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
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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
Tulsa (Sperry), OK
October 1-3, 2010, soonerstaterodeo.com
IGRA World Gay Rodeo Finals:
October 21-24, 2010, igra.com
For more information about the
International Gay Rodeo Association,