Recommended: Time to Ride: The Mythos of the Cowboy
Who do you picture when you hear the word “cowboy”? The typical portrayal 一 often white and heteronormative 一 doesn’t tell the complete story of the West, according to Craig Miller, a folklorist who studied gay rodeo during the 1990s.
The International Gay Rodeo Association was formed in 1985 to dispell these sterotypes about who has a role in rodeo. Today its events, open to all but specifically welcoming LQBTQ participants, are broadcasted around the world. But when gay rodeo began taking form in the 1970s, this wasn’t the case. Even as it grew to make up the second-largest rodeo circuit in the world, it was often kept on the down low by participants who didn’t want to expose themselves to discrimination.
“There were contestants who rode under a pseudonym or who requested that no photos be taken,” Miller said. “Some feared harassment from other rodeo circuits where they rode” or discrimination from their home town that would deprive them of their home and livelihood.
Earlier this fall, Miller presented his paper, “Gay Rodeo; a Celebration of Western Urban Heritage and Urban Gay Culture,” in the gallery of the University of Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. Blake Little’s black-and-white photographs of cowboys and cowgirls from the same era lined the walls. “I’m really excited to see so many beautiful photographs on something that was really ignored for so many years,” Miller said.
Little’s exhibit, ‘Photographs from the Gay Rodeo,’ opened on Sept. 6 and will run through Jan. 19. It displays 41 photographs; some are classic portraits while others catch riders mid-action or give more intimate behind-the-scenes glimpses of the event. As a rodeo rider and photographer, Little offers an inside look at a little-known world. “Back then, I questioned if I was a ‘real’ cowboy because in the back of my mind, I always felt like an observer 一 and photography was my first passion,” he said. “But my unique situation allowed me to document the growing sport of gay rodeo from the inside, along with the thrills and personal challenges of fulfilling my cowboy dreams.”
Little’s photographs capture moments of gay rodeo from Oklahoma to California between 1988 and 1992 when the movement was taking off. In the 1990s, Miller joined him as one the first people permitted to document gay rodeo. The rodeo events he attended were “a unique community celebration” that blended western and gay culture; the symbolic rainbow flag and pink traingle were just as prominent as boots, saddles and fringe.
During the grand entry that opened each event, participants led riderless horses with boots reversed in the stirrups to represent late rodeo riders. “This very poignant part of the grand entry has become emotional because of the dozens of gay rodeo cowboys who were lost to AIDS just in the past decade,” Miller said.
While the events Miller attended included many of the steer, horse and roping events found in traditional rodeo, the camp events were the most “singularly characteristic of gay rodeo.”
“These events are not only spectator events, but they also provide the gay community the opportunity to respond with humor to the sterotyping which has victimized them for generations,” he said. Steer decorating plays with the generalization that gay men are inherently creative and artisitic.
Goat dressing 一 in which teams of two race to fit a pair of men’s jockey shorts on the back legs of a goat 一 “attacks the stereotype that gay men are fixated on sex.” But the most enlightening camp event is the Wild Drag Race, Miller said. Teams of one man, one woman and one person dressed in drag cooperate to help the drag king or queen mount a steer and ride it across the finish line.
“This is by far the most popular event in gay rodeo. It uses humor, theater and rough action to incorporate the most incongruent elements of urban gay culture with rural lifestyles,” Miller said. When the “rough and tumble cowboys and cowgirls” of the west reappear in drag outfits to perform rodeo events, different aspects of their identities are integrated rather than divided or pitted against each other.
Miller also noted that “the team structure of the wild drag race also breaks the stereotype that lesbians, effeminate men and masculine men do not respect each other.” Little agrees that this supportive culture 一 even between competitors 一 “was the most memorable and rewarding thing about rodeo.”
Gay cutlure in the west “has always been agressively ignored,” Miller said and gay individuals escaping intolerant families or socieities, women ranching without men and marginalized communities accomplishing difficult labor are often overlooked. “Because rural gays and lesbians are invisible in the history and contemporary culture of the American west, their existence as a community has been very difficult to identify,” he said. But projects like Miller’s research and Little’s exhibit can help fill this void in our perception of the wild west.