Gay Rodeo turns 30 in Santa Fe

Riders perform at the Gay Santa Fe Rodeo that turns 30 this year

August 26 – 28th: NM Gay Rodeo
30th Anniversary at Rodeo de Santa Fe Grounds
Tickets: $10.00/day (or $15.00 for the weekend)

Friday, August 26th: Country Western Dance
7 pm – midnight at the Rodeo Grounds

Saturday, August 27th: Rodeo begins
Day 1 – 10am, Grand Entry at noon

Saturday Night, August 27th: 30th Anniversary Reunion Dinner and Dance, 6pm
Dinner cost at Rodeo Grounds: $10 per plate. A portion of the proceeds to benefit the 2022 charity partner – Silver Horizons

Sunday, August 28th: Rodeo – Day 2
at Rodeo Grounds – Starts at 10 am
Grand entry: noon
Awards: 8 pm at Rodeo Grounds – Sunday evening

On Saturday and Sunday, August 26 and 27, the Annual Zia Regional Rodeo, Rodeo Reunion, and Camp Out will return to the Rodeo de Santa Fe Grounds (3237 Rodeo Road). The fun-packed weekend promises animal-friendly breakaway calf roping, team roping, barrel racing, flag race, pole bending, along with the rough stock events: bull riding and steer riding-and some “camp events” that you could only witness at a gay rodeo.

This year’s edition holds special significance for our city’s rodeo fans. This month’s festivities mark 30 years of official gay rodeo in The Land of Enchantment as the New Mexico Gay Rodeo Association (NMGRA) celebrates three decades of skilled cowboys, competitive cowgirls, fast horses, and campy fun – all for a good cause.

SUB – ROOTS IN ROYALTY

It’s all a part of a southwestern LGBTQ+ tradition that oddly enough has its roots in the same Imperial Court system that produces New York City’s annual dragstravaganza “Night of a Thousand Gowns.” 

According to GayRodeoHistory.org

Emperor I of Reno, Phil Ragsdale, came up with one of the most creative ideas to raise funds. The year was 1975 and Ragsdale wanted to help out the local Senior Citizens Annual Thanksgiving Day feed. An amateur gay rodeo would be fun, raise money, and even erase a lot of gay stereotyping. Ragsdale did not find it easy to pull off this event. He did finally land the Washoe County Fairgrounds for October 2, 1976, and then could not get any local ranchers to allow gays the use of their animals. Finally, on October 1, 1976, he was able to locate five “wild” range cows, ten “wild” range calves, one pig, and a Shetland pony. The next day, “IT WAS RODEO TIME!” Over 125 people took part in this “first” event and the winners were crowned: first, “King of the Cowboys,” second, “Queen of the Cowgirls,” and third, “Miss Dusty Spurs” (the drag queen). 

Since those humble beginnings, gay rodeo has flourished, and rodeo weekends in cities like Phoenix, Oklahoma City, Denver, Palm Springs, Calgary, and Santa Fe are all part of a circuit of events that is overseen by sanctioning body International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). In its history, it has survived the AIDS and COVID pandemics and raised millions of dollars for HIV-relative causes, breast cancer research, animal rights, and other community, health, and environmental organizations.

Cowboy riding a horse at the Gay Santa Fe Rodeo which turns 30 this year
Cowboy riding a horse at the Gay Santa Fe Rodeo which turns 30 this year

SUB – A (RODEO) STAR IS BORN

By defying heteronormative standards, gay rodeo has piqued the interest of the media. It has inspired numerous documentaries. On the small screen, it has been featured on episodes of PBS voices, primetime animated series King of the Hill, and Comedy Central’s popular The Daily Show. It was on a 2006 installment of that popular news comedy program that gay rodeo hall of famer Brian Helander spoke to then-host Jon Stewart. Helander, who serves as NMGRA media relations/PR director, is a prominent face in gay rodeo and has a long association with the sport.

Helander recalled the first moments as an amateur contestant in his first rodeo on a recent podcast interview with Lovestruck Daily hosts Sarah Wendell and Aisha Rai. 

“I remember the smell of the dirt and how it spoke to me. I was born on a farm in Canada and the smell of the dirt was as harkening back to my roots through it,” he said. “I entered events that I had never done before because that’s what they were offering. I just got in there and did it and turned out that I was pretty good at it.”

‘Pretty good’–as Helander puts it–turns out to be an understatement. Prior to his induction into the IGRA Hall of Fame, he competed in over 200 rodeos, earned 165 event buckles, including 12 International Finals champion titles, and five All-Around Championship titles.

SUB – HUMANE AND HUMOROUS

Over the course of the two-day rodeo, there are 13 events altogether-mostly traditional rodeo events that include bull riding, horse-based speed events, and calf-roping. “We do breakaway calf-roping,” Helander says. “But we don’t do tie-down roping.”

In addition to the humane aspect of gay rodeo, there are some “camp events” that are designed for funny entry-level fun. This include:

Goat Dressing. Where a team of two race to put a pair of BVDs on a goat.

Steer Decorating. Where team of two star in a chute and have to tie a ribbon to the tail of a steer.

Wild Drag Race. Here, three participants get a steer out of the chute across a line, and have a team member in drag ride back across the line.

You may have seen a lot of things, but if you’ve never experienced fully costumed drag queen mounted on the back of an uncooperative stallion, you haven’t lived.

SUB – LOOKING FORWARD/GIVING BACK

2022 marks a milestone for NMGRA. “We’ve been doing amateur gay rodeo in New Mexico for 30 years,” Helander boasts. And if it’s the pearl anniversary for New Mexico gay rodeo, it’s a wood anniversary for Santa Fe. 

“For the first 25 years, the event was in Albuquerque,” Helander said. “It moved primarily because the venue we were using got to be too expensive for a charity rodeo.” Fortunately, both the City of Santa Fe and Rodeo of Santa Fe were very helpful in making the transition to The City Different. 

“The were very supportive from the very beginning,” Helander says. “The first year they leased the rodeo grounds to us for a dollar, and five years later it’s still very reasonably priced.”

And although the sport’s participants and crowds have shrunk since its halcyon days in the 1980s, Helander feels that still a vital and significant part of Southwestern queer culture.

Speaking on the Lovestruck podcast, Helander noted that gay rodeo is “very important because there are still to this day a number of LGBTQ+ youngsters out there in the wilderness of the world struggling with their identities. There are very conservative western cowboy culture towns and cities. And the street rodeo world is still a world in which gay jokes are completely acceptable, so we need to be there for those kids who are seeking place to be accepted. 

You may have seen a lot of things, but if you’ve never experienced a team of three attempting to get a fully costumed drag queen mounted on the back of an uncooperative steer, you haven’t lived.

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