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Cowboys, Queens, And Glitter At The World Gay Rodeo Finals

“Just because we have ‘gay’ in our title doesn’t make any of us any less of an athlete.”

Posted on December 21, 2018, at 10:40 a.m. ET

Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“Just because we have ‘gay’ in our title doesn’t make any of us any less of an athlete,” rough stock rider Breana Knight told BuzzFeed News the day before competing in the 32nd annual World Gay Rodeo Finals in Mesquite, Texas. “We’re out here, we’re getting dirty, we’re getting hurt — just like anyone else in any other rodeo.” Then again, you don’t see cowboys in drag at just any rodeo.

Dirty jeans, boots, big buckles, and a touch of glitter — that’s what you get with the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). Since its founding in 1985, a time when the stigma of being gay was strongly felt in the glare of the AIDS crisis, the IGRA has become the largest organization to host LGBT-friendly rodeos (you don’t have to be queer to compete) all over the US and Canada. Riding with pride and breaking down stereotypes — in both the rodeo and LGBT communities — has always been the organization’s aim. And you can feel that pride as soon as you step into the arena. The world finals feature traditional rodeo events (steer roping and bull riding) alongside more lighthearted and colorful “camp” events (Wild Drag and Goat Dressing).

While the athletes here may not always be comfortable being out and proud at other rodeos around the country, this is a place where queer cowboys and cowgirls, drag queens and drag kings, all come together to compete without judgment (aside from the actual judges, of course) alongside their chosen rodeo family. This group may be “come as you are,” but rodeo always comes first.

Dirt, glitter, and grit at the World Gay Rodeo Finals: “Just because we have ‘gay’ in our title doesn’t make any of us any less of an athlete."

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The rough stock (steers and bulls) aren’t necessarily professional rodeo circuit–level, but they aren’t meant to be. Riders and ropers here are mostly amateur competitors and part-time athletes, many of whom grew up around livestock but have since moved to urban areas and cities. Others continue to live in remote or rural areas, embodying that truly western lifestyle.

“I never imagined that the life that I grew up with, and then being gay, that those two would come together,” Sonny Koerner, who has been competing for over 20 years, said of discovering the gay rodeo in 1992. At first, he was skeptical. Koerner had grown up around livestock and took that lifestyle seriously. As he sat in the stands and watched, he quickly realized he had underestimated this group. “Here I saw a bunch of gay men and women doing the exact same thing I grew up with. The very next year I started competing as well.”

BuzzFeed News attended the event to speak with the rodeo queens, steer ropers, and bull riders about what makes them come from all over, year after year, to ride at the gay rodeo.

“We’re getting dirty, we’re getting hurt — just like anybody else at any other rodeo.”

Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“It was something I wanted to do as a child. I remember when PBR was starting to gain a little more traction and it was appearing on basic cable — I must have been six or seven — leaning up against my bed watching these riders compete. I thought to myself, I can do that.

“Just because we have ‘gay’ in our title doesn’t mean any of us are any less of an athlete. We’re out here. We’re committed to this. We’re getting dirty, we’re getting hurt — just like anybody else at any other rodeo. We’re a strong family unit. We care about the animals and we care about each other.

“When people find out that I’m a bull rider, it’s a mixed gamut of reactions. One is, you’re an idiot. Like, why are you doing that? And two, it’s the coolest thing to them. That it takes a mental awareness and preparation to actually get out here and do this.”

—Breana Knight, Colorado


Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed News

“There is definitely a level of risk involved and, as a partner, it’s kind of like putting my heart out there on the steer or out there on the bull.”

Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed News

“Waiting for Breana to ride I do feel this sense of nervousness and excitement. There’s a buzz that’s going on behind the shoots. There is definitely a level of risk involved and, as a partner, it’s kind of like putting my heart out there on the steer or out there on the bull.

“But I’m also confident in Breana’s abilities. I just kind of keep that under wraps and know that things will turn out the way they will.”

