They're here. They're queer. And they can rope a steer. Gays and lesbians tame stereotypes on the rodeo circuit in Conyers.
By Mara Shalhoup
June 6, 2001
Creative Loafing Atlanta (http://atlanta.creativeloafing.com/2001-06-06/cover.html)
On the first weekend in June, at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, the scent of manure mingles with smoke from a barbecue grill. The dusty arena resounds with the clop of hooves. The crowd -- a sea of bobbing Stetsons -- offers up plaudits, hoops and hollers. That is, when they aren't waving away flies.
It almost could be a traditional rodeo. Except for those two guys in the stands wearing shirts that read “cow fag."
Even the name -- Southern Spurs Rodeo 2001 -- offers no clue that this is an all-American event with a twist. Among husbands, wives and children, same-sex couples are cuddling in the stands. A gay-rights booth is squeezed between vendors selling animal figurines and T-shirts. And one of the top sponsors is Hoedown's, which everyone in the gay community knows is the country-western bar.
Only two of 13 events, Wild Drag and Goat Dressing, are peculiar to gay rodeo, and they're just a fun way to wind down the day. The rest of the day is pure roping, kicking and bucking. The broncos and bulls don't notice the difference between gay and straight.
Most riders at the 2001 Southern Spurs Rodeo, 30 miles east of Atlanta, regularly compete in gay rodeos across the country. The Conyers event is but one in an annual 17-rodeo circuit. Riders travel the circuit, not for the kitsch, but for the challenge.
Erin Leavey straps tassled chaps around her blue jeans. She fits a yellow mouthpiece over her braces and secures a black hockey mask over her wavy hair. Then she climbs onto the bronco that is cooped in the chute.
Leavey will wait there until intuition tells her it's time to ride.
Bareback Bronc Riding is the fourth event of the day, one of seven in which Leavey will compete. It's different from bull riding, where the rider cinches her legs around the animal. With broncos, a rider sits legs forward, as if in a sled. She props her feet atop the animal's shoulders and sits further back than she would on a bull.
When the gate into the arena opens and the horse jumps out, the rider hopes to keep a tight grip on the handhold. She must throw her legs back, toward the horse's rump, and assume a rider's position. She will be lucky to last the six seconds it takes to earn points.
Leavey, eyes closed, still in the chute, is taking deep breaths. Intuition speaks. She opens her eyes and nods. The gate opens.
The brown-speckled bronco gets the better of her. The horse bounds across the arena and throws her in 4.5 seconds. Leavey soars in the air longer than any of the other riders. She flicks her ankles back and forth, like a dancer, and lands gracefully, dropping and rolling and jumping up from the dirt. She strides across the arena to meet her friends and takes down her hair.
"Damn," she says. “I broke a nail."
The following day, Leavey will be one of the few riders -- male or female -- to last the six seconds on a bronco. Not that she fits the part.
"I'm by far not one of the professional, true cowgirls out there. I don't chew tobacco," she says. “I have long blond hair. I'm so not the butch type."
The 30-year-old Atlanta advertising executive grew up in Houston. When she was a little girl, her father used to take her to livestock shows and rodeos. But she didn't ride in a rodeo until she moved to Atlanta.
In 1997, she was part of a country-and-western dance team that performed at a gay rodeo party in Atlanta. Members of the group that throws the Atlanta-based rodeo, the Southeast Gay Rodeo Association, told Leavey that for $10, she could join them in bull-riding practice.
She said she had no gear to protect her teeth or head. They found her some. She said she'd never done it before. They said get on the bull.
"Will somebody tell me how to do this?" she asked.
Someone said hold tight and close your eyes. Nod whenever you're ready.
She couldn't nod. She started to cry. She said she had to pee.
"Don't pee," someone warned her. “You'll piss him off."
The door opened. She fell off immediately.
"Wait a minute," she said when she got up. “I can do better than that."
She forked over another $10. The second time, she lasted four seconds. Less than a year later, Leavey started riding competitively.
Three years after that, rodeo officials named her Miss International Gay Rodeo 2001. Not only has she helped raise money through rodeos for local and worldwide charities, she's competed in more than 20 rodeos and has taken home ribbons and a few coveted silver buckles. Silver buckles are handed out for best performance in an event, as well as for best performance overall.
Leavey now knows that the key to bull or bronco riding is to pinch your legs, tuck your chin and throw out your chest. She's come a long way.
But she still tells herself: “Don't cry. Don't pee. Hold on real tight."
Cindy Brendle is the only other woman to take on bull riding this year at the Atlanta rodeo. Like Leavey, Brendle also started out as a country-and-western dancer. Though once she started riding, “I kind of ditched the dancing."
Brendle, a petite woman with a freckled face, hasn't ditched all elements of dancing. She tries to dance with bulls.
"You follow him like you're following dancing," she says. Problem is, she's more the leader type. “If I could really learn to follow more in dancing, maybe I'd be alright."
