GENDER AND SEXUALITY IN THE
WILD GAY WEST
Born in 1852 as Martha Jane Canary, gender-bending cowgirl Calamity Jane was known in the west as a good shot and a fearless rider. She dressed as a man, drank like a fish, and provided the fodder for many a tall tale. The larger-than-life frontierswoman stands as a symbol of the rebellious western gals who have come before and after, all determined to live life on their own terms.
In September of 2018, I found myself driving past the glitz and glamour of the Vegas strip towards a rodeo arena in the Nevada mountains. Unsure of exactly what I would find, I buttoned up my pearl snap shirt (I had been informed of the strict dress code for the press: cowboy hat, long sleeve button up, jeans and boots) and stepped out into the dusty parking lot near a gathering of horse trailers. Contestants streamed by me towards the registration booth: quite a few men in their mid-40s, a group of tough-looking women laughing boisterously, a family with two little kids, and the occasional drag queen.
This ain’t my first rodeo, but it’s certainly my first gay one. It’s not every day that you see a drag queen wrestling a 300-pound steer to the ground. The gay rodeo’s camp events include goat dressing, which involves trying to put panties onto a goat, steer decorating: working with a team to put a bow on a steer, and wild drag: wrestling a steer while, you guessed it, in drag.
Though these events are light-hearted and involve costumes and theatricality, there is still the risk of serious injury and a sense of fierce competition. The camp events break the ice in providing a direct outlet for the unique personalities and identities of the gay rodeo. Camp as an aesthetic has deep roots in the gay scene. New York’s gay balls and a long tradition of drag queens are formative to gay culture as we know it. The drag events serve as conversation starters for outsiders and newcomers to the rodeo--and, I noticed, were the events most covered by news outlets at the Texas Gay Rodeo Finals (Buzzfeed in particular). Pageantry and performance are already a large part of “straight” rodeo culture. Many rodeo circuits crown a royal court, and before each rodeo it’s common to parade around in pickup trucks and perform a synchronized horseback routine. Nostalgia for the old American west is also a key player in rodeo both gay and straight--old time country music blasts from speakers and contestants try to emulate the look and attitude of old western heroes.
The gay rodeo has its own crowned royalty as well, but with a twist on gender norms and standards. According to the Miss Rodeo America website, each year women “compete for the coveted crown of Miss Rodeo America by competing in the areas of appearance, horsemanship, and personality.” The contestants, as you might imagine, generally stick to sexualized feminine standards of beauty, like Miss America but with a few extra pairs of over-the-top rhinestone boots. In the gay rodeo, the royalty competition is a bit different: contestants get up on stage at the finals and lip-sync a song (typically in drag) while collecting money. Whoever raises the most receives that year’s title--and choose from the fluid titles of Mr, Miss, or Misster Gay Rodeo. Winners don’t ascribe to a certain look--though of course, the drag queens do tend to favor the absurd--and royalty are young and old, butch and femme alike.
Who is a cowboy or a cowgirl?
At the rodeos, I began to notice that people fell into a couple of common categories: older activists & management-level lesbians, drag queens, straight young competitors, a network of ex-girlfriends, longtime ranchers, and the people who just joined for the two-stepping.
The crowd I fell into spending the most time with was a group of older cowgirls. I first saw them riding in the dark arena the night before competition, practicing their barrel runs for the next day. I was captivated watching them, especially the older woman wearing a “No Drama” tank top. The next day, I followed them back to the horse trailers and was immediately offered slices of beef out of aluminum foil and a Corona. The next few months I would spend getting to know the Cowgirl Country Club.
The Cowgirl Country Club meets in 81-year-old Judy Galloway’s back yard. With a current membership of about 15 lesbian cowgirls of all ages, Judy’s wish is to foster a community of women who support women (primarily over margaritas in the Western saloon Judy hand-built from scrap wood). In addition to being a social community, they pool resources to sponsor the All-Around-Cowgirl buckle at the Palm Springs Gay rodeo. I encountered a wide range of how the women self-identified in terms of both sexuality and gender. Zale Harris, an engineer from 9-5 and a cowgirl the rest of the time, was in her 60s and had long, white hair and a rough, young energy about her. She hated the word “lesbian.” Sitting on a cooler of beer by her trailer, shooting the shit with her wife and two longtime rodeo friends, she says she prefers to just call herself gay.
“Lesbians are the Amazon women exiled to the island of Lesbos. I’m not an exile, I just love women. I’m gay.”
Her friend turns to me, quietly observing, “isn’t it kind of fitting though? We are outsiders in a way, and strong women at that.” I tend to agree with her. (Zale’s interpretation is not fully accurate, the term “lesbian” is attributed to the fact that Greek poet Sappho, who wrote extensively of her love for women, hailed from the isle of Lesbos.)
