Alabama Public Radio recently aired multi-part audio series about the Cotton States Gay Rodeo Association’s quest to bring gay rodeo to Alabama. You can find the audio and related articles below. All content is © Copyright 2012, APR – Alabama Public Radio.
By Maggie Martin (May 29, 2012)
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FORT WORTH, TEXAS (APR – Alabama Public Radio ) – More than 100 people gathered in a large arena in Fort Worth, TX to watch and compete in what was called a “traditional” rodeo. However, the term traditional may depend on your point of view. The event is a gay rodeo. It’s like a traditional rodeo with bull riding and calf roping, but it’s open to the LGBT community.
John Beck of Denver is an expert on the gay rodeo. He’s hard to miss with his large, red feather on his cowboy hat. ”That’s been my signature for close to ten years,” he says. Beck is known as the Grandfather of the Gay Rodeo and is one of the oldest competitors on the circuit. He rode in straight rodeos too, but says the atmosphere of a gay rodeo is more welcoming.
“We work together better than in straight rodeos,” says Beck. “Straight rodeos, I hate to say, is more of a cut throat type business. We’re out here for camaraderie and fun and give the people who win a pat on the back. You don’t find that in other rodeos.”
Even though gay rodeos aren’t as competitive as their traditional counterparts, Beck says they’re just as dangerous. “I’ve had five ribs broken, both collar bones, both legs, one ankle. It doesn’t bother me.”
On the other side of the arena is a woman who’s also made a name for herself on the rodeo circuit. Lisa LeAnn Dalton of Fort Worth, TX is just above 5 ft. tall with short blonde hair and blue eyes. She’s dressed the part of a rodeo competitor with a black cowgirl hat and a championship buckle. But she’s not competing today. Five years ago, she had a bad accident in the arena that took her off the circuit. “I broke C5 and C6 and damaged my spinal cord and was paralyzed completely from the shoulders down. It’s been almost five years, but I can walk now.”
Dalton competed in gay rodeos for about five years before the accident and made her name riding bareback broncs. Among her other prizes, Dalton won the national rodeos twice. But Dalton isn’t gay. She’s straight, but she prefers gay rodeos because there are no gender restrictions. In traditional rodeos, women can hold the reins with both hands. That didn’t work for Dalton.
“I rode one-handed so I technically could ride in any rodeo and then I could qualify for and compete against the guys, but not all of them were interested in having girls so I was turned down some.”
Dalton says of the rodeos she competed in, gay rodeos were the funnest. But some of that fun has gone away now that she’s restricted to the sidelines. ”I love to come back and see all my friends but it’s a bummer because it’s not fun watching for me. I’d much rather competing,” says Dalton.
Music starts to blare in the arena and the crowd roars as chutes open for one of the most popular events-bull riding. Competitor Russell Schnitz of Gonzales, TX hangs on tight to his bull. But he doesn’t stay on long. He hits the dirt and barely gets out from under the bull. He has a bad scrape on his left cheek.
“I almost got him covered. Right at the buzzer I bucked off him and fell under him. He stepped on my face. And that was that,” says Schnitz, who is still slightly shaken by the incident. He’s been competing for 15 years and it’s taken a toll on him.
“I used to do every single event, but now that I am older, I just do a few. Today was the first day I rode the tough bulls in a long time. I usually just ride the smaller ones because I’m too old to be hurt and my friends talked me into the regular ones today.”
Schnitz, Dalton, and Beck have been competing in gay rodeo circuits for years in states like Texas and Colorado. But not in Alabama. That’s because there isn’t a gay rodeo here yet. A man in Birmingham wants to change that. Rick Vaughn is president of the Cotton States Gay Rodeo Association in Birmingham.
“I just felt it was a very positive thing for the gay community. And to show the rest of the world that we do things like everybody else does.” Vaughn says he wants to be seated by the International Gay Rodeo Association, or IGRA, by November. He wants to hold Alabama’s first gay rodeo by 2014.
By Maggie Martin (May 30, 2012)
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FORT WORTH, TX (APR – Alabama Public Radio ) – Excitement buzzes in the air of a large arena in Fort Worth, TX as the loudspeakers boom with the announcer’s voice. ”Ladies and Gentlemen! TGRA would like to welcome you to Fort Worth, Texas!”
The Texas Gay Rodeo Association is putting on its 29th gay rodeo and more than 100 people are ready to watch or compete. The events you’d watch at a gay rodeo aren’t all that different from something you’d see at a traditional rodeo. There’s the calf roping contest as well as bronco busting. But there are some events you can only find at a gay rodeo. They’re called camp events and they include goat dressing.
