Despite the efforts of its governor and legislature, Texas is still home several prominent centers of the LGBTQ community from Austin to Houston to Dallas.
However, anyone who has ever been to the Lone Star State knows that in between those gay-friendlier cities, there’s still a whole lot of Texas. For LGBTQ people who grow up in the state’s more isolated and rural areas, it can feel like a monumental task to create a life that balances their interests with their identities.
Which is why the Texas Gay Rodeo Assn. plays a vital supportive role in the state’s LGBTQ culture.
With so much of Texas’ LGBTQ population migrating to the above mentioned cities, the TGRA serves as one space for its rural LGBTQ citizens to compete comfortably and unapologetically as their true selves. It also serves to upend stereotypes of southwest small town populations.
In a recent profile by The New Yorker’s Rachel Monore, TGRA competitor Aurielle Dickerson asserted, “People think, ‘OK, you’re country — you’re a white, conservative, small minded person. And that’s just not how it is.”
By showing that there is more to rural areas than the stereotypical image, events like the TGRA also provide evidence to LGBTQ people in small towns that there are others like them.
“I was vaguely aware of the existence of the International Gay Rodeo Association as I was in my coming out process, but I do not believe there were any events nearby,” gay rodeo cowboy PJ Painter told Outsports. “I had this general mindset that I was the only one of my kind—the only gay rodeo cowboy. It would have been nice to know that wasn’t true.”
Indeed, the TGRA presents its events as a celebration of both the traditional rodeo and queer worlds — and often finds creative ways to blend the two. As Monroe relates, during a given afternoon, competitions in bull riding and calf roping are offset with “camp events” like wild drag race “which involves a team helping a person in drag mount a steer and ride it across the finish line.”
Suffice to say, if a queen on RuPaul’s Drag Race ever pulled that off, they’d never have to worry about lip syncing again.
The TGRA provides an outlet for LGBTQ representation in areas where such places are desperately needed. But Texas’ current political climate adds an extra degree of difficulty to its existence.
When the TGRA sets up an event in a small town like Denton, it harkens back to the clandestine ways that many gay bars used to operate during most of the 20th century.
While notice of an upcoming rodeo gets passed around by word of mouth among the community that TGRA has built, there are no advertisements in local media. Nor is there any signage at the rodeo site.
According to Monroe, “The guardedness is partly a habit held over from the old days and partly a response to the unsettling political atmosphere in Texas, where drag events regularly meet with belligerent protesters.”
Having gone through the experience of coming out while competing in rodeos, Painter expressed his concern that the present state of affairs has made it substantially harder for others to do so.
“If I were still competing in high school or college rodeos, I would be fearful to compete as my true self,” he said. “The hate sparked by recent legislation could rear its ugly head at any moment and homophobic bullies feel more empowered than ever to react with violence against our community.”
This is the atmosphere that politicians like Gov. Greg Abbott have created through their aggressive demonization of the community. Despite their efforts to force organizations like the TGRA back into the closet, the fact that it continues to put on shows is evidence that the rural Texas LGBTQ population is going to continue asserting its right to exist — even in small town rodeos.
In fact, gay rodeos have served as a supportive space for rural LGBTQ communities for decades. The first gay rodeo took place in 1976 in Reno and served as a foundation for an organization that eventually became The International Gay Rodeo Assn. A few years later, the TGRA was founded in 1983.
Small town gay rodeos have survived the Reagan era, the AIDS crisis, and movements to ban marriage equality. So if Texas politicians think they can create an environment so hostile to LGBTQ community that they just disappear or move away, they have failed to reckon with the fact that this is literally not their first rodeo.
Thanks to the continued work of the TGRA, the LGBTQ rodeo community, and its straight allies, it won’t be the last one either.