Tuesday, June 6, 2023

The Renewed Importance of the Texas Gay Rodeo

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Justin Willis, who is a teacher and a professional bull rider, said that, although he’s straight, he appreciated the general commitment to inclusivity at I.G.R.A. events. Justin, who is Black, told me that he appreciated the mission statement posted on the I.G.R.A. Web site, which reads, in part, “Without regard to race, ethnic group, or sexual orientation, the men and women from within IGRA’s Member Associations share and teach each other not only the skills and competitive fun of Rodeo, but also those of human fellowship and teamwork to accomplish whatever we set before ourselves as a goal.” Justin has ridden in plenty of rodeos—“I’ve done the C.P.R.A. and the U.P.R.A. and B.P.I.R., I do P.B.R., I’m a member of the Military Rodeo Cowboys Association,” he said—and told me that the I.G.R.A. has a notably welcoming culture: “If you’re not in the chute, you don’t really know how it is. The people here, they want to help you.”

On Sunday, an hour before the second bull-riding competition, the rodeo’s final event, Sarah and Aurielle sat in the stands, surrounded by spectators wearing pearl-snap shirts, pressed jeans, belts with big buckles. (As a man from Oklahoma told me, dressing up has always been an essential part of cowboy culture, gay or straight.) Aurielle told a story about leaving the Ozarks after a frightening backcountry run-in with a group of A.T.V.-riding creeps. “People get scared of rural communities because they expect things like that,” they said. “But, as much as I got chased out, I’m still always going to go back.”

A cowboy orders a drink at the awards ceremony after the Gay Rodeo.

Sarah’s attention was occasionally snagged by the barrel racers competing in the arena. “Nice ride, cowgirl,” the announcer said after one particularly speedy run. The day before, Sarah had been thrown hard by a bronc. “I broke my fall with my face,” she said ruefully. “I messed up my nose, I think technically it’s broken. Got a mouthful of dirt and a pretty good headache. I had a helmet on, otherwise I probably would’ve been in the dirt, taking a nap.” She’d opted to sit out the first day of bull riding, since her head had still felt a little swimmy. On Sunday, the bronc ride had gone much better, although she hadn’t made time. (At I.G.R.A events, a ride must last six seconds to qualify; at many others, it’s eight.)

An hour later, Sarah was standing in the chute, a black bull fidgeting beneath her. She’d drawn the same animal that she’d watched another contestant ride the day before, and she was concerned it was “looky”—it had bucked the rider off, then turned around as if it might come after her. Sarah was quiet for a moment, considering, and then she shook her head decisively. She would not ride a bull that day. “I didn’t want to take that risk my first time,” she told me later. Maybe she would go out to Kupkake’s bull-riding school, in Greenville. Maybe she’d find a bullpen in San Angelo to practice. Maybe she’d come back to the gay rodeo next year and have the ride of her life. ♦

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