An announcer dressed in drag stands in the middle of the arena. ”If you have never seen this event, this is an event to watch, let me tell you! When you see gay men and lesbians running towards a goat and putting on underwear, it’s just hilarious!”
That’s right- underwear. Goat dressing is a race where teams of two run down to a goat. One person holds up the goat’s legs and the other puts on the underwear. It’s something to see, but the most popular camp event is Wild Drag Racing. John Beck is the Grandfather of the Gay Rodeo we met in Part One of our series. He invented Wild Drag Racing.
“Wild drag is you have your steer in the chute. The first line is the actual girl who has to hold the steer as the gate opens,” explains Beck. “The second line is the male. The third line, which is sixty feet back, is a person dressed in drag. The gate opens up, they blow the whistle, the steer comes out, you got to get it past the sixty foot line, and the drag has to get on the steer and ride back it across line. And the best time wins.”
Beck says the crowd goes crazy for Wild Drag Racing, and despite the costuming, seasoned competitors know it’s all business in the arena. ”It’s one of our most dangerous events,” says Kelly Peebles of Belen, New Mexico. He’s been competing for 11 years. “It’s when I was most seriously injured in Calgary a few years ago. I got gored up through my chin. And it’s one a lot of people participate in so it’s one you really need to be concerned with your safety in that event.”
We met contestant Russell Schnitz of Gonzales, TX in Part One of our series. He shares similar feelings about the event. ”I stress about that just because I’m the idiot that has to jump on and that can get kind of crazy. It’s pretty fast if it works out good, but if it doesn’t work out good, it can seem like you’re out there killing yourself for an hour.” Contestants are very aware of the seriousness of wild drag racing, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have fun. Schnitz is enthusiastic about his drag costume.
“I don’t really go all out because every time I’ve ever tried to go all out, I end up getting more hurt. So I just have this pink negligee kind of nightie thing that I have fit over the top of all my other clothes. It’s probably been to a thousand rodeos and the wig that I have is the same one I had in the very beginning.”
That wig that Schnitz has had in his 15 years on the circuit even has an identity. “Her name is Career Girl because she was quite a career girl cut whenever I found her,” says Schnitz. “And Career Girl and the pink nightie have probably won more money in the Wild Drag Race than anybody ever to go into the Wild Drag Race. They always give me hell every time they see me walk into the arena. They’re like Ugh! That outfit again!’”
It’s not just the camp events like goat dressing and Wild Drag that make gay rodeos unique. They’re a 501(c) 3 organization that raises money for charities ranging from AIDS groups to women centers. But being nonprofit has its challenges. Gene Fraikes of Fort Worth, TX is in the arena’s barn putting his horse, Fancy, in her stall. Fraikes is Vice President of the International Gay Rodeo Association, or IGRA. He says getting a gay rodeo up and running is all about money.
“That’s where sponsorships and corporations can help because it takes a lot of seed money to put one of these on. You can make money for your charities and that’s what it’s all about, but to actually get it started, you need some money to pay for a stock contractor, pay for these arena until people start showing up and paying ticket prices.”
That’s advice Rick Vaughn in Birmingham is taking to heart. He’s the President of the Cotton States Gay Rodeo Association. He wants to bring a gay rodeo to Alabama. He says his group needs to raise $600 to be seated with the IGRA and he’s working on achieving 501(c) 3 status with the IRS. Vaughn says that’s crucial because without it, large donations are less likely to come in.
“Right now it’s basically word-of-mouth that we’re just using. And using sites like Craigslist. There’s other gay sites we’ve been on just to get the word out about us,” says Vaughn.
In addition to money, Vaughn also needs to have enough members to be seated with the IGRA. Again,Gene Fraikes. ”It’s simply a numbers thing. If you have, I believe it’s 30 people, 20 of which have to live within your geographically defined area and then make out the application to IGRA. They recognize you as an association at that point and then at the next convention, which we have once a year, they seat them as delegates at that delegation.”
As a point of clarification, IGRA officials say the minimum requirement is 20 members, 10 of which need to be in Rick Vaughn’s geographical area. Thus far, Vaughn has 16 members, but he’s confident he’ll have more than enough people when the IGRA holds its convention in Las Vegas in November. He hopes to hold Alabama’s first gay rodeo by 2014.
By Maggie Martin (May 31, 2012)
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BIRMINGHAM, AL (APR – Alabama Public Radio ) – Early on a Saturday morning in Fort Worth, Texas, today’s gay rodeo is slowly picking up pace. Competitors quickly move to make it to their event and spectators wander about the arena. William Edlin of Austin, TX is bright-eyed and ready to go. In his eight years on the circuit, Edlin says he hasn’t seen too much conflict and anticipates a gay rodeo in Alabama will have a positive impact.
