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 1700s California, Spanish colonial rule allowed women to inherit and own property. These cattle women worked the land and rode in the cattle round ups that would later inspire rodeos as we know them. This changed when American laws took hold, and the professional working cowboy role was almost entirely occupied by men. Several women performed in the popular traveling Wild West shows of the early 1900s, however, and ropers and sharpshooters like Annie Oakley created the cowgirl as we know her. Women saw great success competing in bronc and bull riding events until the 1930s when small rodeos and competitors went under in the depression and big rodeo owners took a conservative turn in asserting gender roles and relegating women to speed events and rodeo queen figureheads only. To this day, the rodeo is still a conservative, macho environment. For those that love western culture and competing, however, several associations have formed that provide alternative and more accepting tight-knit communities.

The first gay rodeo was held in Reno in 1976 as a community fundraiser and has since grown into the International Gay Rodeo Association with over 5,000 members across the US (Gay and Lesbian Rodeo Heritage Foundation). It is a community of acceptance within a western tradition that is often cold to LGBT individuals. The gay rodeo is unique in that it allows everyone to compete in all events, including rough stock (bull riding, steer riding, bucking bronc) events. These are events that many professional rodeos have not permitted women to enter. The categories for competition allow for boundaries typical to the “straight” rodeo to be transgressed, and I am interested in how this shapes gender and sexuality as it is presented in the gay rodeo. There are also subtleties in terminology that allow for a variety of identity--my primary guiding question throughout is “who is a cowboy or cowgirl?”

The Portrayal of the American West


Some rodeo contestants grew up with riding and ranching backgrounds, while others found the rodeo later in life and came to it from varying avenues. Members have often attributed a great deal of the gay rodeo’s early success to a general cultural fascination with cowboys. Several bemoan the cultural shifts that have diminished interest in the western and rodeo lifestyle, and attribute waning participation in the gay rodeo to these cultural factors. The image of the American West is greatly informed by movies and pop culture. Wild west icons like John Wayne often come to mind. It is heavily infused with specific portrayals of masculinity--the gruff outlaw--and femininity--the tough and sensual saloon owner.

After several months as a visitor on the gay rodeo circuit, I find the spirit of the cowboy way and gay scene to have collided in a close-knit community that celebrates the outlaw. Issues of identity are tied not only to sexuality and gender, but to community in-groups, relationships with animals and land, and, of course, forging your own trail.

My grandma is a serious cowgirl. She’s been roping and wrangling since she was two feet tall, and at 94 years old still manages several hundred head of cattle. Her granddaughter, on the other hand… just a queer city girl who hasn’t been on a horse in a year. Horsemanship and the ranching lifestyle are a language that I’m familiar with, and I’ve been going to rodeos since before I can remember. This study for me is partly a way to immerse myself in the western life that I feel disconnected from as someone who has always spent more time in the city than out at the ranch. I was hoping to find a little bit of home in the gay rodeo, and it feels personal to be able to collect stories and wisdom from the gay cowgirls who walk this path.