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Cowboys and Drag Queens: Rural Gays Find Home in Rodeo

By Michelle Rushlo
Associated Press Writer. Associated Press. New York:
March 29, 2004

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.

A half dozen cowboys exercised their horses around the dirt arena in preparation for the next two days, when they would rope calves, ride bulls and broncos and maneuver their horses around barrels and poles.

Some also would race goats, decorate steers and dress in drag, because this isn't your average rodeo - this venue in Scottsdale, Ariz., is a stop on the International Gay Rodeo Association circuit.

The association, which formed in 1985 and stages the events partly to raise money for charity, has more than 20 rodeos in the United States and Canada planned this year. The finals rodeo is scheduled for Oct. 14 to 17 in Omaha, Neb.

Many of the participants are gays and lesbians who grew up in rural areas, are not comfortable in urban gay communities, and are drawn to the rodeo by the chance to connect with other gays who love horses and rodeo without the fear of being scorned.

Tommy Channel, who has been involved in gay rodeo for 20 years and is an administrative assistant at the association's Denver headquarters, said he originally left his hometown in eastern Texas for Houston to be around other gay people.

"But you still have the farm boy in you . . . You still need the culture also. You can't come out of your skin totally," he said. “When you are born into something, whether it be gay or the rodeo world, you can't just leave that."

Gays from rural areas often would stick out in big cities because they didn't talk right or wear the right clothes, said John King, the owner of three western gay bars and an early organizer of the rodeo association.

"They would never in their wildest dreams call someone `Miss Thing,' “ said King, 62, who grew up on a farm in Iowa.

The gay rodeo is a chance for gay cowboys to feel comfortable doing something they love.

"It was really nice to be around people who didn't care" whether you were gay, said Diane “Craze" Vosseller, a 45-year-old from Albuquerque, N.M., who has participated in about 25 gay rodeos. “You have to be gay-friendly or you can't be here."

But the friendly atmosphere belies the competitive nature of the event, said Keenan Allen, a 39-year-old from Mesa.

"Everyone wants the coveted belt buckle," she said.

The association's early days were rough, organizers said. Many rodeo grounds turned them down once they learned the rodeo was for gay cowboys.

King recalled trying to negotiate for an arena in Gilbert in 1985. After making a proposal to rent the facility, King and others explained they were from the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association, which combined with ones from Colorado, Texas and California to create the international association that same year.

"Three of the men, you could sort of see the red rise from the neck to their faces," he said, laughing. “It's just that the concept of gay rodeo was so foreign to them . . . We knew our presentation was done."

For years, King feared those outside the gay community would discover gay rodeo. He worried it would invite violence or scare away gay participants who didn't want to be outed.

Today, the gay rodeo circuit has mainstream corporate sponsors that include Bud Light and American Airlines.

"I never thought I would see the day," said King. “Society had moved faster than I had."

 

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