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How gay rodeos upend assumptions about life in rural America

The misguided assumption that rural America is hopelessly backward and bigoted erases centuries of same-sex relationships in rural communities. It tells young queer individuals who they need to flee their rural hometowns to far-flung cities and discover safety and acceptance.

That is why we see so much value in the task of photographer Luke Gilford. For “National Anthem,” his assortment of images on display at Manhattan’s SN37 Gallery, Gilford photographed participants in the International Gay Rodeo Association. A lot of his subjects have fought for many years to be observed as legitimate riders in the rodeo world, bringing their rural sensibilities and queerness to arenas in the united states.

As scholars of gender, sexuality and the American West, we’ve spent years studying gay rodeoers. Through the Gay Rodeo Oral History Project along with other research, we have been in a position to highlight the experiences of Gilford’s subjects and reveal the complexities of rural America.

We realize that queer folks have always belonged in rural places and also have always participated in rural traditions. And hopefully that the unashamed presentation of queer, rural rodeoers refutes the lazy dichotomy of the urban queer progressive versus the rural homophobic conservative.

The fantasy of the straight, white cowboy

The cowboy has long stood as symbolic of American values and virile masculinity. But this knowledge of the cowboy hides a far more complex reality.

Cowboys were after the outcasts of Victorian American society. They tended to be poor nomads, and ranch work and cattle drives attracted a racially diverse workforce, including Black, Hispanic, Indigenous and Chinese residents of the American West.

Because the frontier life-style faded in the late 19th century, a nostalgia for cowboys soon emerged in American culture. Artists like Frederic Remington and entertainers like Buffalo Bill Cody glorified them through their art and Wild West shows.

By the 1950s and 1960s, movie Westerns featured actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. Almost all of the depictions portrayed the cowboy as white, straight and male. Black and Indigenous cowboys, and also women riders, gradually disappeared from the national imagination.

The origins of gay rodeo

The symbolism and iconography surrounding cowboys matters a good deal. In the 20th century, the American West became intimately of a national American identity. The image of the cowboy, if he looked and acted a particular way, determined who could and couldn’t be considered a “real” American.

Yet many queer people surviving in rural areas in the 1970s and 1980s refused to relinquish their claim to a rural and an American identity.

These were inspired, in ways, by the emergence of the urban cowboy phenomenon popular, film and country music. The cowboy was one among the types of desirable masculinity that emerged in the post-World War II era for gay men. Urban gay bars adopted country-western motifs, attracting a clientele of urban “wannabe” cowboys and rural transplants searching for a community that reminded them of home. Soon, there is a genuine enthusiasm and appetite among queer people for a rodeo of these own.

Phil Ragsdale, a businessman from Reno, Nevada, organized the initial gay rodeo in 1976 as a fundraiser, with proceeds benefiting the neighborhood senior center and the Muscular Dystrophy Association. The National Reno Gay Rodeo occurred annually from 1976 until 1985, drawing thousands of spectators. In 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association formed, combining other gay rodeo associations, standardizing rules and developing a formal circuit for participants.

Rural queer folk continued to generate other spaces which could exist beyond the imagined restraints of rural and urban life: gay country-western bars, square dances and clogging groups.

Though not absolutely all gay rodeoers result from rural backgrounds, many do. They often times describe leaving their very own small towns and rural communities for queer life in the town. Instead of encountering a comforting sanctuary, some found it difficult to squeeze in.

Within an interview for the Gay Rodeo Oral History Project, gay rider Joe Rodriguez described the discomfort he felt upon moving to San Fransisco: “It had been night and day from the rural community where I was raised, moving to the town, nonetheless it still wasn’t right, wasn’t the proper fit.”

He didn’t feel in the home in the town until he found a residential area with other queer cowboys.

The area between

Homophobes tended to condemn gay rodeo being an attack on the cowboy’s traditional invest American culture. Gay men were regarded as too effeminate and too weak to don exactly the same getup as John Wayne.

Opposition intensified with the AIDS epidemic, alongside the rise of an emboldened political and religious right. Four years following the first gay rodeo, America elected Ronald Reagan, a stalwart conservative who played cowboys on the big screen, as its 40th president.

Gay rodeoers struggled to withstand the tide of discrimination and tragedy.

As gay rodeoers worked tirelessly to improve money for charity, some non-LGBTQ organizations started refusing to simply accept donations from rodeos associated with the International Gay Rodeo Association.

Death and loss became an undeniable fact of life.

“I had plenty of friends,” recalled a rodeoer named Brian Helander, “and I could say that of probably 100 individuals who I’d call friends, probably three of these survived.”

Yet as self-proclaimed “queer cowfolx,” they continued to occupy spaces these were told that they had no to, plus they filled their rodeo arenas with same-sex dances, camp rodeo events and drag entertainers to improve money for AIDS along with other LGBTQ organizations. In developing a space that allowed for overlapping and sometimes conflicting identities, gay rodeoers have upended a few of the long-held understandings of queerness.

Most importantly, they’ve managed to get their mission to rupture ossified notions about who gets the to lay claim to the identity of cowboy and, by extension, American.

Rebecca Scofield, Associate Professor of History; Chair of the Department of History, University of Idaho and Elyssa Ford, Associate Professor of History, Northwest Missouri State University

This short article is republished from The Conversation under an innovative Commons license.

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