GOLDEN — Cowboys in worn-out Wranglers are leaning on the fence, watching as the bucking chute opens and a steer busts out. Kids climb the stands carrying hot dogs, and a Florida Georgia Line song blasts from the arena speakers.
It feels like every rodeo, especially when the announcer cracks a corny joke about “Denver, California.”
But look closer. The steer that just leaped from the chute at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds is now being “decorated,” which is to say a two-person team is holding the 500-pound animal by a rope around its horns and tying a 2-foot ribbon to its manure-stained tail. Later, in a crowd-pleaser called the “wild drag race,” a contestant dressed in drag holds on with all four limbs as a bucking steer attempts to shake him off.
Here’s what else is different: Cowgirls compete in chute dogging, steer riding and bull riding. And men are allowed — and encouraged — to compete in barrel racing and pole bending, horseback events traditionally for women on the professional rodeo circuit.
This is gay rodeo, an offshoot sport that began in the mid-1980s when gay cowboys weren’t welcomed into the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. When they did compete in the PRCA, they kept their sexual orientation to themselves.
“We had contestants that competed on our circuit and the PRCA, but on our circuit they competed under a different name,” said Robert Thurtell, who rode bulls for 16 years while his longtime partner rode broncs. “That’s how far we’ve come.”
Expanding to the straight community
Gay rodeo isn’t needed the same way it once was, but it’s still relevant, said Thurtell, rodeo director for the International Gay Rodeo Association, headquartered in Colorado.
“There is less and less need for a safe-haven place,” he said. “Amongst ourselves, we are also trying to transition. When you fight for acceptance, and now that you have it, what do you do with it?”
The gay rodeo circuit, an amateur rodeo that trains people to ride and rope, is “expanding to the straight community,” said Thurtell, who wears a straw hat and a mustache, and drives a semi truck for a living. Thurtell dated a high-school rodeo queen who introduced him to the sport, then he married another woman and had two daughters before he came out at age 33.
When Thurtell, 59, started competing, pretty much everyone on the gay rodeo circuit was gay. Now, that’s not the case.
Bull rider Briggs Maycock, a 28-year-old who won the buckle last weekend in Golden, is straight. The lean, brown-haired cowboy whose signature song is AC/DC’s Hells Bells, tours the circuit with his girlfriend, Courtney Simmons, a barrel racer.
Straight friends have thrown shade at Maycock, or at least looked bewildered when he tells them he competes in gay rodeo. “They’re like, ‘Are you secret or are you in the closet?’” he said. “They give me quite a hard time sometimes.’”
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Maycock started bull riding after a heart attack, caused by a viral infection, that motivated him to tick off his bucket list. Then last year, Maycock’s roommates in Utah took him to his first gay Pride event, where he noticed a kiosk for the gay rodeo association. He signed up.
Maycock, who has since moved to Colorado, has also competed in professional rodeo, but prefers the atmosphere on the gay rodeo circuit. “Here, everybody likes to coach you and teach you and tell you what you did wrong, what you did right,” he said, taking a lunch break between steer riding and bull riding. “Everybody loves everybody. Gay, straight, it doesn’t matter.”
Gay rodeo is still needed, he said, because “old-timers” in other rodeos aren’t as accepting of the LGBTQ community as the younger generation. As for Maycock, he dressed as Marilyn Monroe, complete with a white dress and blonde wig, for the wild drag race.
“Gay” is in the title so people know they’re accepted
Stefani and Jeff Curtis call themselves the “token straight couple” in the Colorado gay rodeo community. They got involved because of their neighbor, John Beck, winner of several all-around gay rodeo titles and a member of the International Gay Rodeo Association Hall of Fame.
Stefani adopted some horses and fell in love with the gay rodeo scene. Now she organizes the youth rodeo, and her 5-year-old son, Jax, competes in calf roping on foot (instead of horseback), pole bending, barrel racing and goat dressing, which is a gay-rodeo specality where a team puts underwear on a goat.
Jax rides a brown-gray miniature horse named Pippy, but will graduate to a full-size horse this year. He won a horse blanket in the junior competition last weekend.
His 72-year-old grandmother, Mary Pastorini, competes, too. They’ve become part of the gay rodeo family, which these days includes kids and grandkids, some of whom were adopted by two gay cowboy dads.
“If your horse comes up lame, they say, ‘Take my horse,’” Pastorini said. “They’re out to beat you, don’t misunderstand me, but it’s friendly.”
Here’s the thing everybody says about gay rodeo — they come to have fun. Even the staff at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds takes note of the spirit in the place when the Rocky Mountain Regional Gay Rodeo comes to town.
The weekend kicked off with a barn dance Friday night, and after a full day of rodeo Saturday, there was a toga party. A bar set up in the dirt outside the arena served bloody Marys and beers while people lip synched on a nearby stage.
At grand entry, when rodeo royalty dressed in drag rides around the arena in the bed of a pickup truck, riders on horseback carry not only the American and Colorado flags, but a rainbow flag and a pink and blue transgender flag.
A handful of cowboys and cowgirls wear rainbow-colored pants or shirts, but for the most part, the gay rodeo isn’t showy. It looks nothing like Pridefest. Competitors, who numbered 77 last weekend, are in chaps and spurs and, in some cases, protective vests, just like any other rodeo.
“Nobody cares if you are a drag queen that’s wrestling a steer or if you are straight, married and three kids and competing in the rodeo,” said Tre Brewbaker, a competitor and volunteer who lives in Minnesota but travels the gay rodeo circuit. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s not a focal point for us. The only reason we have ‘gay’ in the title is so that people know they are accepted. If it’s a problem for people, then they don’t have to do it because who cares? We don’t want that negativity.”
Brewbaker, 36, works at T-Mobile but spends the bulk of his free time — and money — traveling to gay rodeos.
“This is our family,” he said. “We don’t just compete in the rodeo, we go through things together.”
“It’s about doing the best you can. I’m a big sports fan, but this is the only sport where all the competitors cheer us on. We don’t want someone to fail. If they beat us, they deserve it, and they’re your friends.”
Female athletes are celebrated
The International Gay Rodeo Association was founded in Colorado in 1985 with five initial member states: Colorado, Texas, California, Oklahoma and Arizona. The association — which bills itself as the largest rodeo in the world “specifically welcoming lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender as well as heterosexual participants and spectators” — now has 5,000 members.
The rodeos raise money for various charities, including cancer and HIV research. During the “circle of life” presentation, a new foal trots around the arena as the announcer asks the audience to remember those from the community who have died.
Next up this season are events in Calgary, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Scottsdale.
“In between rodeos, most of us can’t wait until the next one because that’s when we see our family and friends,” said R.J. Mikels, one of the circuit’s female chute doggers. Mikels, who lives in Arizona, started as part of the chute crew and a timer, then decided to compete in rough stock last year.
Rough stock events are the person-against-beast competitions, including bull and saddle bronc riding and chute dogging, where the contestant hops inside the chute with a young steer and tries to keep hold of it after the gate opens. A chute dogger attempts to bring the steer out 10 feet, then wrestle it to the ground by turning its head.
While Mikels competes, her wife works as a scorekeeper. The female competitors are outnumbered, but not overshadowed, she said. A film crew spent the weekend following bull rider Breana Knight, a Coloradan and one of the few female bull riders in the country.
“Here, everybody is equal,” Mikels said.