Even During the Pandemic, Gay Rodeos Survive

Tuesday August 31, 2021

A participant in the Zia Regional Rodeo, held last weekend in New Mexico
A participant in the Zia Regional Rodeo, held last weekend in New Mexico  

Where can you find a drag queen riding a bronco? Perhaps in a challenge on some future episode of "RuPaul's Drag Race;" but you could have last weekend during the Zia Regional Rodeo, the only annual LGBTQ rodeo event in New Mexico. And while it has its element of camp, such as a drag queen riding a bronco, it is also a serious event with real consequences: the bronco could easily send the drag queen to the ground with the right move. With events like calf roping and bull riding, the event has much in common with professional rodeos.

"Ours is an amateur rodeo, but there are some really serious competitions, mainly in the horse events, like pole bending and the barrel race," New Mexico Gay Rodeo Association (NMGRA) President Rich Taylor tells the website Pasatiempo. "These guys are super competitive, and they do compete in the professional rodeo circuit. Conversely, we do have folks from the professional circuit competing in ours."

Not that the event doesn't have more campier elements. "You have people dressed up in very cute costumes," says Taylor. "One year, we had Princess Leia."

"In conjunction with the rodeo, the Gay and Lesbian Rodeo Heritage Foundation (gayrodeohistory.org/foundation) hosts an exhibition of artifacts, memorabilia, artwork, and photographs in the concession building of the rodeo grounds. They reflect more than 40 years of gay rodeo history. It includes trophy buckles awarded to the finest competitors, going back to 1981, which are proudly displayed on their belts, as well as posters, programs, and ribbons."

The New Mexico Gay Rodeo Association was established as a nonprofit in 1984. Its aim is to foster the Western lifestyle in the gay community, reports Pasatiempo. "We produce a gay rodeo every year," Taylor says. "Next year is our 30th."

The pandemic has hit the LGBTQ rodeo circuit hard, reducing the number of rodeos from about a dozen prior to 2019 to only three this year. This year in addition to the Zia Regional, there is also the Rocky Mountain Regional, which was held Colorado in July, and the BigHorn Rodeo in Nevada will take place in September. The rodeo season concludes with an IGRA-produced finals rodeo, which is held in October.

Gay rodeos date back to 1976 when Reno native Phil Ragsdale came up with the idea for a fundraiser. But, faced with so much push back, he couldn't find local animal traders willing to provide the necessary horses and cattle for the event. Instead he went with cows and calves, a wild pony, and a pig, and turned the rodeo into an annual event.

Today there is little opposition from anyone about the rodeo.

"The only pushback I get, especially in Santa Fe, is from people saying 'Oh, rodeos are cruel to animals,' and all that," Taylor says. "That's kind of prevalent, but it's not so much the gay aspect. The International Gay Rodeo Association is different from the pro rodeo in how we treat our animals. We have a huge focus on animal safety. We have rules built into our bylaws that address animal safety and cruelty. If we see any cruelty at our rodeo, whoever's responsible for that will be expelled and fined heavily. We don't want our horses, steers, bulls, and goats to be mistreated."

The NMGRA is a charitable organization and proceeds from past rodeo events have supported local animal shelters, New Mexico AIDS Services, New Mexico Breast Cancer Coalition, New Mexico Domestic Violence Hotline, and People Of Color AIDS Foundation.

"The amounts we give back depend on how well we do," Taylor says.