Call it a rodeo with a rainbow flag.
The Texas Tradition Rodeo & Country Fair hits all the high points of the professional rodeo circuit — bull riding, barrel racing and calf roping.
But it also has drag performances on the entertainment lineup — drag queens and kings cracking jokes and performing — and competitions such as steer decorating, goat dressing and the wild drag race (a spectacle that involves a steer, a man, a woman and someone else in drag).
The gay rodeo started from charitable impulses in the late 1970s.
The Reno, Nevada, chapter of the Imperial Court System — one of the oldest LGBT grassroots organizations in the world — had a rodeo to raise money for a local Thanksgiving Day food drive for senior citizens.
Marcus Hood, a rodeo competitor and the director of the rodeo, said the gay rodeo emerged in Texas in the 1980s. The HIV/AIDS epidemic was at its peak, he said, and activists were on the hunt for fundraisers.
“Well, our very first rodeo [in Fort Worth] was in 1985,” Hood said. “We’ve had one every year since then.”
The past five years have been a struggle for Texas gay rodeo organizations, which are in Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio.
“Usually, each city would bid for the rodeo and the winner would host it,” Hood said. “Here recently, the facilities have caught on and the cost of stable sales, concessions, arena fees — everything — have gotten really expensive.”
The Fort Worth rodeo, Texas Tradition, came to Denton in 2017 in search of an arena it could afford. In 2018, it took the rodeo to a Mesquite arena. This year, Hood said, the rodeo booked North Texas Fairgrounds in Denton. Hood said the rodeo will “have the full run of all 33 acres” at the fairgrounds. The Memorial Day weekend event starts with a carnival on Thursday, and barrel racing starts on Friday night. The rodeo events start on Saturday, with events running through 6 p.m.
“What sets us apart from the usual rodeo is that we allow women to compete in every category that a man competes in,” Hood said. “And then we have what we call camp events.”
Camp events are about skill, but they also make light of the seriousness and swagger of rodeo.
One camp event is steer decorating. A two-person team has to chase down a steer with a lead line. One competitor tries to tie a ribbon around the steer’s tail, while the other competitor hurries to lift the rope from the steer’s head and horns.
Another camp event turns the dial up on humor: Goat dressing. In goat dressing, a two person team chases a goat and tries to grab and lift its back legs. Then, the other player tries to get a pair of men’s briefs (classic tighty whities) onto the goat. The team has 70 feet to achieve the feat.
“The crowd favorite is the wild drag race,” Hood said. “There’s a three-person team — one guy, one female and one person dressed in drag — either a man or a woman. And it can be funny drag.”
Hood said the woman stands at the 10-foot mark, and the man stands at the 45-foot mark. The player dressed in drag has to jump on the steer — who usually isn’t at all agreeable — and get the steer to move forward over a line. A pair of teams often face off in the drag race, and the crowd cheers for teams to be the first to get the drag member on the steer and over the line.
Gay cowboys and cowgirls have faced discrimination on the traditional rodeo circuit — in Nevada in 1988, 100 competitors and hundreds more guests were turned away from the state’s rodeo finals because of their sexual orientation.
“Back in the day, the rodeo was a place where we could just be ourselves,” Hood said.
As LGBT Americans became more visible and accepted, the gay rodeo got more diverse, too. Hood said the gay rodeo welcomes heterosexual competitors, asking that they join a gay rodeo association to be eligible.
“I’d say we’re about 80/20, with 80 percent of our competitors being gay and 20 percent heterosexual,” Hood said. “It’s a welcoming community.”
The Texas Gay Rodeo Association competes in partnership with the Canadian Rockies Gay Rodeo Association and the International Gay Rodeo Association. Hood said the Texas Gay Rodeo Association has given more than $3 million to AIDS groups and other charities. The association supports Ranch Hand Rescue, the Grace Project for women living with HIV/AIDS and the Dallas chapter of the Association of Nurses in AIDS Care. The rodeo association also supports Dallas charity Tucker’s Gift, a Dallas animal rescue organization.
Hood said the gay rodeo is a family event, with music, dance lessons and a carnival.