Gay rodeo and the subversion of Western clichés

A photo exhibit asks viewers to ponder whether, in reclaiming the idea of the cowboy, gay rodeos renounce violence or reinvest in it.

  • Rodeo partners Gene Hubert and Rick Ferreria, Sun Valley, California, 1991.

    Blake Little
  • Bareback bronc riding, San Diego, California, 1992.

    Blake Little
  • Jerry Hubbard, Burbank, California, 1989.

    Blake Little
  • Los Angeles Cowboys, Hollywood, California, 1990.

    Blake Little
  • Chute dogging, Phoenix, Arizona, 1989.

    Blake Little
  • Brian Cornell and Alberto Rulloda, Hayward, California, 1989.

    Blake Little
  • Bull riding, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, 1989.

    Blake Little
  • Hollywood style cowboys, Sun Valley, California, 1991.

    Blake Little

 

The black-and-white photographs, in simple black frames, adorn the walls of a corner nook at the University of Idaho library in Moscow, Idaho, flanked by open shelves of books. In one, a lasso spins in the air, framing the face of the cowboy doing the twirling as he looks over his shoulder, brow furrowed; in another, the wild white eye of a bull stares squarely at the viewer, dust rising from its hooves as it tries to buck off its rider. A woman in jeans, bent in concentration, grabs the bar of a white metal gate; a square-jawed man, his neck taut, leans toward his companion, in a matching button-down shirt, for a kiss.

Photographer Blake Little captured the images in the late 1980s and early 1990s as he traveled around the West on . They chronicle the sport and spectacle of the rodeo, but also the sense of community and inclusion it offers its participants. The photographs welcome the viewer into a world that subverts popular notions of what it means to be a cowboy, and a man.

Gay rodeo started in the mid-‘70s, and from the beginning welcomed both men and women to participate in every event, including bull- and bronc-riding, rough-stock events open only to men in mainstream rodeo. In addition to staples like calf roping and barrel racing, gay rodeos also include a few unique “camp” events, like wild drag racing, in which a contestant wearing a dress attempts to ride a steer across a finish line with the help of two on-the-ground partners; and goat dressing, in which participants try to get a goat into a pair of underwear. A sense of community pervades the sport — the parent organization, the International Gay Rodeo Association, is a nonprofit, and gay rodeos are typically fundraisers for causes like senior care centers or biomedical research; and everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender or race, is welcome to compete.

“I hope that people will go in and understand that masculinity is incredibly fluid, and that anyone can claim masculinity,” Dulce Kersting-Lark, the executive director of the , which is co-hosting the exhibit, told me. “I hope that their perceptions are challenged.”

The gay rodeo circuit arose in part as a refuge from danger and discrimination in mainstream rodeo. Membership has waned, however, since its peak in the 1990s, perhaps partly because the successes of the LGBTQ rights movement mean that younger people are less drawn toward explicitly gay-friendly groups. Still, even today there’s a lack of openly queer participants in mainstream rodeo. “There’s a radically different perception about inclusiveness between straight participants and LGBTQ participants,” Rebecca Scofield, a historian at the University of Idaho who studies gay rodeo, gender and sexuality in the American West, told me. “(Gay people) see it as a place (where) you could be gay-bashed.”

As gay rodeo expands the notion of what a rodeo can look like, it also creates a more expansive view of queer culture — one that isn’t focused exclusively on cities, and in which LGBTQ people who embrace a rural lifestyle can feel at home, too. “Kids from places like Idaho, who grew up in 4H, or grew up around stock … can go and feel normal for liking to be around cattle and liking country music,” Scofield told me. But as ideas about inclusivity have evolved in recent years, gay rodeos haven’t kept pace: While anyone is welcome to participate in any event, contestants must choose between men’s and women’s events. “There’s still some of that binary thinking that I think a younger LGBTQ population is trying to push beyond,” Scofield said.

And members of that younger generation — both those who identify as queer, and those who don’t — are exactly who the organizers of the photography exhibit hope will stumble across Little’s images. Scofield told me that one of the joys of teaching at the university, where , lies in challenging her students’ ideas about what the West means, and giving them frameworks and language to help them understand and push back against stereotypes about the rural West — that all Idahoans are conservative, say, or that rodeo is for straight men. “That, hopefully, will start eroding this particular narrative of, you know, ‘Women didn’t exist in the West, gay people didn’t exist in the West,’ ” Scofield said. “Of course they did.” And still do.

Gay rodeo participants themselves also break down those clichés as they repurpose the icon of the “cowboy,” and in the process demand inclusion in a society that reveres white heterosexual masculinity. But the icon itself can’t be fully removed from its violent foundations. “Even if we make the cowboy more inclusive, is it not still invested in a narrative of settler-colonialism and environmental degradation?” Scofield said. “When you invest in any mythology, you have to take some of the tainted parts of that mythology and recognize that you are perpetuating them.”

The pageantry of both hyper-masculine culture and rodeo itself — a romanticized “performance of Westward expansion and man’s dominance over nature,” as Kersting-Lark described it — are on full display in Little’s photographs. The show is leavened by images of arms slung casually over shoulders, and moments of tender care, as in a photo of one contestant helping another wrap his knee. Still, in some sense, the snapshots of mustachioed men posing in chaps, with horses, leaning on fences and, of course, wearing cowboy hats reinforce the huge, flawed myth of the West — that if you participated in the settlement of this vast landscape, then you must belong here — and the equally erroneous inverse: that if you didn’t, you don’t. In adopting the trappings of rodeo and claiming belonging, the subjects of the photographs force us to confront the vicious roots of what it means to be a Westerner or a cowboy. “I think there is a vital question of, what are the lengths these icons can stretch to?” Scofield told me. “And when do we just start reinvesting in violence, even if it’s not aimed at us?”

The exhibit, , is on display at the University of Idaho library in Moscow, Idaho, until April 30, 2019. It was coordinated by the library and the Latah County Historical Society, with support from PFLAG Moscow, the University of Idaho LGBTQ Office and others.

Emily Benson is an assistant editor at NewTowncarShare News, covering the northwest, the northern Rockies and Alaska. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor