www.newyorker.com /news/letter-from-the-southwest/the-renewed-importance-of-the-texas-gay-rodeo

The Renewed Importance of the Texas Gay Rodeo

Rachel Monroe 14-17 minutes 4/30/2023

Early on the first day of the Texas Tradition Rodeo, in Denton, Texas, workers at a concession stand handed out free cinnamon buns and Styrofoam cups of coffee as a pair of goats grazed under the bleachers. The parking lot slowly filled with trucks bearing bumper stickers that said things like “Been doing cowboy shit all day.” A tractor circled the arena, raking the dirt. After everyone stood for the national anthem, an announcer came over the crackly P.A. system and offered a prayer, asking God to bless that day’s competitors, “the cowboys, cowgirls, and those in between.”

A person in cowboy gear watches rodeo events.

“When this all started,” Sarah Nickels, a queer competitor in the Gay Rodeo, noted, “you didn’t use your real name, you didn’t take photographs, it was very hush-hush. If you knew, you knew.”

Sarah Nickels and her partner, Aurielle Dickerson, had arrived the night before from their home in San Angelo, four hours away. They spent the night in a tent in the back of Sarah’s Ford F-350 and, in the morning, Aurielle made breakfast tacos on a camp stove while Sarah practiced her roping. Sarah, who is twenty-three, has cropped hair, a forward-canted stride, and an air of low-key competence. She grew up in Houston and started riding horses when she was eight. More recently, she became interested in roughstock, the bucking-bronco- and bull-riding competitions that are rodeo’s most dangerous, and most high-profile, events. “It’s the adrenaline,” she told me. “There’s no better feeling than the second they jump out of that chute. Oh, man. You know you’re in for a ride, and you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Sign up for The Daily.

Receive the best of The New Yorker, every day, in your in-box.

Many rodeo associations limit roughstock competitions to men, but online research led Sarah to a circuit that didn’t have any such restrictions. It was appealing to her for other reasons, too. The first competition of what eventually became the International Gay Rodeo Association was held in Reno, Nevada, in 1976. Within a few years, the one-off event had evolved into a gay-rodeo circuit, with subchapters scattered throughout the West; the Texas Gay Rodeo Association was established in 1983. This year, there are a dozen I.G.R.A. events, in places like Salt Lake City and Las Vegas and Santa Fe, culminating in the World Gay Rodeo Finals in El Reno, Oklahoma, in October.

I.G.R.A. competitions supplement standard rodeo offerings—barrel racing, calf roping, bull riding—with what are known as “camp events,” including goat dressing (which involves putting underwear on a goat) and wild drag race (which involves a team helping a person in drag mount a steer and ride it across the finish line). Last year, Sarah and Aurielle road-tripped to the I.G.R.A. finals in Las Vegas, where they sat in the stands with rodeo veterans and heard stories about the old days. “When this all started, you didn’t use your real name, you didn’t take photographs, it was very hush-hush. If you knew, you knew,” Sarah said. In Denton, Sarah planned to enter a bronc-riding event and also attempt bull riding for the first time. She’d brought her lucky penny and her special chaps, cut from caramel-colored leather and hand-stitched with rainbow thread.

Queens from years past ride in the back of a pickup truck at the Gay Rodeo Parade.

“It started as a social club, and then AIDS came along,” Mac McMillan said, of the Texas Gay Rodeo Association. “We did this to raise money, to take care of people.”

A cowboy wrestles a steer to the ground in the chute-dogging event.

Mac McMillan, a lanky, sun-browned man who spent most of the day manning the stock chutes with a cigarette dangling from his mouth, has been involved with the T.G.R.A. for decades. “It started as a social club, and then AIDS came along,” he said. “We did this to raise money, to take care of people. The medications were astronomically expensive, plus food, housing. We had to do what we had to do.” Mac grew up in rural Texas. He realized at a young age that he was attracted to men, but he didn’t see a way to reconcile his sexuality with the country life style he preferred. He attempted a couple of marriages and had some kids, but he could never make it work. Then, in the nineties, he was at a gay bar in Fort Worth when a guy caught his eye. They flirted by sending a mutual friend between them as an emissary, both too stubborn to get up and talk to the other. “Mac, you don’t understand, this guy wants to make you breakfast in the morning,” the friend finally said, exasperated. The breakfast was fantastic—eggs, bacon, biscuits, gravy—and Mac and his partner, a former barrel racer, have been together ever since, although Mac’s family still refers to them as “roommates.”

