Bucking Tradition Gay rodeo: wrestling steers, stereotypes

October 01, 1993|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,Staff Writer

When Tony Valdez arrives in Maryland today for the Atlantic Stampede '93, he will do what he has done in other rodeo rings across the country -- wrestle 500-pound horned steers to the ground.

Broad shouldered and slim-hipped, the 32-year-old Mr. Valdez will be competing with the best of the chute doggers for a first-place finish and a silver belt buckle the size of Texas.

And when he's not dodging steer horns or dusting dirt from his cowboy duds, you'll find him in a more chic Western outfit, riding in the back of a vintage convertible as Chili Pepper, Miss International Gay Rodeo Association.

This is the Gay Rodeo, where mustachioed he-men and drag queens compete for the same prize, and stereotypes about homosexuals are broken as swiftly as wild horses.

From Wichita to Washington, gay men and lesbians are roping calves, dogging steers and riding bucking broncs on a circuit more than a decade old. They've got callouses on their hands, mud on their boots and a fair share of bruises and broken bones.

"When you have somebody coming out on a bareback Brahma, you would not know it's a gay rodeo," says Robert Carroll, a Seattle hospital administrator who competes in both steer and bull riding.

Today's opening of the Atlantic Stampede '93 ushers in two days of rodeo events at the Prince George's Equestrian Center in Upper Marlboro, a national square-dancing competition and nightly hoedowns at a Washington hotel. Last year the Saturday night dance alone drew 4,500 people.

"It's a festival. We even have dance lessons," says Mike Lentz, president of the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association.

"It's not like any other rodeo you'll ever go to."

Cowboys and lipstick

The most recent gay rodeo was held in Enumclaw, Wash., on wind-swept fairgrounds at the foot of Mount Rainier. And it was tough to tell that the cowboy wrestling a steer also wore the false eyelashes and red Lancome lipstick he had donned for his earlier appearance as the rodeo queen.

Dressed in rodeo regulation jeans and a long-sleeved, Western-style shirt, Tony Valdez got hold of what cowboys call "a rubber neck" -- a steer that won't go down.

"Hang on, Chili. Tip 'im. Tip 'im," a voice in the rodeo stands yelled as the Dallas hairdresser struggled to wrestle the steer on its side.

And in 29 exhilarating seconds, Mr. Valdez lands the animal in the dirt. The buzzer sounds. It's a score.

"Alright, sister!" the audience crows, as the cowboy jogged out of the ring.

Breathing heavily, a strand of long black curly hair loose from his pony tail, Mr. Valdez yanked off his leather gloves.

"For myself, I try to go the extra mile because I'm the drag queen," says Mr. Valdez, who uses his title to raise money for AIDS charities and to promote the gay rodeo. "You can be pretty in a dress and be just as tough out there with the guys."

On the circuit, Mr. Valdez is an entertainer (although he doesn't do drag professionally). He keeps the crowd laughing, playing Miss Kitty to the Matt Dillons of this ever-growing community.

Since the first gay cowhands competed in a charity event in Reno,Nev., in 1976, 17 chapters of the International Gay Rodeo Association have sprung up, representing nearly 10,000 members in the United States and Canada.

It's an organization peopled by statisticians and slot-machine technicians, saleswomen and computer programmers. It's as much a way of life as a venue for sport. What binds them beyond their sexual orientation is their love of country and western music, a flare for the Texas Two-Step and the thrill of riding a bucking Brahma bull -- even for half a minute.

"It takes just as much guts for a gay person to get on a bronc, steer or bull as a straight person," says Bill Allan, one of the members of the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association who

attended the rodeo outside Seattle.

It's not sexist

"Plus, we're not sexist," says Cari Lyons, a computer software engineer who helped found the San Diego gay rodeo chapter in 1988. "We got men riding barrels and women riding bulls."

The gay rodeo is as much a matter of personal style -- Wranglers or Levi's, Stetsons or Resistols -- as personal bests.

Take Ms. Lyons. She arrived at the dance on the eve of the two-day rodeo in a crisp white, Western-style shirt with turquoise-studded sterling silver collar tips and a leather string tie.

Her two-toned boots complement a taupe-colored felt Stetson atop her head. The well-dressed and appointed cowgirl.

"You don't take this," she says, tapping her "show" hat, "out in the arena."

Frank Elam, a flight attendant from Dallas, had left his custom-made Stetson at home. But he wore his "platter" -- a gold-trimmed silver belt buckle he won for staying atop a bucking steer longer than his competitors.

He also can dress a goat in record time.

"Nine and a half to 10 seconds is a pretty fast time," says the tall Texan, attending his 12th rodeo this year. "Personally, I've had three sub-10-second runs. I've got seven goat-dressing buckles."

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