Story by Kortny Rolston-Duce and Photography by Kort Duce, Colorado Exposure
It’s late in the morning on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend and trucks hauling horses are streaming into the Bert Gregg Memorial Arena in Arvada. The sun and temperatures are climbing, and the blue Colorado sky is free of wildfire smoke.
Some are leading horses out of trailers and unloading tack. Some are gathered around a small hut, checking in for the gymkhana, a timed competition in which riders race around obstacles in various events. Others are setting up tents for shade and greeting and hugging fellow participants.
It’s the last official competition of the season for the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association and everyone attending is excited to squeeze in one last event in a momentous year. 2021 marks the 40th anniversary of CGRA.
“We are the longest-running gay rodeo association in the country,” said John Beck, who is one of the organization’s earliest member and served as president for most of 2021. “It’s something I’m proud of.”
Some participants at the gymkhana identify as LGBTQ, some don’t. It’s not an issue or discussed. For those in attendance, the Labor Day even is about spending time with friends they consider family and doing what they love most – riding horses.
“This is my rodeo family,” said Courtney Simmons, who regularly competes in association events with her daughters, niece, and boyfriend. “Everybody is pretty laid back and here to have fun. We love these events.”
The roots of gay rodeo
CGRA officially formed in 1981 but its genesis can be traced to the Reno Gay Rodeo, which was first held at the Washoe County Fairgrounds in Nevada in 1976. The event was conceived by Phil Ragsdale as a fundraiser and drew around 150 participants its first year.
Participation in the yearly event swelled over the next few years as word of the event spread. It was eventually renamed the National Reno Gay Rodeo and at its heights drew hundreds of participants and raised tens of thousands of dollars for various charities.
The event was not without controversy. Ragsdale struggled to rent livestock for the inaugural rodeo once people realized it was affiliated with the LGBTQ community. He ended up buying a handful of animals the day before.
Participants also were careful. Those who didn’t want to be identified or photographed wore different bibs than other contestants for fear of retaliation.
“The (Reno rodeo) was a safe place and they could be more open about who they were, but they also feared being found out on the regular rodeo circuit,” said Dr. Nick Villanueva, a CGRA member and University of Colorado-Boulder professor who has researched the impact of gay rodeos.
And as the national rodeo grew in popularity so did the backlash. In the early 1980s, public fear about AIDS, how the disease was transmitted, and its spread among homosexual males was rampant. It drew protestors and was eventually shut down.
Beck experienced that backlash firsthand in the early 1980s. He had driven through the night from Colorado to Reno, hauling his horses in a trailer. When he arrived at the arena, he was met with locked gates and a sheriff’s deputy who informed him the event was cancelled.
“He told me neighbors had gotten together and gone to a judge to get the Reno rodeo shut down because they didn’t want gay people in the county,” Beck said.
It didn’t stop there. Beck was arrested and spent the night in jail. He was able to reach Wayne Jackino, a CGRA founder, who was able to get them out.
“Word got back to Denver (and Wayne) about what happened, and they put up the bail money to get me out,” he said. “The deputies wouldn’t even let me feed and water my horses. They did it and I had to leave right away.”
The start of CGRA
It’s one of many dark memories for Beck, who was forced to leave his family’s ranch in Nebraska in the middle of the night because of harassment.
He’d been married and later divorced and was eventually outed. He became a pariah overnight. People he’d known his whole life would stop talking when he entered a local diner and avoid him. But the situation escalated when local Ku Klux Klan members got involved.
A barn mysteriously burned. Then some machinery. He found a scarf tied around his border collie puppy with a note that warned him to leave town or die. About a week later, he found his dog dead on his doorstep with a warning that he was next.
Beck no longer felt safe. He packed up his belongings and left for Colorado in the middle of the night. He pulled into Denver on November 1, 1981. For someone who grew up on a ranch in rural Nebraska, it was a shock.
“I’m country and knew nothing about the city,” he said.
But Beck eventually found his way to Charlie’s, a country western gay bar. There he met Jackino and others who were familiar with the Reno rodeo. They were interested in starting a gay rodeo association in Colorado and asked Beck to come up with a list of events in exchange for free rum and Cokes.
He sat in the basement and started brainstorming ideas for a rodeo in Colorado. He proposed incorporating all the traditional rodeo events and adding steer decorating, wild drag and other camp events that have become hallmarks of gay rodeos since. (Contestants must compete in camp events to be crowned best all-around cowboy or cowgirl.)
“These camp events are now used nationwide and at international competitions,” Beck said. “We signed releases for Germany and France to use them.”
Gay rodeo and CGRA both have been challenging assumptions and stereotypes about rodeos, cowboys, cowgirls, and LGBTQ culture since their inception.
Villanueva has conducted extensive research on the topic and has submitted a book manuscript to an academic publishing company about the overlooked role gay rodeo played in the gay liberation movement that started in the late 1960s and lasted into the mid-1980s.
The Reno rodeo generated interest and proved there was support for such events. Multiple gay rodeo associations such as CGRA were formed in its wake and those organizations began sponsoring events in Colorado, Texas, and other locations across the United States.
Some events experienced backlash but other communities were more accepting, Villanueva said.
“Gay rodeo participants followed the script in these communities,” he said. “They looked straight. They looked and acted like what people expected of cowboys. It wasn’t the flamboyance they saw on television at marches or events in big cities. They could relate.”
Public sentiment toward the LGBTQ community has changed dramatically over the past several decades and gay rodeo is much more accepted. However, organizations such as CGRA are still disrupting notions and stereotypes of both rodeo and this subculture within the LGBTQ community.
People today are often surprised to hear that such organizations and events exist and have for decades or that not all CGRA members, such as Simmons, identify as LGBTQ.
When Simmons first joined the organization, her stepfather and others asked her why. Her response was and has always been that she loves gymkhanas and rodeo and found a unique sense of community and camaraderie within CGRA.
“Everyone roots for one another and has fun even if they are competing against one another,” said Simmons, who participated in the “old person” division at the Labor Day gymkhana alongside Beck.
Her enthusiasm convinced her stepfather to attend some of the CGRA events, which helped change his perceptions about the LGBTQ community. Originally, Simmons said, her stepfather fretted that some of the men would hit on him. But after meeting members and attending events, his perceptions shifted dramatically.
“He realized it wasn’t at all what he thought,” Simmons said. “He decided to reconnect with his brother who is gay, and they were able to rebuild their relationship before my stepdad died.”
More like family
A few weeks after the gymkhana, participants once again gathered at the Jim Gregg Memorial Arena to celebrate the end of another season, enjoy a potluck, and hand out trophies, ribbons, and prizes to the winners of the Labor Day event.
It was a chance for the close-knit group to heckle and rib one another, especially Beck. For him and countless others, the CGRA community has been a lifeline and refuge.
“This is my family,” Beck, 72, said. “They’ve gotten me through so much.”