"A little dirt in the eye is nothing," says a muscular gentleman in skintight Levi's and an eggshell-colored Stetson. "Getting dirty's just part of rodeo." A low, warm wind gusts across the neighboring field, rustling through scrub, and I half expect to see tumbleweeds roll by. Instead, I catch the crackling twang of some country song drifting over the fence. Other than that, the fairgrounds seem very, very quiet, at least half a world away from the urban sprawl of San Jose.
On the short walk to the gate, several sun-bronzed cowboys smile and dip their hats in greeting, as if we were all born in the same small town. This makes the ticket taker's hospitable reception a little less astonishing.
"Aww, just go on in," he says, peering at me from under the sunshade. "Welcome to the gay rodeo."
Sadly, everything I know about gay rodeo has been gleaned from a mediocre episode of King of the Hill in which Hank Hill discovers Dale Gribble's father dominating a goat and dressing it in red silk panties. Mysteriously, here, at the 11th Annual San Francisco Bay Area Regional Rodeo sponsored by the Bay Area chapter of the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association, there are no rainbow-hued rodeo shirts, as seen on TV, nor are the Village People blaring through the loudspeaker. In fact, it's line dancing and suede fringe that gets folks excited here; vendors peddle the same western wares one might expect at any small-town rodeo -- boots, belt buckles, denim jackets, harnesses, riding crops, furry rugs, cowboy hats, spurs, and horse statues. But for the proliferation of bare chests, same-sex dance partners, and trash receptacles donated by Elbow Grease Personal Lubricants, one might never know.
"Of course, the cowboy fetish is, um, unbridled in the gay community," chuckles 38-year-old Damon Fitzgibbon, "but I think most of the cowboys -- and -girls -- who attend the gay rodeo loved horses before they loved men -- or women, as the case may be. But don't worry, sweetie, gay rodeo is definitely more fun than straight rodeo. You'll see."
I climb into the shaded wooden bleachers as six horsemen enter the ring below bearing flags of the United States, Canada, California, the International Gay Rodeo Association, the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association, and gay pride. Everyone rises and removes his cowboy hat as Philip Evans, Mr. Gay San Francisco 2001, sings our national anthem; weirdly, we remain standing while Doug Graff, today's event director and 1999's Mr. IGRA, sings Canada's anthem, out of some deference to our cowboy brethren to the north. After an invocation by the Rev. Reuben Martinez and a memorial ballad called "Riderless Horse Song" sung by Josh Groban, day two of the rodeo finally gets rough with the bareback bronc-riding event. Four competitors -- two men and two women -- stand on the fences between four bucking chutes and four wild-eyed and restless beasts. The goal is to stay on the animal's back for six interminable seconds. It's anything but easy; only three of the four competitors "cover" their time, but San Jose's Patrick Burton is the clear winner, looking, as he does, as calm and cool as the silhouette in a Marlboro ad. Next are the barrel races, a speed event for horses in which Debby Freeman of Morgan Hill takes first place along with Las Vegas' Gary Belitza. During the steer-riding rough stock event, the fearsome creature ridden by Belinda Ann decides on a new tactic: It simply lies down, allowing her to cover and offering the growing crowd some unexpected hilarity. The following event, however, is intrinsically funny: "Steer Decorating," an event exclusive to gay rodeo.
"This is what happens when Martha Stewart meets rodeo," chuckles the announcer. "It can be really quite dangerous. As you might imagine, steers don't like to be decorated."
The goal is for one competitor to tie a ribbon around the steer's tail while his teammate attempts to control the animal by its well-horned head. After a few slipped bows and some hard points coming hazardously close to some soft nether regions, Richard Armstrong and Gary Belitza emerge as the finest and fastest rough stock beautifiers, tying a sweet little pale blue ribbon to the tail of a snorting, stomping black steer in just under 10 seconds. As delightful as this is, it is nothing compared to the "Wild Drag Race," during which a cowgirl holds the 25-foot lead attached to a bucking steer while a cowboy tries to help a drag queen climb onto its back and ride across a finish line some 70 feet from the chute. Most of the teams will pull and push their steers right up to the finish line before attempting the mount; even so, I'm told, it's a perilous four-foot ride from tip to tail, as the animal crosses the line.
The queens enter the ring wearing flowered frocks, wigs, slippers, curlers, lipstick, and various other sundries, but Mr. GSGRA 2001 Brian Van Der Mark, being a credit to his title, easily outshines all the rest in a shimmering, black, bell-bottomed, feather-fringed pantsuit with matching sun hat. Sadly, it takes him over 50 seconds to get on his steer and over the line, and while this time is better than most, good for eighth place, it is no competition for the winning team of Christy Cotton, Drew Oberbeck, and David Smith, who pull the same hilarious stunt in under 12 seconds.
Though earlier I was disappointed by the "Goat Dressing" competition, which employed tighty-whities, not red silk panties, the "Wild Drag Race" more than makes up for it in both danger (medical teams rush into the corral for this event more often than for all the traditional events combined) and glee (flying wigs, flipping queens, bare asses, and one stubborn steer that refuses to stay on its feet). I can barely stop laughing long enough to gasp in alarm as black hooves come uncomfortably close to the limbs of fallen queens.
"Aren't they wonderful?" shouts James Lestrud, who keeps two horses just south of San Francisco. "When I was a kid, I only wanted two things: to be a cowboy and to go to the prom with Jeffrey Levine. This is better than both."