards to animal treatment. But there are strict animal welfare policies in place to ensure that the human competitors aren’t the only ones having a rollicking time. ARGRA embraces these policies and takes things even further.
“Calf roping always bothered me,” Baker says. “I didn’t like seeing them being jerked and tied up. We don’t do that.”
Somers points out that this particular event is now nothing like our grandparents’ rodeo. “We’ve changed a number of our events to be even more animal-friendly,” he says. “We just rope the calves and they keep going. We don’t tie them up, and they’re not even aware they’ve been roped.”
ARGRA may have started out as a quiet, down-low sort of event, but it’s now recognized as a serious stop on the rodeo circuit.
“When it first started, you had to sign a waiver that you wouldn’t take pictures,” Baker says. “But we’re a gay association hosting a rodeo. The rodeo itself isn’t gay. You don’t have to be gay. Absolutely everyone is welcome.”