—Olivia Lusk, partner of Breana Knight, Colorado

Although the IGRA was founded in the mid-’80s, the history of gay rodeo in the US goes further back. The very first gay rodeo was held at the Washoe County Fairgrounds in Reno, Nevada, on Oct. 2, 1976. Through the early ’80s, the popularity of the Reno gay rodeo grew, with some drawing crowds of over 10,000 spectators — until the onset of the AIDS crisis. In 1983, conservative groups and protestors attempted to have the Reno gay rodeo shut down by getting the IRS to confiscate the group’s books and proceeds. Attendance numbers plummeted in the following year, and the last official gay rodeo in Reno (at that time, known as the Comstock Reno Rodeo) was held in 1984. But other groups in Colorado, California, Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma began hosting their own gay rodeo events and officially formed the IGRA in 1985.

At the world finals this year in Texas, the action didn’t stop when the ring shut down and the horses were put up for the night. Many competitors traveled from all over the country to attend, and it only seemed fitting that each night should end with a bit of food, music, and dancing — all in the hopes of building community and raising funds for charity. As Reno rodeo founder Phil Ragsdale printed on programs distributed decades ago, the gay rodeo “is for gay people first, charity second, and for anyone who wants to come and have a good time alongside us.” Ragsdale died from AIDS on June 1, 1992 — but over 30 years later, the life-affirming tradition he created rides on.

“Before we compete I always try to tell him good luck, kick all the way, have fun, and usually we kiss at the rodeo.”

Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“We’ve been together for 35 years. We’ve been doing rodeo together since 1999, about 18 years. We do everything together. A lot of our friends ask why we come down so far to compete. We come down to support gay rodeo, to support our friends, for camaraderie, to enjoy the sport, and make sure it continues for the next generation.”

—Andy Pittman, Maryland

“He’s competing this weekend in barrels and flags. I’m being the cheerleader this weekend — I usually do barrels, poles, and flags. This was the first year Andy qualified for the World Gay Rodeo finals and I just thought it was important he get to come this year. The trip from Maryland is about 22 hours, so we broke it up into two days. We had a flat tire, so that always adds to the adventure.

“It’s not all that different from the straight rodeo world, but it’s awesome because you’re accepted and included. You can just be yourself and not worried about somebody being critical or bullying you.”

—Louis Varnado, Maryland

“Before we compete I always try to tell him good luck, kick all the way, have fun, and usually we kiss at the rodeo.” —L

“That’s something we wouldn’t be able to do at a straight rodeo.” —A


Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed News


Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed News

“There are people out there where this is their family. This is their only family.”

Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed News

“I never imagined that the life that I grew up with, and then being gay, that those two would come together. When we came into it, it was like going home. We’re running pretty much all the same events that everyone else does. We’re competing at the same level as other amateur rodeo circuits. Everybody likes to highlight the camp events, the wild drag and stuff, because it’s fun and you’ve got somebody dressed up and all that. But gay rodeo is far more than that. It’s not just that — it is bull riding, it is steer riding, it is steer wrestling. It is all those exact same events.”

—Sonny Koerner, Washington, DC, pictured with Mark Larson, his longtime rodeo partner


Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“The word that’s used most frequently is probably family. This rodeo circuit is exactly that — they are my rodeo family. Twenty years we’ve been competing together and [Mark] couldn’t be more my brother than my own brother is. I live to hang out and be with this man and spend time with him. These people are exactly the same way.

“You see what it means to us, and we were blessed with people in our family that love us. There are people out there where this is their family. This is their only family.”

In the mainstream rodeo world, there’s a long-standing tradition of young women competing to be crowned rodeo queens; the gay rodeo crowns royalty, too, but theirs looks a little different. The titles include Mr. (a cowboy with a sash), Miss. (a man in drag), Ms. (a cowgirl with a sash), and MsTer. (a drag king). The competition is like a mix of RuPaul’s Drag Race with a Miss America pageant, with a whole lot of cowboy boots and country music. To rise to the level of official IGRA Royalty — an international title — a candidate must first win at their local Gay Rodeo Association. Only then are they permitted to compete (lip-synch for their lives, rather) at the World Gay Rodeo Finals.

