America's thriving gay rodeo scene

As a controversial new film shows how cowboys really kept warm on the range, Andrew Buncombe rides off in search of America's wild Wild West
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As they sit waiting for things inside the arena to really warm up, Wally Bonfield and his friend Duane Evans ponder the question of who would make the list of Hollywood's cutest cowboys.

Alan Ladd, yes possibly. Jimmy Stewart, maybe. Gary Cooper, certainly. Certainly not Clint Eastwood. Too mean, too tough. And no one thinks "The Duke" John Wayne would make the cut. Robert Redford might though. "It would have to be someone who had a soft side as well," says 66-year-old Bonfield.

"For a gay man they would have to have a soft side."

Today though, we are not here to think about soft sides. Today we are here to focus on the rough and tumble, to celebrate machismo and style and ruggedness, of long days in the saddle and dust and calloused hands and sore muscles. If along with all of this someone has the sort of looks that might grant them consideration for inclusion alongside Cooper and Redford, well, that's no bad thing either.

Gay rodeos have been around in the US since the mid-Seventies. While to some the very notion of gay rodeo competitors might seem rather unlikely, today there are around 25 events every year across the country and the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) is the third largest rodeo group in the world.

The idea of the cowboy as something of an icon within the gay community is nothing new. But the rodeo is not simply an opportunity to ogle and get in close at the raucous line-dancing parties that inevitably follow the day-time events. Many of the participants grew up in rural communities where wrestling steers and roping calves was a way of life and though they moved to the cities after coming out to have an easier life, many desired the chance to return to their roots. This is their chance.

"I used to go to the rodeo as a child," says Evans, a ridiculously young-looking 79-year-old who has come with his friend, Bonfield, because his partner is apparently not interested in the rodeo. "It was one of my favourite things."

Meanwhile, even the mainstream movie business has come to terms with the idea that cowboys can be gay. Whereas in the classic Western there was at best a frisson of homoerotic camaraderie, in Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee's new film based on an Annie Proulx short story, a ranch-hand and a rodeo cowboy - played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger - become lovers. Their relationship is set against the backdrop of beautiful but harsh rural Wyoming and, despite its content - shocking for much of middle America - the film is hotly tipped for Oscar success next year. f

I'm at an event called the Atlantic Stampede. Many of IGRA's rodeos are held in proper cowpoke towns such as Kansas City or Fort Worth, places with a real cowboy history where people know one end of a bull from the other. This event, by contrast, is being held at the Montgomery County Fairground in the distinctly suburban setting of Gaithersburg, Maryland, not an hour outside of Washington DC. Still, people have done their best to get into the cowboy spirit: there are a lot of Stetsons on display and tight blue jeans and big shiny belt buckles.

Inside the arena the team roping event is underway and pairs of cowboys or cowgirls on horseback work as a team to try and lasso a running steer. The crowd of several hundred is made up mostly - though not entirely - of men. One man is wearing a T-shirt that reads: "If you can rope me you can have me." Another's says: "Save a horse - ride a cowboy." I eavesdrop as one decidedly urbane man tells his friends he wants to find himself a "hunky farm boy". Everyone claps politely as one of the riders manages to rope one of the steers around the hoof.

Brad Kirkes and John Leiss are in the stands holding hands. They are not "super into" Country & Western, they admit, but the rodeo is fun. "We like it now and then," they say.

The programme - sponsored in part by a lubricant manufacturer - lists more than a dozen or so events including chute dogging and pole bending. I enquire as to whether these two are activities for after dark but am assured they are genuine rodeo events - one of which involves wrestling a steer to the ground as it is let out of the cage, or chute. But the one event that really counts is the bull riding. In this event, participants have to ride on the back of an angry, agitated bull for eight seconds. Women have to last for six.

There is only one woman bull rider this weekend. Elodie Hutner, 41, a solid-looking woman from California, has been taking part in these events for six years. "I like the camaraderie of the rodeo," she explains.

No one should ever doubt this woman's courage. Down next to the chute, rich with the smell of bull manure, I watch as Hutner climbs up the bars and takes her place astride a huge bull. She adjusts her seat, adjusts her grip, settles herself on the animal and then signals that she is ready. Ready for the explosion.

In an instant the cage door is released and the bull leaps, twisting into the arena. Hutner remains on the back of the bull for barely a moment before she is flung on to the dusty floor with such force its makes one shudder f and grimace. Fortunately she is not hurt and she is gamely back on to her feet, wiping a bead of sweat from her forehead. She is angry rather than upset - she did not stay on long enough for a score. In fact she admits that in her six years of competing she has yet to stay on the bull for the whole six seconds.

She doesn't even keep a record of how long she does stay on. "I don't know if I'm getting any better," she says, slapping the dust from her clothes.

Another regular competitor is Bailey Kier, a 27-year-old student with soft features that belie a steely dedication, who grew up in Washington State. After coming out at the age of 16, Kier moved to Seattle and then to Washington DC. Several months ago Kier started having hormone treatment and, having previously competed in the women's events, now competes as a man. Not today though: at the last rodeo he broke his arm.

"I definitely ran away," he admits, when I ask about his upbringing on the West Coast. Having said that he is not a great fan of Washington DC either, despite its sizeable gay population. "There are lots of tensions."

Kier also talks of the support of fellow competitors and fans on the circuit and, like many competitors, suggests that gay rodeo is simply more welcoming to gay people than straight rodeo ever could be. (One competitor points out that it was in Wyoming, one of the rodeo capitals of the US, that 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was beaten and left to die, tied to a fence, in 1998 in a gay hate killing.) Kier says the support of friends and fellow participants has played an important role, too, following his decision to become a man.

Kier's partner, Connie Morris, 35, originally from Atlanta, Georgia, only started participating in rodeo events last summer. A school psychologist, she says she likes the people who attend the events. "Professional rodeo is not as open," she says. Today she is taking part in the barrel racing event, where riders are timed as they make their way to a series of points within the arena.

While the rodeo is undoubtedly partly a celebration of gay culture, everyone likes to stress that the competition is plenty serious. As many as 100 competitors regularly travel on the gay rodeo circuit, competing for the modest purses and the titles. Several of the competitors have participated in straight or regular rodeo events.

One such competitor is Sonny Koerner, a handsome and clearly popular 37-year-old who was recently photographed for a national gay magazine sitting naked astride a brown and white horse. Today the former IGRA champion has all his clothes on and has competed - not well enough to satisfy his standards - in six events.

He grew up in Texas where he spent hot summers riding horses and roping cattle on his grandparents' ranch and competing in local children's rodeo events. Initially he was put off the idea of a gay rodeo - "I figured it would be drag queens in a big mud pit" - but when he investigated he found it was not so dissimilar to the events he already knew. Having said that, goat dressing - an event in which participants place a pair of underpants on a live goat - is not a regular rodeo event.

"I would not say that the rodeo is any more important than anything else," says Koerner, who is a security consultant based in Washington. But it's important for the gay community to show that it's as varied as any other community. We are just as diverse as the straight community." E

'Brokeback Mountain' is released on 6 Jan 2006