The Florida air was thick as Mark Larson climbed atop an agitated bull at a rodeo outside Miami. The former Mr. International Gay Rodeo Association rubbed a sticky rosin along the rope and his gloves to improve his grip.
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Larson hung tight as the bull began kicking, though eventually he felt himself slipping. Admitting defeat, he tried to let go. But in the intense humidity the rosin formed a glue-like substance. His clenched fist was fused to the rope. He was stuck in his rigging.
Dangling at the bull's side, Larson repeatedly tried to reach the tail of his rope — an emergency release of sorts — to no avail. With every attempt the bull would hip-check him, knocking him beneath its heavy hooves. As the bull stomped on Larson's back, a rodeo clown rushed to try to free him, only to catch a goring of his own.
By the grace of God or the clown's relentlessness, eventually Larson broke free. Despite the thrashing, the seasoned cowboy tried walking off on his own, but passed out and was taken to the hospital. "I was OK," he says. "I mean, I couldn't walk. It was a couple days before I could walk."
At 53, Larson believes he's one of the oldest bull riders on the gay rodeo circuit. He gave up bronc riding a while back and knows his competing years are almost up. His body can't take much more. Over the past 25 years, he's torn muscles and broken both of his wrists and legs getting trounced by bulls. Through rodeo he's traveled the country, and even to Australia and the Netherlands. He's rich in experience, but the gig's never been a money maker. Even riders who clean up at a gay rodeo often only win enough to cover the trip. To make serious cash, contestants would have to leap to the pro circuits, and few (if any) do.
Forty years ago, the first gay rodeo was held in Reno, Nevada. After struggling to find a venue willing to host a gay rodeo, founder Phil Ragsdale secured a home at the Washoe County Fairgrounds. The inaugural charity event drew 125 people.
The following year Ragsdale formed the Comstock Gay Rodeo Association and made the benefit an annual gig. By the early 1980s, more than 10,000 people were showing up. Gay rodeo associations in other ranch states started to form. In 1985, the local groups banded together as the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) — an amateur, charity-driven alternative to professional rodeos. It was a place free from judgment and discrimination.
"The early years were marked by homophobia, by an unwillingness to cooperate with us because gays shouldn't even have a rodeo," says IGRA president Bruce Gros. "How can gays be cowboys? We weren't real men. That was just the attitude of the time."
The rise of gay rodeo coincided with a greater cultural embrace of the country-western lifestyle. Disco was dying, and as John Travolta moved from Saturday Night Fever to Urban Cowboy, country songs started filling big-city barrooms like never before.
One night Colin Smith was walking around downtown Minneapolis when his ear picked up a twangy oddity spilling out from the Annex bar at the Gay 90's. Curious, he popped in and found a dance floor full of men and women country dancing. For years each Sunday the club hosted a live country band. Across the river, St. Paul's oldest gay bar, the Town House, also became a two-stepper's paradise along University Avenue.
In 1989, a group of Smith's friends ventured to the IGRA finals in Phoenix and they returned longing to start a rodeo crew of their own. With a handful of guys at the reins, the following year North Star Gay Rodeo Association was recognized as an official member of the IGRA. Its ranks quickly swelled to more than 100 members within the first two years. It sounded like "quirky fun," so Smith signed on with the fledgling group.
Even before North Star put on its first rodeo, the IGRA decided to bring its annual convention to the Twin Cities. During the 1992 convention, the dates for the first-ever North Star Regional Rodeo were greenlit. The next year, the group began prowling for cash and sponsors, trying to get the $40,000 needed to throw a rodeo. After scraping together the funds, the inaugural rodeo served as a 1993 Pride week kickoff.
Minnesota's gay rodeo was born.
In the Red
While gay rodeos feature most of the same competitions as straight rodeos — bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping — the "camp events" help loosen the crowd's bolos. The popular goat dressing event has two-person teams trying to slip a pair of tighty-whiteys on a tethered goat.
Another fan favorite pits three people (one of whom is in drag) against a bucking steer. In short, the trio attempts to direct the roped bovine across the finish line while the queen-for-a-minute tries to mount it.
"When somebody gets dressed up as the Statue of Liberty and is jumping on a steer that's running full speed across the end of the arena — it takes a lot of skill, but it's a crowd-pleaser because it's funny," says Mark Larson, a longtime North Star member. "They like to see these outrageous costumes."
But the country craze began to fade by the late '90s. While two-steppers and line dancers still turn up in dusty bars like the Minneapolis Eagles Club today, the trend had peaked, Larson says. The North Star Gay Rodeo Association endured two long stretches without its annual flagship event. After losing money in back-to-back rodeos, the association was broke in 1998. That year a Miata raffle backfired, adding to their cash woes, and they decided to hang up their lassos until they could get out of the red. Members continued competing in other IGRA events, but Minnesota was without its gay rodeo until 2003, when North Star caught up on its bills.
Not long after they were back up and running, North Star hit another snag. In 2008, with the economy in a tailspin, the rodeo was another financial flop. They decided not to throw one the next year. One year off turned into two, then three. Casual members bailed and the recruit pool shrank. According to current president Jacob Griffin, at one point North Star's ranks plummeted to 10 members, one-tenth of what it used to be. Organizational burnout set in. A small, dedicated cadre held North Star intact, but they needed help to get the rodeo back.
