After driving several hours through the Texas countryside and taking an exit that was just past the George Bush Turnpike (it didn’t specify W. or H.W.) and Bass Pro Shops Road, I walked into a large indoor rodeo arena situated in a wide open field in Mesquite, Texas.
Organizers and vendors were still setting up for the next two days as we took our press tour and mingled with the contestants who had to register for their events. Prominently on display was Section 93 of the 1.25 mile-long rainbow flag that once stretched from the Atlantic to the gulf for the 1995 Key West pride parade. Ever since, it has traveled the country to highlight important moments in LGBT history.
On Saturday, the day started with roping events before the grand opening ceremony. Audience members slowly trickled in, and I estimated about 300 in the crowd during the ceremony where the American, Mexican, Canadian, and gay flag were flown by men and women on horseback. The audience was a diverse group, with a lot of children running around, couples, and people of all ages. I spotted quite a few crazy costumes (three blind mice, a man dressed as ‘pork’ and, of course, drag queens). Friends and couples slapped each other's butts, hugged, and caught up on life since the previous rodeo. One young lesbian couple kept walking by me, one with a cropped haircut, khakis, and the other with an undercut, vest, piercings, and rainbow cuff. This arena was unapologetically gay. In the stands, I sang along with a cowboy in a hot pink button down holding his chihuahua (also in a pink dress) to that growling Josh Turner Song: “Baby lock them doors and turn them lights down low...” A pit bull walked by, equally matching the butch woman accompanying him.
Opportunity in the Space Between Boundaries
The flexibility found in the gay rodeo creates a unique opportunity for self-expression. The competitions open to everyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the camp aesthetic free of judgement, and inclusive royalty titles open up the boundaries of the typical straight rodeo to a more lawless interpretation. The old western outlaw (of cinema and history) operated in this wide open space just as the gay rodeo members do. The freedom found within this manifests in everything from the wildly varying ideas of gender and sexuality to the downright fun involved in wrestling panties onto a goat with some of your best friends.
Circling back to my earlier question of “who is a cowboy?” I think I’ve found my answer--a cowboy is a rebel, regardless of gender. The resilience of the cowgirls and cowboys of the gay rodeo stands out to me--not only physically in terms of the difficulty of competition, but also in terms of the difficulties they’ve faced tied to their sexuality. Discrimination, questions of personal identity, alienation from family, and the devastation still felt from the AIDS crisis that tore through the community all have impacted members in one way or another, but the community carries on together.
The attempts I’ve heard to introduce the term “cowperson” are unlikely to catch on in this space--the gay rodeo is still deeply traditional in many senses, particularly aesthetically. Cowboy, however, is used nearly interchangeably with cowgirl, and transgresses gender in its use. Hallmarks of a cowgirl or cowboy include, of course, a strong relationship with their horse, loyalty, a strong sense of self, and redefining society’s expectations. When you get down to it, the wild west is a perfect aesthetic fit for gay culture, where these rebels find a community thriving outside of the norms of “civilized society.”