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Homosexual on the range:
rodeo where gay cowboys can ride high
From Chris Ayres in Phoenix, Arizona

 

January 14, 2006

THE gate opens, and the beast — head down and nostrils flared with anger — bolts out into the arena. Clinging to its horns is a young man in leather chaps and a cowboy shirt.

“Pull him over! Roll! Roll!” yells a hoarse female voice from somewhere above.

But the beast, a castrated ox, or steer, is winning this particular duel. The cowboy’s face is a study of determination thwarted by mortal terror.

“C’mon, you’re bigger than him!” shouts the voice (not strictly true), but it is too late: the cowboy is already face down in the dirt and the steer has won its freedom, for now.

“That’s how I got gored,” explains Dan Iversen, the 50-year-old organiser of today’s 2006 Road Runner Regional Rodeo, held outside Phoenix. “The animal just threw his head back and the horn went right into my groin area. I didn’t even feel it at first because I was experiencing such an adrenalin rush.”

Mr Iversen is also in charge of the pre-event rodeo school that we are watching.

This, of course, is no ordinary rodeo event. It is gay rodeo, in which most of the participants are homosexual men. As well as bull riding and “chute dogging” (wrestling a steer to the ground), gay rodeo also includes “goat dressing”, which involves putting frilly underwear on a goat, and a “royalty competition”, a drag contest.

Started more than two decades ago as a secretive annual gathering, often picketed by Christian right-wingers, the gay rodeo has grown into a national event with 225 contestants and 3,000 spectators.

This year’s event, sponsored by Bud Light beer and Southern Comfort, is likely to be bigger than ever, thanks to the success of Brokeback Mountain, a film about forbidden love between two Wyoming cowboys.

Nevertheless, not all Arizonans are pleased about the celebration of gay cowboy pride. “I have got nothing against them,” said one local woman, who did not want to be named. “But why does it have to be gay rodeo? Why not just rodeo?”

The answer, say the gay cowboys, is that being openly gay in the Wild West has historically been unacceptable, and potentially dangerous. They should know: most of them were raised on ranches from South Dakota to Iowa. As ranchers, the men grew up listening to country music and performing the same tasks that are turned into competitive sport in rodeo. They say they are not hijacking a macho American institution to make a political statement — they are simply being themselves.

“When we first started the rodeo, we used to hide and not tell anyone,” says Gary Hatterman, the 53-year-old president of the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association. Chuck Browning, 43, is a genuine gay cowboy from Wyoming. With his leather complexion, sun-bleached beard and huge gold belt buckle, he looks more cowboy than gay. The buckle is a prize from one of his many rodeo wins.

“I’ve split my head open ten times, I’ve got two metal plates in my arm, and I broke my ankle,” reveals Mr Browning. Behind him is parked an ambulance, ready to carry any rodeo participants to hospital.

There are still those who object to the gay cowboy lifestyle. “We still get protesters every year,” concedes Mr Inversen, with obvious disappointment.

“But they’re mainly gay people protesting against the inhumane treatment of animals.”

Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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