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May 2010 Email this to a friend
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Ride 'em, cowboy!

By Troy Petenbrink

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When I met Bart Forbes at the inaugural Stampede Rodeo, sponsored by the Philadelphia-based Liberty Gay Rodeo Association in 2008, I thought, 'This guy is hot.' And I meant that literally.
The 53-year-old Forbes had just finished his chute-dogging heat. He is a handsome man, but I had to get past the sweat and dirt that was coating him from his hat to his boots -- and, of course, the ever-present smell of livestock -- before I noticed how good he looked in his tight jeans and the blue western shirt he says brings him luck.
Forbes, who weighs in at 150 pounds, had faced off with a steer almost three times his size, guiding it from a chute and wrestling it to the ground. He accomplished this in five seconds, earning him first place in the competition. The roar of the crowd was almost deafening.
Over the course of the rodeo, Forbes also placed fourth in calf roping and third in steer riding. His combined placements earned him the overall win in the rough-stock category, which included a cash prize and his first buckle, the rodeo version of a trophy, as well as my admiration.
Having ridden his first horse at about the age of three, it's no surprise that Forbes is a member of the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association. But although he was no stranger to rodeos, he did not decide to compete in one until 2005. He believes competing allows him to tap into a very different part of his inner self -- what he calls his "manly side."
"It's a celebration of American culture, which includes the gays," said Forbes, when asked why he is so drawn to the rodeo.
He is certainly not alone in his love: there are 5,000 members of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA).
The history of rodeos in the US can be traced back to the 1700s, when good horsemanship and roping were required skills in the American West. Over the decades, traditional rodeos have grown in size and scope, and today rodeo is a professional sport.
And while gay cowboys and cowgirls -- most of them deep in the closet -- have always been part of rodeo, the first gay competition wasn't held until 1976.
That year, in Reno, Nevada, Phil Ragsdale, who was part of the Imperial Court system and serving as Emperor I, had the idea of holding a gay rodeo as a community fundraiser.
Organizing that first gay rodeo was not an easy task. Local ranchers were unwilling to lend Ragsdale their stock (no steers for queers, apparently), but finally he was able to secure a handful of animals -- five cows, nine calves, one pig and one pony -- and pull off a successful event that drew just over 125 people.
Because of Ragsdale's involvement with the Imperial Court, this first rodeo was not only a sporting event but also had its share of pageantry, with the crowning of the King of the Cowboys, Queen of the Cowgirls and Miss Dusty Spurs (for drag queens, of course). To this day, the "royalty" competition is one of the most popular events at gay rodeos.
Over the next decade, the gay rodeo movement spread like wildfire across the country -- fueled in part by the phenomenon of the film Urban Cowboy. Houston held its first gay rodeo in 1983, and Dallas followed suit in 1984. By this point, the event in Reno had been around for almost a decade and was drawing crowds of more than 10,000 people.
Seeing a need to become more organized and standardize the rules, the regional gay rodeo associations of Colorado, Texas, California and Arizona banded together in 1985 to create the International Gay Rodeo Association.
In 2009, IGRA celebrated its silver anniversary. Today, it has 26 regional associations covering most of the US, as well as one regional association representing western Canada.
Gay rodeos sponsor many of the same events as those on the professional circuit, from bull riding to team roping. But being gay events, there are also camp competitions such as goat dressing, steer decorating and wild drag racing.
In goat dressing, a two-person team races to place a pair of underwear on a none-too-happy goat. In steer decorating, a two-person team must place a ribbon on a steer's tail while avoiding horns, hooves and the occasional "rear explosion." These two events are now so popular that they are occasionally found at non-gay rodeos.
Wild drag racing, which is found only at gay rodeos, consists of a man or woman in drag who must mount and ride a steer with the help of two teammates, one male and one female.
In addition to the serious competing, the rodeos include many associated activities for participants and the public such as dances and awards banquets.
In many cases, the regional associations sponsor more than just the rodeos. Some host rodeo schools to help recruit and train new participants or those individuals interested in a short-term experience of roping and riding. Others organize social events such as trail rides and barbecues.
The IGRA also sponsors an annual International Country Western Dance Competition, which takes place during the annual convention. According to IGRA president Brian Helander, the rodeos support their local communities by "raising millions of dollars for charity around the US and Canada," primarily for organizations focused on HIV-related and gay issues, health and social welfare.
Helander is serving his third two-year term as IGRA's president and has been competing since 1995 in roping, speed, rough-stock and camp events. He is a four-time international chute-dogging champion (2000, 2004, 2006 and 2008). In addition, he is the international goat-dressing record holder with his rodeo partner, Chuck Browning.
As a sign of the growing recognition of gay rodeo as part of the larger rodeo culture, the Autry National Center of the American West now houses the archives of IGRA in its permanent collection.
Of course, the gay rodeos have had their bumps and bruises -- and not just those that come from getting bucked by a bronco.
There have been consistent battles with animal rights advocates who oppose the use of animals for sport. And while it is unlikely that these two groups will ever agree, IGRA takes the care and well-being of their animals very seriously and follows strict rules regarding their treatment and care.
As in many sports, rodeo participants run the risk of physical injury. While IGRA says it works hard to ensure the safety of contestants, gay rodeos have seen serious injuries and even a few deaths.
In the past couple years, many regional associations have faced financial struggles, forcing the cancelation and postponement of a number of events.
Forbes, who sits on the board of directors for the Washington, DC-based Mid-Atlantic States Rodeo Association, one of the groups that had to cancel its 2010 rodeo, is busy planning for 2011. His lucky blue shirt is cleaned and pressed, but he can't wait to get it dirty again.

The 2010 gay rodeo circuit kicked off in February with the 25th RoadRunner Regional Rodeo held by the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association. Here is the schedule of remaining events.

Great Plains Rodeo:
Oklahoma City, OK
May 28-30, 2010, ogra.net

Gateway Regional Rodeo:
St Louis (Caseyville), MO
June 11-13, 2010, gwgra.com

Sierra Stampede:
Capital Crossroads Gay Rodeo Association
Sacramento (Rio Linda), CA
June 11-13, 2010, capitalcrossroads.org

Greater Motown International Rodeo:
Detroit (Belleville), MI
June 25-27, 2010, michiganrodeo.org

Canadian Rockies International Rodeo:
Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association
Calgary (Strathmore), AB
July 2-4, 2010, argra.org

Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo:
Denver (Golden), CO
July 9-11, 2010, cgra.us

Zia Regional Rodeo:
Albuquerque, NM
July 23-25, 2010, nmgra.com

Best Buck in the Bay:
San Francisco (La Honda), CA
August 13-15, 2010, bestbuckinthebay.com

Windy City Rodeo:
Chicago (Crete), IL
August 20-22, 2010, ilgra.com

MGRA Show-Me State Rodeo:
Kansas City, MO
September 3-5, 2010, mgra.us

Big D Rodeo:
Dallas (Alvarado), TX
September 10-12, 2010, tgra.org

Greater San Diego Rodeo:
San Diego (Lakeside), CA
September 10-12, 2010, sandiegorodeo.org

T-Town Rodeo:
Tulsa (Sperry), OK
October 1-3, 2010, soonerstaterodeo.com

IGRA World Gay Rodeo Finals:
Laughlin, NV
October 21-24, 2010, igra.com

For more information about the International Gay Rodeo Association,
visit igra.com.

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