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Gay Rodeo Spurs Camaraderie

By Tony Peregrin in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 3, 2010 4:00PM

This cowboy participated in Goat Dressing and Steer Riding at a recent Windy City Rodeo event. Photo by: Evan Butterfield
There’s no horsing around at the Windy City Rodeo—Chicagoland’s only annual gay rodeo event—which requires serious cowboy skills for participating in traditional rodeo events such as bull riding, chute dogging, bareback bronc riding, barrel racing, and pole bending. Actually, there’s also plenty of horsin’ around at the Windy City Rodeo (drag steer riders, anyone?), but according to Tom Sheridan, president of the Illinois Gay Rodeo Association, when you get right down to it gay rodeo events are really about promoting rodeo sports—regardless of gender or sexual identity—and an appreciation of Western culture.

The Windy City Rodeo draws an average range of 50 to 75 competitors each August, with upwards of 3,000 attendees trekking out to Six Guns Ranch & Arena, an open-air rodeo ring with bleacher seating, in Crete, IL (approximately 45 minutes south of downtown Chicago). Proceeds from this year’s rodeo will benefit two local charities: Howard Brown Health Center and Vital Bridges.

Chicagoist managed to round-up a very busy Sheridan, 50, a resident of Schaumburg and a participant in gay rodeo events for the last 15 years, for an interview in which he revealed the differences between gay and straight rodeo events, what it means to “dress a goat” (hint: it involves men’s underwear), and how gay rodeos, in particular, protect the rights of animals.

Chicagoist: Why do you think so many gay men are attracted to the cowboy archetype?

Tom Sheridan: I would say mainly because cowboys are sexy and the way of life they associate with cowboys is a relaxed one.

C: What are some of the biggest misconceptions about gay rodeo events?

TS: One misconception might be that only gay people participate or spectate in gay rodeo—which is not true. We have many straight folks that come and watch, and some that compete as well.

C: What are the differences between a gay rodeo and a non-gay rodeo?

TS: The gay rodeos offer many of the same events as “straight” rodeos—with a couple of twists. We offer “rough stock” events, such as bull riding and steer wrestling, to both men and women. I would say another large reason we have gay rodeo is for the sense of community it provides, as it allows GLBT folks to be themselves. Gays and lesbians would not be able to show affection for their significant other at a straight rodeo.

The gay rodeo does offer three unique events that are found only at gay rodeo events—Goat dressing, Steer Decorating and the Wild Drag Race. Goat Dressing is a two-person event that involves pulling a pair of Jockey-style underwear over the goat’s tail bone; Steer Decorating, another two-person team event, involves tying a 24-inch-long ribbon to a steer’s tail, while attempting to remove a 25-foot rope from its horns; and the Wild Drag Race, an audience favorite, which presents a team of three—one male, one female, and one person in drag—and involves getting the steer across the finish line (70 feet from the chute), ‘mounting the drag,’ and then riding back across the finish line.

C: A few years ago there was some controversy regarding the Windy City Rodeo, (and other rodeos across the country) related to animal welfare concerns. Animal rights activists have claimed, for example, that in bucking events, animals are forced to violently jump and twist through the use of painful straps and spurs. What is your organization’s position on animal rights and welfare?

TS: We support animal welfare. The International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) imposes specified rules, which are strictly enforced, and penalizes any contestant found to be guilty of inhumane treatment of animals, including their immediate disqualification from further competition.

Gay rodeos operate under greatly modified rules of non-gay or mainstream rodeo, while still preserving this American tradition. Although these events include traditional rodeo events such as bull riding and bronc riding, gay rodeo activities purposefully have been tailored to provide the animal and human participants with the safest environment possible, while still allowing contestants to demonstrate their skills

IGRA bylaws are public record and include numerous rules which strongly protect animals from abuse, including the prohibition of use of lame, sore, sick, or undersized stock; mandating the availability of veterinary care; prohibiting the beating or cruel prodding of animals; and forbidding the use of metal or fiberglass rigging, any equipment judged to be too tight, or the concealed use of caustic ointments or burrs.

C: How does a cowboy or cowgirl go about winning one of the highly-prized buckles?

TS: The buckles are presented at an awards ceremony at the end of the rodeo on Sunday evening. The buckles are awarded to the competitor that has done the best in a particular event for the combination of the two days (Saturday and Sunday). Many of the events are timed events so the buckle would be awarded to the competitor with the best combined time. Bull riding and steer riding are scored events, and therefore the buckle would be awarded to the competitor with the best combined score from the two days. I have won a few buckles over the years—even though I have my favorites, I try to wear them all at different times. There are competitors that have given [the buckles] away to charity events or to friends that have helped them.

C: What does rodeo “royalty” refer to?

TS: Royalty is determined through a separate competition, which is usually put on in the fall after the rodeo is over. We have “Mr.,” “Miss,” “Ms,” and “Mster” categories. An individual wins these titles through a competition in which they demonstrate their knowledge of the gay rodeo, their ability to provide public entertainment, and their ability to model Western wear, among other things.

C: If someone came to the rodeo last year, why should they make the effort to attend this year, Tom?

TS: Even though we provide the same events year after year, what makes each year special and unique are all the different competitors. They change from year to year, and it seems we will have some of they top competitors from across the country and Canada attending this year and vying for an invitation to the World Gay Rodeo finals held in October, in Laughlin, NV.

2010 Windy City Rodeo, August 20 - 22, Six Guns Ranch & Arena, 26926 S. State Line Road, Crete, IL, $15, For more information, check out the ILGRA's website