It’s a lot like any other rodeo, on an August weekend in a fairground arena as folks hide out from the monsoon rains. Friday-night cowboys with mustaches stroll past women wearing baggy-in-the-seat jeans and plaid flannel shirts. Tall men with big hats hug one another, catch up on circuit gossip, and check out newcomers. Pungent blasts of cigarette smoke interrupt the sweet smell of manure; the riders down Miller Lite in plastic cups. They’ve all come to the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Posse Arena to watch or ride in the New Mexico Gay Rodeo Association’s Zia Rodeo, one of more than 20 gay rodeos across the country.
"You can’t be a cowboy if you’re gay. It’s not possible." Ty, who grew up in western Nebraska, used to believe that. She started riding horses when she was 2 and participated in her first rodeo at age 8. When she was in college, she realized she was gay and dropped out of the rodeo scene. Then she met someone from the gay rodeo, and found her way home again. "I was like, ‘Well, hee ha!’ I’ve been back into it 11 years and I love it."
She’s one of the 60 or so cowboys and cowgirls who this weekend will wrestle 600-pound steers out of the bucking chute, ride broncs bareback and weave half-ton horses gracefully through a series of poles. When the national anthem plays, the participants take off their hats, place them over their pearly buttoned shirts and gaze reverently at Old Glory.
Just another rodeo, in other words. But underneath the face paint and behind the bandanas, even the clowns have GQ skin and smiles. Between twangy country tunes that bellow over the loudspeakers, a contestant talks in detail about the outfit Christina Aguilera wore during a recent television appearance.
Punctuating traditional bronc-busting events are less common contests: In goat dressing, for example, teams work together to wrestle Jockey underwear onto a goat chained in the middle of the arena. Then there’s the wild drag race, where one cowboy and one cowgirl must hoist a drag queen atop a steer and guide them across the finish line.
Keenan’s one of the contestants. A flight attendant by trade, he is tall, fastidious, and terribly mischievous. When I ask if protesters ever crash gay rodeos, he replies, "Well, sometimes PETA will show up." He’s distracted by the goodies in the registration packet: a rodeo number, safety pins and a T-shirt, along with condoms and information about HIV testing. "But sometimes, like in Las Vegas, they’re just given their own area to protest in." I pursue the question: Do anti-gay protesters ever appear? Is there ever a threat of violence? "Oh, please," says Jeff from Tucson, listening in. He points around the tent: "Look at these boys. They know how to kick ass."
The author writes from Albuquerque, N.M., where she wrangles bantam chickens in her backyard.