Without it, the club would likely dissolve.
Even bare-bones rodeos cost at least $30,000 to $40,000 to produce, and North Star relies on sponsorships and ticket sales to cover costs. Any profit goes directly to charity. With the economy still flagging, North Star kept pushing back its rodeo return.
For six years, the rodeo association went without a rodeo and each year away pushed an aging club further into obscurity. Turnover left leadership short on experience.
One shot in the arm came from Griffin, who was recruited in 2014 for his event-planning savvy. "I didn't even know there was a rodeo association in Minnesota," recalls Griffin. "When you think of Minneapolis you don't think of the country lifestyle." His experience with the Twin Cities Pride Festival gave the group hope. But they would need more than hope. They needed a rodeo man.
A John Wayne Moment
Gene Fraikes had always been freaked out by drag queens. Growing up in small-town central Illinois, the only gay people he knew of were the "really strange leather guys and the big ol'" queens he saw on the TV news version of Chicago's Pride parade. The less flamboyant guys who looked like everyone else from middle America never seemed to make the cut. As far as Fraikes knew they didn't exist.
Fraikes felt like he was different, and sure, he was attracted to men. But the former railroad worker wasn't like those dudes in dresses. He wasn't gay.
The stereotype that gay men were supposed to be effeminate kept Fraikes in the closet until his 30s. A marriage and two kids later, he finally came out. Sort of.
"Even after my divorce, I didn't believe I was gay. I just had sex with men," he recalls. "That might be hard to understand, but that's a mindset that happens and I was stuck in it."
In 1998, he started going out to gay bars in Texas, where he now lives on the outskirts of Fort Worth. He still wasn't sure about drag queens, but it was there he made a life-changing discovery. While out one night, a friend tipped him to the local IGRA chapter. As an adrenaline junkie practically raised on a horse, Fraikes started competing right away. He was hooked.
In his nearly two decades on the circuit, Fraikes has gained something more valuable than the trophy buckles he's accumulated.
"When I hooked up with the Texas Gay Rodeo Association... and started meeting masculine men that didn't fit the stereotype I was told, it was like a breath of fresh air," he says. "Oh my gosh, so I'm gay and that's OK."
Now the Texas man is busting his hide to ensure Minnesota cowboys can have the same opportunities.
Having worked with the IGRA, Fraikes was aware of North Star's plight. He knew the ins and outs of putting on a rodeo, and a friend invited him to join and help rejuvenate the struggling chapter. It was his John Wayne moment, he the rough-and-tumble cowboy come to save the day. Instead of shooting greasy bank robbers, he'd be drafting contracts, filing abstruse insurance forms, and upholding the animal safety requirements necessary to put on a rodeo. Bland but critical. "Without Gene we would've been in trouble," Griffin says.
In 2015, the new recruits helped end the rodeo hiatus with a two-day event at Hugo's Dead Broke Arena (an ironic choice given North Star's past money problems). The turnout was modest but it was good enough to break even.
North Star considers it a victory given the circumstances. Membership has risen and is now back up to 80 active members. And they're bringing back the rodeo again this year. From July 29-31, bull riders, chute doggers, and barrel racers from around the country will again storm the dusty Hugo arena. In year two of North Star's comeback, Griffin expects 1,000 to 1,500 people per day, with buses hauling in out-of-towners and city slickers from Minneapolis (advance tickets are $10).
"Having the rodeo start last year was great, but it's more important that we're having it again this year," Griffin says. "If we didn't we would have lost all the momentum."
Flying the Flag
Gay rodeo's existence spans nearly from Stonewall to marriage equality. Though discrimination and violence against the LGBT community persist — as shown by this month's mass shooting at an Orlando gay club — it's a more accepting, post-Brokeback Mountain world. With the exception of the Bible Belt, anti-gay protesters at IGRA rodeos have largely given way to the same animal rights groups that target straight rodeos.
Still, many gay rodeo members say straight rodeo remains an unwelcoming, if not outright hostile, place for gays.
"It's not even close to what it needs to be," Fraikes says. "It's like back in the days when gay marriage was just a dream. That's where we're at with rodeo right now. Most of your straight rodeo guys are pretty homophobic."
While Gros stops short of calling contemporary straight rodeo homophobic, he sees the tension between an uber masculine tradition and a more inclusive future. He mentions a friend who's worked for the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association — the largest rodeo-sanctioning body in the country — for 30 years without feeling he could come out there. He recalls an incident years ago when straight cowboys threatened to lynch a member of Gros' local chapter after learning he was gay.
However, in the last two years Gros says progress has been made. For the first time, an IGRA flag was flown during the opening ceremony at a PRCA event last year.
Increasingly, straight men are participating in gay rodeo, no longer concerned they'll be stigmatized. Women of all orientations have long flocked to IGRA, as there are fewer opportunities for them to compete in rough stock events (bull and bronc riding) in the mainstream rodeo circuit.
Fraikes and Griffin dream of a day when rodeo can just be rodeo, regardless of sexual orientation. But for the past 40 years, gay rodeo has provided a place where athletes can partake in a cowboy culture that might have otherwise left them in the bleachers. It taught Fraikes to embrace all pockets of the LGBT community, even if they're a different color of the rainbow.
"My acceptance level has stretched open because of being able to accept myself," he says. "I'm not sure anything is a big deal to me anymore."
Including drag queens.
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