Judy and Roz, two founding members of the Cowgirl Country Club, proudly identify as lesbians. Judy, now 81, was in the Navy, and was a vocal activist for women’s rights. She was on the first all-women’s ship, the first women’s Navy shooting team, and went to Washington to lobby for the Equal Opportunity Act. Though she was never thrown out, she had several friends discharged for homosexuality. She says it wasn’t hard for her to stay in the closet because she never made moves on anybody, but the leadership would investigate people and dishonorably discharge them if they didn’t give up names. Roz, in her 50s, was a different generation of military, but still experienced similar pressures. Their generational difference also arises in their terms of identification. Judy considers herself more masculine and aligns with the term “dyke” more than she does with the identifier of “woman.” Roz, however, hates the word “dyke” and tells me she thinks the whole point of being a lesbian is loving women as a woman--not trying to be like a man. This attitude is reflective of a lot of the middle-aged and more conservative generations of lesbians I spoke with. The term they all agree on though: cowgirl.
The gay rodeo, in terms of demographics, is certainly skewed towards older generations. Breana, in their late twenties, is one of the few younger competitors. Reflecting a more nuanced and complicated model of gender and sexuality, Breana tells me that they went back and forth a bit on identifying as a woman, but ultimately it didn’t feel quite right. Using they/them pronouns, they see themselves primarily as: super gay. Breana’s always been interested in cowboys, dressing up in boots and a hat ever since they were a kid, and takes on the identifier cowgirl or cowboy in equal measure.
The women also launch into a dismissal of bisexual women, briefly joking they just haven’t made up their mind. They mostly leaned toward politically conservative and religious--we discussed the border wall and immigration (they being pro-wall). Zale and her wife are Episcopal--and the first gay couple to be married in the California Episcopal Diocese. Bernice and Chrissa both came from conservative Mormon families. Bernice tells me it was a long road to unlearning what the Mormon church taught her about homosexuality. However, she remains close to her family, having taken over the family cattle ranch in Utah. Her life is tied inextricably to the land, and her friendships are an extension of that: the four women have all made plans to move out together to ranch. Zale and Christy have already bought adjacent land for a house.
Gay Rodeo vs “Straight Rodeo”
I’ve been going to the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo since I was a kid. It’s always a big production--flashy displays, high-stake prizes, and often headlined by the likes of Willie Nelson or Taylor Swift. It’s also massively profitable--far more a business endeavor than the small gay rodeos that struggle to stay afloat enough to even rent out arenas. The San Antonio rodeo regularly sells out its over 18,000 person capacity and corporate sponsors make for a $1,500,000 total payout to winners. In comparison, the gay rodeos I attended had between 100 and 300 audience members. Prize money is pooled from the contestant’s entrance fee for each event, and in events where few people are competing, such as women’s bull riding, the payout can be as little as $50. It’s possible to make a living riding in the professional rodeo circuit, but those who only compete at the gay rodeo and amateur levels generally don’t even make enough to cover travel, trailers, and horse costs.
A lot of the extra funding comes from the contestants themselves. The Cowgirl Country Club primarily got together to be able to sponsor buckles and lower some of the financial barriers to entry. Judy “it's kind of like an exciting thing to support rodeo girls of the rodeo. They come from all over and it just seemed a nice thing to be able to support the cowgirls that come to the rodeo because we women, some of us don't make as much as others.”The gay rodeo uses amateur rodeo rules in order to reach a wider base of contestants. For example, instead of a 8 second bull ride, the gay rodeo sets 6 seconds as the qualifying time. People who haven't been competing or riding their entire lives have a lower barrier to entry than other rodeos. One newer member, Breana Knight from Colorado, always wanted to be a cowboy and got the chance once they heard about the gay rodeo. Generally, those without any prior rodeo experience start out in the events on foot: roping, steer decorating, wild drag, and so on. They then try their hand in other events. Often more established members will take the newbies under their wing and help them train. Zale Harris remembers the first time she got a belt buckle: she beat a woman who had been helping her train: “She really taught me a lot and it took me probably the first 7 rodeos, I mean I hit every one consistently at that time, and then I started beating my mentor.”
Contestants like Zale keep circling back to the low pressure, supportive environment as their favorite thing about the rodeo. She used to compete in straight rodeo as well, but has since stopped because “straight rodeo is so competitive, and let me tell you, some of the women are just really--I don’t know if I can say this--downright bitches. But here, I’ll tell you the camaraderie is amazing, between men or women," Zale tells me. "I mean everybody’s like a really nice family. And whether you win or lose, really, the feeling is just the same."
Interestingly enough, the gay rodeo actually draws quite a few straight competitors who prefer the lower pressure and more supportive environment of the gay rodeo. One woman, DeeDee, was in her 60s and competing in 9 events, including bronc riding in which she was the only woman. Her husband and kids were there to support her.