For Mac, the gay-rodeo world was a revelation. The scene was vibrant and defiant, a place he could feel fully himself. Daytimes were devoted to competition, and in the evening everyone would gather for some sort of entertainment—sometimes two-stepping, sometimes a drag show in which queens in crinolines and boots lip-synched to country songs. At the 1982 gay rodeo in Reno, where Joan Rivers served as grand marshal, ten thousand people packed the stands.

Entertainment sometimes includes a drag show, with queens donning cowboy boots and lip-synching to country songs.

These days, the number of competitors and spectators is a fraction of what it once was. “A lot of your population is in your big metropolitan areas, and kids just don’t want to do this anymore,” Mac said. He also theorized that, as gay culture has gone mainstream, there is less of a need for separate spaces: “Now you go to Round-Up”—a country-and-Western L.G.B.T.Q. dance club in Dallas—“and there are as many straight people as there are gays.”

But, at a time when the urban-rural divide is as politically polarized as it’s ever been, fans of gay rodeo have come to appreciate it as a place where rural signifiers—big hats, big trucks, George Strait songs—have a different valence. “People think, O.K., you’re country—you’re a white, conservative, small-minded person. And that’s just not how it is,” Aurielle said.

Sarah and Aurielle met about a year ago, when they were both in Austin, swiping on Tinder and feeling glum about their options. “I never really felt like I fit into any of the gay communities and I never really vibed with the folks in the city,” Aurielle said. “The scene there was very artsy, like, ‘Let’s go get coffee, no bad vibes.’ ” Both Sarah and Aurielle had their horses as their profile pictures. On their first date, at a Cajun restaurant in Marble Falls, the two stayed until closing time. Sarah and Aurielle recently moved to San Angelo, an Air Force town on the Río Conchos that’s also home to West Texas’s biggest stock show and rodeo. Sarah has a saddlery business and also works for a metal fabricator; Aurielle does carpentry and is hoping to take over their grandfather’s sawmilling business.

In San Angelo, they’d encountered “all these awesome, welcoming people,” Sarah said. There was John, an enormous mechanic, who, upon meeting Aurielle, had growled, “Are you a lesbian?” He’d let a dramatic pause linger before bellowing gleefully, “Because I love lesbians! All our best employees have been butch lesbians.” Or the cowboy who, when he learned that Aurielle was identifying as nonbinary, leaning transmasculine, started inviting them to guys-only hangouts as “one of the dudes.” (Aurielle prefers they/them pronouns, but still identifies as a lesbian.)

John and Jeff in the stands at the Gay Rodeo.

A cowgirl rides her horse around the area to wrangle loose cattle after roping competitions.

The Texas legislature, however, seems to be moving in the opposite direction. With abortion banned in Texas and few gun restrictions remaining, conservative politicians in the state have increasingly turned their attention to controlling the public expression of gender and sexuality. This year, the state legislature is considering bills that would prohibit gender-affirming care for trans youth, impose fines on establishments that host “sexually oriented” drag performances when children are present, and ban classroom teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity. The political hostility has seeped into daily life. “Being in small towns, and being masc-presenting butch lesbians, it’s rare that we go to a public bathroom without having someone stare us down and tell us we’re in the wrong bathroom,” Sarah said.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Denton rodeo had a clandestine air. When I drove through the fairgrounds’ entrance gate, I initially thought I was in the wrong place; there was no sign announcing the event. Nearly everyone I spoke with in Denton had no idea that the rodeo was happening, or even that there was such a thing as a gay rodeo. The president of T.G.R.A.’s Dallas chapter told me that he’d suggested advertising the event on local country-music stations, but that the idea was voted down. The guardedness is partly a habit held over from the old days and partly a response to the unsettling political atmosphere in Texas, where drag events regularly meet with belligerent protesters. As a younger spectator, who was taking photographs of the event, told me, “I could put this on TikTok and it would go so viral. But I don’t know if they want that.”

The calf-roping competitors pose for a portrait.

A man wears a plaid button-up with two shirtless cowboys.

At the end of the day, competitors and attendees gather for drinks and dancing.

