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What happened to Alberta’s gay rodeo?

Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association silent since cancelling annual event

A cowboy shows his skill at a 2006 gay rodeo, in conjunction with the International Gay Rodeo Association. Credit: CowboyFrank.net/International Gay Rodeo Association

Canada’s only gay rodeo may have bucked its last bronco.

The event, organized by the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA) and held in Strathmore, Alberta, was scheduled for June 30 to July 3, 2016. But on May 19, ARGRA replaced its website’s landing page with an announcement the event has been cancelled.

“We have made the extremely difficult decision not to proceed with the 2016 festival,” the messages states. “This decision was not made lightly and we sincerely apologize to all the people this decision affects: the fans, artists, competitors, industry partners, vendors, corporate partners, suppliers and all of our supporters within the community.”

No further details accompany the message. Organizers have yet to publicly explain why they decided to cancel the rodeo, nor have they released information related to ticket refunds.

Daily Xtra reached out to ARGRA’s president and executive members for comment but did not receive a response by posting time.

ARGRA, a Calgary-based non-profit, was founded in 1991 and held its first sanctioned Canadian Rockies International Rodeo in 1994. The organization describes itself on its website as “100 percent volunteer driven,” with a membership base of over 400 people.

The rodeo featured standard competitions like bull riding, barrel racing and calf roping, but also offered campier events, such as goat dressing and steer decorating. Unlike mainstream rodeos, all events featured male and female categories. In recent years, ARGRA also incorporated a music festival into its program, and has attracted some big names. Last year the Village People, George Canyon and LeAnn Rimes were headliners at the festival.

(A quiet moment in the stands at a 2010 gay rodeo./ CowboyFrank.net/International Gay Rodeo Association)

In an email statement, Alberta energy company ENMAX Corporation, one of the rodeo’s main sponsors, says last year was its first time sponsoring ARGRA’s rodeo and the company found “great value for [its] sponsorship dollars due to high engagement both with rodeo participants and the public.”

An ENMAX representative says the company was disappointed to hear of the rodeo’s cancellation, and would consider future sponsorship opportunities if the event is revived.

The rodeo was presented in partnership with Travel Alberta, which supports Alberta tourism initiatives through its marketing investment program.

In an email to Daily Xtra, Jennifer Anderson, communication director for Travel Alberta, says her organization was never notified by ARGRA that this year’s event had been cancelled.

“We have reached out to the association for further information but have not received any detail as of yet,” Anderson says.

ARGRA is a member of the US-based International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), which consists of 28 regional gay rodeo associations from across North America.

IGRA president Bruce Gros says he was caught off guard by the news from ARGRA about this year’s festivities.

“A couple weeks earlier we had had a board meeting in which I had checked with various associations to make sure their plans were still on track. . .  so it was a bit of a surprise to learn shortly thereafter that they’d run into a block that had made them decide to cancel,” Gros says.

“They have not provided any explanation to me. I have no information beyond the background they’ve said publicly. Naturally I’m anxious to hear just as much as anybody else is what explanation they have.”

(Trotting by with the rainbow flag at a 2011 gay rodeo./ CowboyFrank.net/International Gay Rodeo Association)

Gros says at this point ARGRA is not defunct as an association and is still part of the larger, international group.

He points out this is not the first IGRA-affiliated gay rodeo to be cancelled.

“Many times they’ll come back another year or two or three later. This is not uncommon,” he says.

“We’ve never had one the size and scope of the Alberta group cancel before,” he notes. “And because of that, this probably has a greater impact on our organization, certainly on their supporters and sponsors and spectators.”

Gros says he wonders if the downturn in Alberta’s economy or even the Fort McMurray fires played into ARGRA’s decision to cancel.

He says growing mainstream acceptance of LGBT people is likely responsible for reduced participation and attendance at gay rodeos, as fewer people feel a need to seek out explicitly queer-friendly events and spaces. However, Gros says, he does not think this means gay rodeos have become obsolete.

“I think we’re more pessimistic about it than times and circumstances truly require. I look at our organization and I see that we still have a purpose that’s unique and still valid,” he says.

“It remains that by nature rodeo is a very conservative sport and not one that would be very welcoming of gay and lesbian culture. It’s one of those last bastions of reluctance to give way to developing sensibilities in today’s world.”

Gros says the mainstream rodeo has begun to demonstrate “small instances of a beginning of acceptance or awareness,” but still has a long way to go.

Since the International Gay Rodeo Association’s creation in 1984, its member groups have donated more than $4 million to local charities. Gros says over $250,000 of that has come from ARGRA.

Update, June 21, 2016: 

Though no one from ARGRA has replied to Daily Xtra’s request for comment, its board of directors posted a note on the organization’s website in June apoligizing for the rodeo’s cancellation and attributing it to Alberta’s economic downturn:

“Alberta has suffered a severe economic downturn over the past year which has negatively impacted those sponsorships on which ARGRA relies. Over the past year, ARGRA has done everything that it could to operate in this difficult economic environment; however, it became clear that despite our best efforts it was necessary to cancel the 2016 Canadian Rockies International Rodeo and Music Festival,” the board writes.

“Further, as a result of the lack of financial resources, the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association (ARGRA) has ceased all operations, effective immediately.

ARGRA sincerely apologies to all those supporters in the community that this decision affects.”