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Scenes from Rodeo in the Rock.

QUEENS OF THE RODEO: Cindy Cowan (left) and Dana Kimball relax during the 2015 Rodeo in the Rock image
  • Sandy Bidwell
  • QUEENS OF THE RODEO: Cindy Cowan (left) and Dana Kimball relax during the 2015 Rodeo in the Rock.

Last weekend I went to the gay rodeo. No need to adjust your glasses, you read that right.

I did not know there was such an animal until recently. But the Diamond State Rodeo Association (DSRA), a nonprofit organization whose mission is to promote the country Western lifestyle within the gay community, held its first rodeo in 1994. And its parent organization, the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), had its beginnings with the National Reno Gay Rodeo in 1976. Now, 18 states participate in the IGRA.

When I arrived at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds Friday night, April 24, it was raining steadily. Sandy Bidwell, current president of the DSRA, told me it had also rained the last time this biannual rodeo was held, two years ago: "There were tornadoes on either side of us," she said. "We just watched things fly by." The weather Friday wasn't that severe, but it was bad enough that the second annual "Gary Williams Memorial Barrel Race" had to be canceled. Lucky for me, the night's other scheduled activities — including vendors, a silent auction, a bar and a series of musical performances — were still happening in the metal-domed Arkansas Building.

The tables set up around the exhibit hall were pretty much what you would expect at an event aimed at the gay population: T-shirts proclaiming "Love is Love" and "Married Y'all" decorated one vendor's stand. The Human Rights Campaign was there, too, with a station offering signup forms to join the movement. ARcare HIV Special Services group handed out blue plastic bracelets stamped "KNOW YOUR STATUS."

Other aspects of the event, though, might have surprised some folks. The silent auction had everything from scarves crocheted with images of horses to a wooden Christian wall cross decorated with carpenter's nails and amateur pastoral paintings. Participants and spectators alike walked around in cowboy hats, jeans and boots. Big silver belt buckles — trophies of rodeos past — sparkled in the fluorescent lighting. In other words, this was a rodeo like every other rodeo I'd ever been to. Not that I've been to so many. But when I was in junior high, as a member of the school band, I'd always get a free ticket to the Old Fort Days Rodeo in Fort Smith as a thank-you for marching in the parade. And I'd always go, but then I'd call my mom about five minutes into it to come pick me up because, well, it was a rodeo. And I was a city girl. I didn't like having my cute shoes covered in horse crap.

As I dressed for Friday evening, I realized that things hadn't changed so much for me. As a grown-up now, I understood — in advance, for a change — that the rain combined with animals would mean slicks of muck, so I searched for my most appropriate footwear. All I had was a pair of flowered Doc Martens, those shoes reminiscent of combat boots. I put them on. I also wore a pair of "boyfriend" jeans, rolled up at the bottom cuff, and a navy blue military-style jacket. I prepared myself to be ridiculed and alerted my mom that I might be calling her at about 6:05 p.m.

But I was not and I did not. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever felt more welcome anywhere in my life. These rodeo-goers smiled at me and talked to me like they had been waiting for me to show up. I met Lize, the event's reigning MsTer Oklahoma, a woman I'd guess to be in her 50s, who wore the standard rodeo uniform of a plaid, button-down shirt, jeans, boots and a cowboy hat. Her hair was short (I couldn't even see it coming out from under her hat) and her facial hair was neatly trimmed into a horseshoe mustache. "Rednecks are known to be homophobic assholes," Lize told me. "Well, we're rednecks, too. We're just gay rednecks."

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I met Jason, a 33-year-old manager of a Starbucks, who wore a full beard and mustache. He's a bull rider, and he met his partner at a gay rodeo in Denver last year. "The thing that really got me into the gay rodeo was the camaraderie," he told me. "We're competing against each other, but at the end of the day, we're family. It's always like coming home when I go to these rodeos." I asked Jason's partner if he rode in the rodeos as well, and he told me, "No, I'm too big." And I believed him. He's a beefy guy, standing at least 6 feet tall, and he works on the sniper line at San Quentin. "But I do goat dressing," he added.

Their so-called "camp events" set the DSRA and the IGRA rodeos apart from more traditional ones. Steer decorating (where a team of two work to quickly tie a ribbon on a steer's tail), goat dressing (where a team of two catches a goat and puts a pair of traditional brief-style underwear on it) and the "Wild Drag Race" (where two of three contestants lead a steer across a finish line and a third contestant, dressed in drag, rides it back) are three events that spice up the usual rodeo roster of bull riding, bareback bronc, steer riding, chute dogging and seven other categories. And in those categories, contestants compete as whatever gender they identify as. As a matter of fact, contestants need not be gay to compete. At the DSRA, everyone is welcome to truly come as they are.

The IGRA also hosts a totally separate competition: the IGRA Royalty Contest. To my delight, I got to meet the reigning Miss IGRA — a beautiful blonde 6-foot tall drag queen in full rhinestone crown and black satin sash — who told me all about the IGRA's royalty system, where contestants compete in four divisions (Mr., in which guys compete as guys; Ms., in which girls compete as girls; Miss, the drag queen competition; and MsTer, the drag king competition) and are scored in five categories: interview, Western wear, horsemanship, public presentation and entertainment.

Because one of the missions of the rodeo association is to raise funds for nonprofits, winners are expected to raise a certain amount — this year for Hearts & Hooves, an accredited riding center in Sherwood for disabled people, and the Arkansas Freedom Fund, which supports outdoor activities for all Arkansas military veterans and their families. The winners wear black sashes indicating that they must raise $1,200 over the course of their reign; first runners-up wear red sashes and must raise $1,000, and second runners-up wear white sashes and must raise $800.

Fundraising was front and center at the final event of the evening, a show featuring many of the reigning royalty. MsTer Arizona Gay Rodeo Association, Mr. Oklahoma Gay Rodeo Association, Ms. DSRA and Miss IGRA herself all performed in a delightful mixture of lip syncing and live singing. Throughout these performances, spectators approached the stage, putting dollar bills in nearby coffee cans or cowboy hats or, in the case of Ms. Florida Gay Rodeo Association, her decolletage.

But I think my favorite was Miss DSRA. Marvella, nee Martin, must be at least in his late 60s. He told me he'd been "female impersonating" for 34 years, and when he began, "there were lots of Lizas and lots of Dianas. I said, 'Not me. I'm going to be funny.' " But more than funny, I found him endearing.

I drove home Friday night wondering how anyone on earth could hate these people. They're fun, and funny, and like the same things that so many of the people who hate them do. It broke my heart.

The next day, I brought my husband and three children back with me. We'd already missed the camp events, and the clock on my old five-minute rule began the moment we stepped out of the car. My 11-year-old, who has identified as gay for almost two years now, was wearing his freedom-ring necklace, an accessory he keeps hidden on a daily basis while he attends middle school. "Do I need to tuck these into my shirt?" he asked me.

"No, son," I replied. "This is one place where you can definitely be who you are."

About four minutes in, a cowboy in the standard uniform, which crosses all gender identifications and sexual orientations, approached him. "I like your necklace, son."

My boy smiled. "Thanks."

We stayed for another hour.

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