Brendle, who traveled to Atlanta from her home in Maryland, has competed in straight rodeos. She says they're less congenial, more competitive.
"We do not discriminate," Brendle says. “Straights can [and a few do] ride in our rodeo. But in other rodeos, we're scrutinized for being gay."
James Mullen is not above toying with the stereotypes one would attach to a gay cowboy. As he makes his way through the crowd, looking like Benicio del Toro's kid brother, he is repeatedly met with a “Hey baby" and a kiss. “This is the cowboy's equivalent of a circuit party," he says, half-serious.
Everyone knows Mullen. He is a bartender at Hoedown's, which makes him very visible. In part, he's a real cowboy willing to play the role, too.
But image is not as important to him as the true purpose of gay rodeo. He is eager to talk about what it means.
But before he can, the people from cable-access television want a piece. He is sitting in the horse park stands, finishing a grilled pork chop sandwich when a young man with a microphone, camerawoman in tow, spots him.
"So, you're the bull rider?" the man gushes.
"I'm one of the bull riders," Mullen says.
"What's the biggest misconception y'all get?" he asks.
"I guess that we're not taken seriously enough," Mullen answers.
"Is it an experience being a cowboy?"
"For me it is."
After the man leaves, Mullen says, “It bothers me that they don't cover the broader aspects of it. They cover the sensational side."
Wild Drag, he admits, is the most popular event. In Wild Drag, three-person teams of man, woman and someone in drag try, in the least amount of time, to pull an unwilling steer a certain distance by rope. By that time the steer is really irritated, and the person in drag then must ride it.
It sounds fun and silly, and it is. But Mullen says gay rodeo shouldn't be defined by one unique and colorful event. Gay rodeo, he explains, is the same as any other amateur rodeo: It's a sport with skilled participants, not a drag show.
Mullen suits up alongside Brendle and Leavey. The rodeo, now in its second day, is waning. The first day, nobody lasted six seconds on the bull (although today Leavey did on the bronco.) Today, they are determined.
All six riders must pull from a hat the name of the bull they will ride. Most riders are familiar with most of the bulls, and Leavey is familiar with one in particular.
"I have a personal relationship with Shakedown," Leavey says.
"Personally bad," Brendle quips.
A year ago, Leavey picked Shakedown from the hat and had a bad fall. She's picked him three times since and not one of the times did she last six seconds.
But on June 3, she picks a bull named Clifton.
All riders have bad falls. Even so, Leavey and Brendle have managed to stay out of the hospital.
"What I can remember happening was my head hitting part of the animal," he says. “The next thing I remember was being in the ambulance."
He still won't wear a helmet, though.
Brendle goes first. The bull she picked, Elvis, awaits her in the chute. She gets on his back as volunteers tie a rope just behind Elvis' shoulders. Brendle slips a yellow-gloved hand under the rope. The volunteers wind the rope around the glove. There is thunder in the distance.
She holds on for just three or four thrusts and lands not far from the chute. She did not last six seconds.
More thunder, closer. Leavey is up next.
She tries to get settled atop Clifton but is having some trouble. She tells the volunteer the rope is not tight enough. The bull snorts and bucks in the narrow chute, like Shakedown did.
Leavey puts her hand on her heart. Thunder claps its loudest so far, and Clifton jerks in a wild way. Leavey shakes her head. No. She steps off. The announcer tells the crowd that Erin Leavey has scratched.
"I couldn't get my legs around him," she says to one of the volunteers. “He was too big."
Mullen, riding a bull named Sandtrap, is next in the chute. He nods -- and lasts just a couple seconds. But there is a problem with the way the rope was tied. That qualifies him for a re-ride.
None of the next three male riders lasts six seconds, although all last longer than Mullen and one is only .05 seconds short.
For the re-ride, Mullen picks Clifton. He climbs on. Lightning and thunder surround the arena. Clifton is banging his horns against the metal railings.
Lightning strikes, and the arena loses lights and music.
"We gotta make some noise," says the announcer, whose PA system still works.
The crowd screams for Mullen.
Clifton bucks like crazy into the arena, and an unsecured rope lashes Mullen. He falls. Clifton trots off. Mullen has trouble getting up. Still, no six seconds. But the unsecured rope allows him yet another re-ride. He walks very slowly back to the chute.
This time Mullen picks Elvis, the bull that threw Brendle so quickly. Mullen doesn't linger. He nods. He wants his six seconds.
He misses by .03.
The crowd cheers, despite the fact that this time Mullen can't pick himself up. Elvis kicked him in the leg. Four volunteers have to carry Mullen out of the arena.
Leavey says Mullen shouldn't have attempted three rides.
"For a gay guy, you'd think he'd have more women's intuition," she says.
But gay or straight, cowboy or otherwise, everyone wants to be helped up after falling hard and hear wild applause. Even before Mullen's three final rides, he described the rush he gets from the crowd as the reason he's a part of gay rodeo.
"It's not about sex. It's not the ribbon. It's not the buckle," Mullen said. “It's the support from the people."