The crossover goes both ways. Laura, a volunteer who has been involved with the gay rodeo for over 25 years, tells me that many gay rodeo contestants also compete in straight rodeos as well, but often remain closeted there. "Back in the day, we had this thing called no photo request. And, back in the 80s, and in the 90s, it was used all the time." Now there are only a small handful of people who fill out no photo requests.
"We have a guy who does a huge rodeo in the straight world and if they knew, he would be ostracized. This guy is a cowboy, you would never know that he were gay. But slowly he talks to his friends in that rodeo to let them know that we're no different than them. We may do a few unique events compared to what they do, which is a great way to kind of segue these rodeos together, is to start talking about those events and realize that really, we're still cowboys and cowgirls just like them."
"These people are my life. They are the blood in my veins. They are the reason I have stuck around for almost 28 years." - Laura
"There are a lot of local events that you can sign up for, but with the gay rodeo there is more of a family element," says Breana, emphasizing the focus on safety and looking out for each other. "I feel like in some of the smaller local rodeos safety is not a priority. It's like, get on, ride, you're done, out, get on, ride, you're done, you're out. Here it's like, 'okay you're got everything you need, yeah, okay.'"
Rodeo contestants I have spoken to frequently refer to the gay rodeo as their “rodeo family.” They joke about their friends as their “rodeo husband” or “rodeo wife” (often as a faux heterosexual pairing). The community itself is a tight-knit unique social sphere. It encompasses competitions, dinners, drag performances, royalty crownings, and the many differing levels and progressions of involvement. People I have spoken to typically join younger as competitors, then take on volunteer leadership and administrative positions as they grow older. Quite a few members in the rodeo have dated each other at one time or another, and many remain friends.
“So, I made her the queen of my double-wide trailer, with the polyester curtains and the redwood deck. Times she’s run off, and I’ve got to trail her—dang her black heart and her pretty red neck.” - Sammy Kershaw, “Queen of My Double-Wide Trailer”
I became accustomed to asking people, “How did you end up here?” and hearing that they followed a lover across the country. I begin to take a tally. It’s not just the lesbians who are U-Hauling*, either. Leaning against the rails behind the bullpen in Vegas, I talk to an older gentleman (who initially communicated primarily in lightbulb jokes: “How many New Yorkers does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” he asks of my friend hailing from Long Island, “None of your fucking business!” “How many lesbians? One to screw it in and two to talk about how much better it is without a man!”) He starts reminiscing about the love of his life. He moved to Seattle to be with him before he lost a battle with AIDS. His late partner's family kicked him out of the house and he returned to his hometown. He has since taken another partner and moved elsewhere for him, but continues to refer to the man he lost as the love of his life.
Over in the Cowgirl Country Club, the cowgirls make a good argument for not settling down--they like their life they way it is, thank you very much. Ros, who is currently renovating an old RV to take to a life on the road, suffered a tough blow from her most recent ex-wife (though the previous ones didn’t sound much better). Through the occasional offhand comment, I learn that Ros’ ex took, including but not limited to: her furniture, her bed, her entire aquarium of pet fish, her favorite tools. She adamantly warns against letting women move in. She bristles when my girlfriend jokes about how she basically lives at my place solely because my mattress is far more comfortable than hers.
“I would buy her a mattress before I let her stay over.” (For the record, Ros was probably right. We would break up some weeks later.) I ask Judy if she’s ever been in love. She tells me she doesn’t think so. Everyone she has been with was ultimately using her for something, she said. Never has she been with someone who loved her with no stipulations.
Of all the rodeo love stories, Zale's is my favorite.
Zale's love story is not only that of her and her wife--it's shared with her love of horses and finding Destiny. She's not alone in being immensely influenced by her connection to animals.
"It becomes an opportunity to have this shared experience with this animal, which is why I keep coming back."
The contestants I spoke to expressed a closeness with animals, even bulls and steers. Julia, a tiny blonde full-time bull rider in her twenties, came up to the bull pen and started petting them, cooing.
Breana takes me for a tour of the stock pens where they size up the bulls before the event. Bulls and steers are randomly drawn, an each has a different ride. “You see this steer? You see this bull? This steer is much bigger than this bull but, I mean, I guess as most of the straight ladies you know, size is not everything.”
The frequency with which I heard from rough stock riders, “I’ll be doing this as long as I’m still alive” despite injuries and, “Well, I will have ridden well as long as I’m not dead.” Biggs was another straight bull rider, a 30-something young man who had a heart attack recently and decided he was going to pursue all his bucket list items, including bull riding. The other items were all similarly daredevil activities: skydiving, race car driving. He said he doesn’t go to doctors anymore because they kept telling him to take it easy. On his first ride Saturday he shattered his arm and spent the rest of the weekend in a cast. Deedee has experienced countless injuries on bulls, but keeps coming back for more.
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.”