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Las Vegas is no stranger when it comes to bull riding, hosting the National Finals Rodeo for upward of 30 years along with the Professional Bull Riders (PBR) event. But this year brough a new type of rodeo to Las Vegas - the World Gay Rodeo Finals, and it's unlike any other rodeo you've ever been to.
It’s an event created 29 years ago specifically for LGBT members of the rodeo community to be able to compete in a safe environment. It was built on a philosophy of nondiscrimination. Be it sexual preference, gender, race or nationality – they don’t care. Both men and women compete in all events from rough stock events to horse events to camp events.
It’s hard to believe that after 29 years, this is the first year they were able to host the event in Las Vegas, after eliminating the bidding system. “We knew we needed to move something and change some things and that’s when South Point and Las Vegas came up. It’s a destination rodeo now,” said Robert Thurtell, rodeo director of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). To the rodeo directors, having the event in Las Vegas and the chance to host at the South Point was the big time – a dream they were waiting for.
And who could blame them? It’s a destination with so much to offer, home to one of the largest rodeo circuits and built on being whoever it is you want to be.
Benny Binion would tell you: The World Gay Rodeo Finals in Vegas? That's pure gold!
Even if you want to be that someone who puts underwear on a goat. And these competitors know they’re free to do so without being judged by anyone – well, except for the actual judges of the event. After all, it is a competition.
The only person judging anybody at the World Gay Rodeo Finals was this guy.
The gay rodeo doesn’t stray too far from the events you might find within your typical rodeo. You can still witness bull riding, barrel racing, steer riding, team roping and so on. But what really makes this unique is its Camp Events, the IGRA Royalty Show, and the sense of community that exists between spectators and riders.
Well, all of that and the team drag costume contest.
We’re going to go out on a limb here, but there are probably not very many times you can say you saw Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman struggle to bring what is most likely a 400 lb. steer across a 70-foot line. Only to then watch Batman and Superman miserably attempt to lift Wonder Woman in her silver platform boots onto the back of the steer. All while battling to pull the steer and Wonder Woman back across the line. But as unreal as it sounds, it happened.
This is referred to as Wild Drag Racing and the objective is simple. (Although, moving 400 pounds of anything really can’t be considered simple – can it?) Essentially, a team of three; a man, a woman, and either a man or a woman dressed in “drag,” must move a steer 70 feet past a chalk-dusted line. Once over the line, the person in drag mounts the steer while the other team members attempt to get the steer back over the line that was just crossed. The person in drag must be fully on the steer as they cross the line for the time to count.
Getting these animals to cooperate can be quite a drag sometimes.
This is part of the unique Camp Events series. These events are meant for both rodeo riders and spectators. It’s seen as a way to give those who are interested in participating in the rodeo, but may not be actual rodeo competitors, a chance to join in the events.
As with any good rodeo, once the daytime events conclude, the nighttime events begin, complete with beer, dancing and country music – the rodeo trifecta. But first, the Royalty Show: a long-standing tradition where the 2016 Mr., Ms., MsTer and Miss Rodeo are crowned.
Contestants compete in the categories of Western wear, horsemanship, interviews, public presentation and entertainment. But what’s truly a sight to see is the Step Downs. This is where past winners and runners-up take the stage and put on their greatest musical performance.
All of the women are dressed to the nines in their best formal attire while all the men are dressed in their best Western wear. Past winners, whether on stage or in the audience, proudly wear their glamorously decorated sashes for all to see. The audience was even lucky enough to witness a winner from the early years of the competition take the stage: a Las Vegas native, Chili Pepper, who was Miss IGRA 1993.
Past years’ IGRA royalty.
To say their performances were powerful would be an understatement. Don’t ask us if we cried. We’ll lie. But with the lights dimmed, spotlight on the performer, music turned up and a huge audience, it really was breathtaking. Even more so, to watch rodeo members, past winners and spectators approach the stage in support and respect to donate money. All proceeds received from the Step Downs are used to support the IGRA and a number of LGBT focused charities.
But what was most shocking about the entire rodeo was the sheer sense of admiration felt by all. Yes, that’s right – love − at a rodeo, and not the kind of love one feels for their horse after winning a race or their beer after they lose a race. We’re talking genuine, heartfelt love.
Arena Crew Volunteers pose for a group shot.
Amanda wasn’t able to last six seconds on the bull in the last event on Saturday night. (In the Gay Rodeo, a rider must stay on for six seconds as opposed to eight in the professional rodeo circuit.) But what followed was truly unexpected for her. When she looked up after being thrown off the bull and into the dirt, there was her boyfriend, there to help her up, along with all of her friends, family and fellow riders gathered around.
After confessing his love to what he referred to as his “crazy bull-riding girlfriend,” her boyfriend got down on one knee ready to propose, and the audience cried, laughed and applauded in their joy as she said yes. “I think we’ve experienced marriage equality or something like that,” joked the announcer. Because, that’s right, in the Gay Rodeo, even straight riders are able to compete.
From gay proposals and straight proposals, drag queen performers and even goats wearing underwear, the entire weekend really was a sight to see, whether you’ve been to a rodeo before or not. If you haven’t, you should go. To some, Vegas is a dream. To others, Vegas is a place to be who you want to be. And for others, it’s a chance to do what you want free of judgment.