But there are encouraging signs, too. Wade Earp, a longtime T.G.R.A. participant (and a direct descendant of Wyatt Earp’s brother Virgil) told me that he’s been happy to see the growing number of allies who come to gay rodeos as participants and spectators. (Earlier, I had stopped to chat with a couple in matching mobility scooters who were watching their son Brady ride in the ranch-bronc competition. I asked if he was gay, and his stepmother sighed. “No, I wish,” she said. “He’s gay in spirit.”) In part, that’s due to Wade’s recruitment efforts. A few years ago, he met some straight female bull riders at the Fort Worth stockyards: “They were, like, ‘The men won’t let us ride,’ and I said, ‘Come to the gay rodeo!’ ” A half-dozen showed up at the next event, and soon they started bringing friends.

One was Kristyl O’Brien, a small, wiry bull rider from Greenville, Texas. Kupkake, as everyone at T.G.R.A. referred to her, wore a “Cowkids for Christ” patch on her vest, which some spectators eyed warily. She met her husband at a bull-riding school, where she was the only woman. “I got on one of the better bulls, and he was scared for me,” she said. “I rode it quite a ways, and he was, like, ‘All right.’ ” They breed bucking bulls, so she has plenty of stock to practice on: “There’s jump kickers, there’s nice slow spinners, there’s bulls that’ll spin one way, then jump and go the other way, there’s the mean ones, and then there are ones that you just don’t know what they’re going to do.” But, after years of riding bulls professionally, a bit of the shine had worn off. The I.G.R.A. events helped rekindle some of her affection for the sport: the people were nice, the stock was easier to ride, and she had the opportunity to make a little money. “I’m trying to find that fun again, you know?” she said. “And this is fun.”

A cowboy lassos a bull for the steer-decorating finals.

Justin Willis poses for a portrait after being thrown from his horse at the Ranch Saddle Bronc event.

Justin Willis, who is a teacher and a professional bull rider, said that, although he’s straight, he appreciated the general commitment to inclusivity at I.G.R.A. events. Justin, who is Black, told me that he appreciated the mission statement posted on the I.G.R.A. Web site, which reads, in part, “Without regard to race, ethnic group, or sexual orientation, the men and women from within IGRA’s Member Associations share and teach each other not only the skills and competitive fun of Rodeo, but also those of human fellowship and teamwork to accomplish whatever we set before ourselves as a goal.” Justin has ridden in plenty of rodeos—“I’ve done the C.P.R.A. and the U.P.R.A. and B.P.I.R., I do P.B.R., I’m a member of the Military Rodeo Cowboys Association,” he said—and told me that the I.G.R.A. has a notably welcoming culture: “If you’re not in the chute, you don’t really know how it is. The people here, they want to help you.”

On Sunday, an hour before the second bull-riding competition, the rodeo’s final event, Sarah and Aurielle sat in the stands, surrounded by spectators wearing pearl-snap shirts, pressed jeans, belts with big buckles. (As a man from Oklahoma told me, dressing up has always been an essential part of cowboy culture, gay or straight.) Aurielle told a story about leaving the Ozarks after a frightening backcountry run-in with a group of A.T.V.-riding creeps. “People get scared of rural communities because they expect things like that,” they said. “But, as much as I got chased out, I’m still always going to go back.”

A cowboy orders a drink at the awards ceremony after the Gay Rodeo.

Sarah’s attention was occasionally snagged by the barrel racers competing in the arena. “Nice ride, cowgirl,” the announcer said after one particularly speedy run. The day before, Sarah had been thrown hard by a bronc. “I broke my fall with my face,” she said ruefully. “I messed up my nose, I think technically it’s broken. Got a mouthful of dirt and a pretty good headache. I had a helmet on, otherwise I probably would’ve been in the dirt, taking a nap.” She’d opted to sit out the first day of bull riding, since her head had still felt a little swimmy. On Sunday, the bronc ride had gone much better, although she hadn’t made time. (At I.G.R.A events, a ride must last six seconds to qualify; at many others, it’s eight.)

An hour later, Sarah was standing in the chute, a black bull fidgeting beneath her. She’d drawn the same animal that she’d watched another contestant ride the day before, and she was concerned it was “looky”—it had bucked the rider off, then turned around as if it might come after her. Sarah was quiet for a moment, considering, and then she shook her head decisively. She would not ride a bull that day. “I didn’t want to take that risk my first time,” she told me later. Maybe she would go out to Kupkake’s bull-riding school, in Greenville. Maybe she’d find a bullpen in San Angelo to practice. Maybe she’d come back to the gay rodeo next year and have the ride of her life. ♦

Ribbons for the events at the Gay Rodeo are sprawled out on a table.