This year, Priscilla Toya Bouvier from the New Mexico Gay Rodeo Association took home the title of Miss. IGRA over Ionna Doublwide and Duchess Zwiers. Bouvier may have been lip-synching in a tight sequined dress the night she was crowned, but she grew up working cattle and competing in rodeo. Out of drag, Bouvier (Paul Vigil) is the father of two daughters, one of whom is a professional barrel racer. Once they’re elected, the Royalty act as ambassadors for the rodeo during their reign, working to spread the values of the IGRA to their own gay rodeo chapter back home (with flair, always) and raise funds for their association’s designated charities.

“I grew up in a tiny town of fewer than 200 people knowing I was different and anticipated rejection by my own family for being gay.”

Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed News

“While each competitor might all be out in the arena competing against each other, we are each other’s biggest cheerleaders. From teaching the less experienced how to improve to helping pull the ropes a little tighter, to making sure your safety equipment is set, to the cheering and screaming you as you compete — bottom line, no matter who wins the buckle and money, we are a family.

“I grew up in a tiny town of less than 200 knowing I was different and anticipated rejection by my own family for being gay. While I didn’t experience this — as so many others have and continue to — IGRA gives you a family with amazing support. In my case, a second family as my daughter, mommy, dad, cousins, aunts, siblings, and my favorites (aka my nephews and nieces) were all at finals this year cheering me on.”

—Phillip D. Blakesley, Texas (competes in drag as Alexis Cole)


Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“Being in Mesquite, Texas, for Finals this year was a dream come true. I grew up watching PBR with my grandma in that arena. She had a fire engine–red Mexican bullfighter and bull that was about 3 feet long in her living room amongst the shag carpet and rock garden. I would ride this bull while watching videos and TV, and I told her one day I would be in that arena. While she passed nearly 10 years ago, I know she was watching me compete in that arena at Finals.”

Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“If anyone is having a rough day, a bad day, we’re all here to pick each other up. There is no judgment.”

Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“I try to do drag with compassion. I want people to feel what I’m feeling — if I can do that, then I’m doing my job. It’s the biggest rush doing the entertainment on stage, I’ve been doing drag for 18 years all over the country.

“The most important thing about this rodeo family is being family. If anyone is having a rough day, a bad day, we’re all here to pick each other up. There is no judgment. Everyone gives love, support. It’s an amazing organization.”

—Jorge Sanchez, Minnesota, newly crowned MsTer. IGRA 2019


Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

“Yesterday didn't go very well for me. I did not cut it — I was 0.6 seconds away. I was riding with a previous fracture in my wrist and I got two new fractures and re-fractured the old one. I have to go see an orthopedic surgeon when I get back home. I scratched today and I'm not riding.

“I’ve broken my collarbone four pieces, I have a plate with eight screws and two pins holding that together. That happened at the beginning of the year. You just block it out. You block out the pain and the past injuries. You cowboy up and do it.”

—Briggs Maycock, New Mexico

“I was pretty new at being out so it was a lot for me to take in, but it was very freeing to be able to just relax and be me.”

Sarah Karlan for BuzzFeed News

“I have been around rodeo all my life and have always loved to ride and compete. I found the Gay Rodeo the first time by going to the Reno Rodeo in 1982 and then again here in Salt Lake in about 1990. That’s when I started to compete and did so for several years. In 1982, there were thousands of people and they just took over Reno. I was pretty new at being out so it was a lot for me to take in, but it was very freeing to be able to just relax and be me.

“It is hard to put my finger on any one thing that makes it important to me, but I feel that this is a way of life that has a lot of pleasant experiences for me. I also love the adrenaline rush I get from competing, so I guess you would say that is why I love it.”

—Kevin Hillman, Utah Gay Rodeo Association trustee

Scroll through to see more images from the 2018 Gay Rodeo Finals.

Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News


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Sarah Karlan / BuzzFeed News

Former royalty Mipsy Mikels.

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CORRECTION

Jorge Sanchez was crowned MsTer. IGRA 2019. A previous version of this post misstated the year.


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