“It’ll open up a lot more eyes,” says Edlin. “You see we don’t have a lot in the audience right now, but later on we will. And it’s not just gay people. It’s also straight people that come and watch. My girlfriend who is straight is here. I’ve got some friends down in the arena who are straight that are here to watch too. They don’t care. They just love to come and watch the competition.”
Edlin says he’s straight, but he still takes the competitions at a gay rodeo very seriously. We met Russell Schnitz of Gonzales, TX earlier in our series. He has a fresh cut on his cheek from getting thrown off a bull. Schnitz says he’s seen competitors from traditional rodeo circuits make the mistake of treating a gay rodeo like a joke.
“They’re always like, what? They have those?’ and then in the past ten, fifteen years that we came to these, they [straight participants] always act like they’re just going to come and dominate and beat the fags and you can’t just show up at a gay rodeo- I don’t care if you’re the world champion.”
Other competitors echo this underlying theme of the gay community clashing with the straight world. We met John Beck of Denver, CO in parts one and two of our series. He’s known as the “Grandfather of the Gay Rodeo” and has been involved since the beginning. For Beck, his challenge with acceptance in the straight community started before he found solace in the gay rodeo.
“I was married four years. I got a divorce, no children. I grew up in a redneck town and I was threatened,” says Beck. “Our barn caught on fire. They killed a collie puppy. I’ve been through a lot. But I’ve been much happier when I moved to Denver. I don’t think I would have stayed in Denver if it hadn’t been for the rodeos.”
Beck is one of the circuit’s more familiar faces in the arena today, but he’s not the only one. Contestant Wade Earp stops to catch his breath in between events. If you follow the history of the Wild West, his last name may sound familiar. Wade is Wyatt Earp’s great-great-great nephew. He’s been competing in the gay rodeo circuit for 12 years and is optimistic that a gay rodeo in Alabama will be successful.
“We’ve been south before and they like us and we’ve also been there and they didn’t like us. You would hope with this day and age with the passing of several gay marriage rights across the country that maybe Alabama can be progressive enough to accept it,” says Earp.
Some fellow contestants may not be as quick to agree.
In the barn’s arena, Gene Fraikes is putting his horse, Fancy, in her stall. He’s the Vice President of the International Gay Rodeo Association, or IGRA. We met Fraikes earlier in our series. He says one arena in the Fort Worth area turned gay rodeo organizers away.
“And it’s because we’re gay,” says Fraikes. “It’s a gay rodeo and they actually cannot say that legally, but they insinuate that from the perspective of what they do and how they say things. It’s actually pretty clear and they cannot come out and say those words and they know it, so they don’t.”
Fraikes won’t say which arena he’s referring to, but he says things are slowly getting better.
“I look forward to the day this can just be a charity rodeo and not a gay rodeo. I think it’ll come, I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it, but in time it’ll come.”
To find out how what roadblocks a gay rodeo might face in Alabama, we headed to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. It’s about one block away from the capital, and notable for the bulletproof glass and the security guards walking the perimeter. It’s a civil rights organization heavily involved in gay rights in the South.
Staff Attorney Sam Wolfe says, “I think one of the things that a gay rodeo does is it helps really challenge the notion of what some people think about gay and lesbian and transgender people because it creates a space for people with a variety of gender expressions and sexual orientations. You don’t have to be gay to participate in the gay rodeo or go watch the gay rodeo.”
Wolfe says he’s optimistic that gay rodeo organizers in Alabama will find corporate sponsors willing to back them up. If Alabama organizers are turned away from locations like Texas organizers were, Wolfe says not much can be done about it.
“That would be discrimination,” says Wolfe. “Unfortunately, in Alabama and in many places in the United States, there is no specific public accommodations law that would prohibit that type of private discrimination against an entity. And so it would be difficult from a legal perspective to challenge that.”
SPLC Senior Fellow Marc Potok doesn’t share the same enthusiasm as his colleague.
“Frankly, I think it would be an uphill slog. I don’t doubt that it would make the papers and there would be a furious letter-writing campaign from certain quarters. And it would be probably depicted as some kind of gigantic exercise in perversity,” says Potok.
“Attitudes are changing towards the gay community, but there’s still a lot of people out there who think that gay rodeo and they think it’s a joke.”
Rick Vaughn of Birmingham is aware of the challenges ahead. He’s president of the Cotton States Gay Rodeo, and he says there’ll be naysayers in Alabama. But his focus is giving back to his community and establishing a gay rodeo to raise money for local charities by 2014.