by Joel Barrett
Pole bending, bareback bronc riding, chute dogging, wild drag race; it may read like a Grindr profile or a fun night at your favorite gay bar, but if you like the sound of these, then dust off your cowboy boots, put on that western shirt and head to the 22nd Show Me State Rodeo, Sept. 3 and 4 at the Lone Wolf Ranch Arena in Cleveland, Mo.
Like all good rodeos there will be plenty of cowboys and cowgirls in tight jeans, plaid shirts and two-tone boots. There will be no shortage of all you envision when you hear the word “rodeo,” but this isn’t your father’s rodeo — unless he’s gay.
This Labor Day weekend the Missouri Gay Rodeo Association (MGRA) celebrates 30 years of wrangling, roping and dogging. Three decades have brought few changes to the format of the event. It’s still a fun-filled weekend of entertaining competitions.
Gay rodeos have a long and colorful history in the USA. The first one took place in Reno, Nev., in 1976. Over the next 10 years, more popped up in a handful of Western states including Missouri, making it an early participant in the scene. These rodeos were organized by gay cowboys who were not welcome in the traditional, straight rodeo scene. Challenging Hollywood stereotypes of the uber-masculine cowboy, the gay rodeo was a welcoming community whose primary mission was to raise money for HIV and AIDS-related charities.
Gay rodeos are rooted in equality. Contestants compete equally in all 13 events regardless of their gender or identity.
“The MGRA is an all-inclusive association that welcomes ALL to participate,” states MGRA President Scott Harvey. “We have a straight couple from Colorado that competes every year.”
The association is comprised of approximately 50 LGBTQ members and allies. Some of the original members have been participating for all of the 30 years.
In 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) was formed. According to their website: “Through a Convention of its Member Associations, the IGRA has evolved a code of fellowship and good sportsmanship including the provision of standardized rules and resources for the production of rodeo events.”
Now, decades later, the IGRA has thousands of members in nearly 30 chapters across the USA and Canada. Each of these chapters raises thousands of dollars each year for LGBT charities of their choosing. The Missouri Gay Rodeo Association is a proud member of the IGRA.
September’s Show Me State Rodeo is the culmination of many fundraising efforts throughout the year. The association hosts dinners, silent auctions, drag shows, and garage sales to raise money. Throughout their history, the MGRA has raised thousands of dollars for KC Passages, a LGBT Youth-focused organization.
This year the designated charity is the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project (KCVAP), which now houses KC Passages. KCAVP is a nonprofit corporation committed to providing domestic violence, sexual assault, and hate crimes advocacy and education to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. “Our goal is to be community focused,” MGRA President Scott Harvey states.
The Show Me State Rodeo kicks off Friday night with the very popular and fast-paced barrel race. “It will be the most integrated function that we do,” Harvey says. “Riders can score points at our barrel race for other local associations around. There may be 120 horses and riders on Friday night.” The Barrel Race is free and open to the public.
Festivities continue Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. with as many as 80 participants competing in a wide variety of individual and team events that are essentially the same as what Cowboy Kurt Kliemann calls the “mainstream rodeos.” Calf Roping on Foot, Mounted Breakaway, Team Roping, Bronc Riding, Chute Dogging, Pole Bending and Bull/Steer Riding are common traditional rodeo events.
“Gay rodeos are a little different,” Kliemann says with a smile and twinkle in his eye. “We have many of the same events as a mainstream rodeo, but we’re a bit more amateur. What makes it gay is the ‘camp’ events.” Campy events like steer decorating, which is exactly what it sounds like. Contestants use ribbons to decorate a steer’s tail while avoiding the horns of the unimpressed steer. If that fails to delight, then get ready for the mayhem that will ensue when cowboys attempt to dress a goat…in panties. It wouldn’t be a gay rodeo without a drag show. Only this drag show involves cowboys in drag attempting to ride a steer across the finish line without getting bucked off. It brings a whole new meaning to RuPaul’s words “Lipsync for your life!”
Kliemann says the weekend is more like a fun show than what many think of as an actual rodeo. “It’s a fun time. You’ll see a lot of stuff you don’t see in the mainstream rodeos,” says Kliemann, who has been associated with the MGRA since 1999.
He says spectators will see “Everyone from people who have been doing it 20 and 30 years to people who this is their first time at the rodeo. They (the newbies) get the biggest cheers.”
The rodeo isn’t just a show. Contestants are competing for highly coveted awards. Instead of trophies, winners are presented with large, engraved belt buckles which are worn proudly. Runners-up receive ribbons. Winners then move on to the regional and national scene to compete for national titles.
Despite the awards, when interviewing MGRA members it is clear that their joy comes from the camaraderie of uniting to raise money for KCAVP. Putting on a family-friendly show that people of all ages can enjoy is just the icing on the cake. Cayree Ragsdale, MGRA Treasurer, has spent all of her 10 years working behind the scenes. She doesn’t compete, but that doesn’t stop her from being involved.
“This is like my family,” Ragsdale states. She frequently travels from Springfield to Kansas City to be at numerous fundraising events throughout the year.
“I don’t get to see much of the rodeo because I’m working behind the scenes.” This doesn’t quench her enthusiasm for the weekend.
“It’s a lot of excitement and action!” Ragsdale explains. “It’s fast moving, daredevils! A big adrenaline rush for the contestants and the spectators as well.”
Like gay clubs and many other LGBT organizations, gay rodeo associations have also experienced challenges to continue to exist in the ever-changing gay landscape. Some of those challenges forced the MGRA to cancel the 2015 Show Me State Rodeo. But 2016 has brought a new president and a team of cowboys and cowgirls with a renewed commitment. Their excitement about the MGRA and raising money for the Kansas City Anti-Violence Project can be felt. Scott Harvey has been with the rodeo for a decade, but this is his first year as president. “We’ve designated 2016 as a rebuilding, regrouping year. Our goal is to be more community focused. We aren’t a group that does just one thing. We are trying to be out and about the community making a difference.”
When asked why he continues to do it, he paused. With tears in his eyes and a faltering voice he explained: “This group brought me out. This group told me I was okay and that it was okay for me to be gay. They made me feel comfortable with myself. I hadn’t experienced that before this group.”
He reminisced about his first experience at a gay rodeo where a couple of cowboys befriended him and said, “You’re okay.” That is the message he hopes that others who may not be out yet will feel when they come to the Show Me State Rodeo.
Harvey also noted that nearly every year he interacts with people from rural communities who show up to the gay rodeo to check it out. Many are coming from places where they would never be accepted for who they are and would likely experience severe rejection and retaliation if their sexual orientation or gender identity were to be known. “If I can help someone else feel comfortable with themselves, then that’s why I do this.”
The MGRA is completely volunteer run, and participants are responsible for their own expenses. IGRA-sanctioned rodeos are hosted by local associations each year and culminate in the World Gay Rodeo Finals where the top 20 contestants in each event compete for the title of International Champion.
Show Me State Rodeo tickets can be purchased in advance online at www.mrga.us. Advance tickets are $12 for one day and $20 for weekend pass, ages 12 and up. Tickets at the gate are $15 for one day and $25 for a weekend pass.