calgary -- hank is torn. in theory,he should adore k.d. lang for coming out proudly and defiantly in rural Alberta. But Hank, a gay man who ranches on the province's east-central plains, has other priorities."I won't buy her CDs any more because she stopped buying beef," he says, "but I think she'd enjoy the rodeo."
Growing up 30 kilometres down the highway from the 4,000-acre cattle ranch where he lives today, a few miles from lang's hometown, Hank was a frequent rodeo competitor. That's what prairie kids did. But bulls and bucking broncos were left in the pasture when he ran off to grad school.
Then, in 1992, Hank attended his first gay rodeo in San Antonio, Texas. "That was where I felt, "Oh, my god -- I'm not alone.'"
From its delayed, hardscrabble origins in Reno, Nevada, in 1976 -- local ranchers refused to rent livestock to organizers in 1975 -- the gay rodeo circuit has swelled into a flourishing Can-Am tour with 24 stops in peak years.
Two weeks ago, the Road Runner Rodeo in Phoenix kicked off the 2001 calendar, which will feature 18 rodeos, including unlikely destinations like Salt Lake City and Little Rock as well as the seventh annual Canadian Rockies International Rodeo in Calgary, the "international" dimension of the parent International Gay Rodeo Association.
A veteran of all six Cowtown rodeos, Hank (no last name, please) is already jacked about this summer's late-June hoedown. With its three days of dances, prime rib dinners, concerts by country stars like Chris Cummings, attendance approaching 2,000 and a full slate of events, from chute dogging to barrel racing, plus camp events like the wild drag race devised to encourage beginner participation, the gay rodeo is a celebration of western heritage, with a machismo-free twist.
"There's such a sense of freedom," explains Hank, who refused to go to his boyfriend's aunt's wedding last summer because it was the same weekend as the Calgary rodeo. "I'd experienced that at the Gay Olympics in Vancouver. But these are my people, people from a rural background who happen to be gay. If you're young, gay and rural, you don't have to run off to the city and become a hairdresser."
Even in Alberta -- the province that launched Stockwell Day and that the Supreme Court of Canada admonished for not protecting the rights of fired gay teacher Delwin Vriend -- the rodeo has faced little controversy.
Current rodeo director Kevin Murray remembers a photo of a man wearing a wedding dress appearing in newspapers across the continent in year one, an unfortunate representation because most competitors were clad in jeans and plaid shirts. There were also some protestors that summer -- animal rights activists.
Hank, in fact, considers the Alberta countryside a tolerant environment. As long as you're a contributing member of society and rein in the outlandish behaviour, he says, it's easy to be a gay rancher. "I'm not going to walk down the road holding my boyfriend's hand and kissing him," he says, "but my neighbours don't walk down the road kissing their wives either.
"Don't put rural people down. Most have satellite TVs and get Will & Grace."
South of the border there have been a couple of homophobic incidents. Some yahoo fired off a few rounds outside the Corona ranch in Phoenix a couple of years back, according to Murray, and organizers of a rodeo in Washington state's Bible belt once received a telephone threat. "It was a wonderful setting," laments Murray. "There were beautiful hills. But there might have been snipers in the hills."
Yet those anecdotes are exceptions. Heck, at the inaugural Salt Lake City rodeo in Mormon-soaked Utah last year, the mayor served as the grand marshal. "If Salt Lake City can host a gay rodeo and be wildly successful, there's nowhere we can't go," says Doug Graff, the IGRA's California-based spokesperson and a talented bull rider who'll be back in the saddle whenever his torn rotator cuff heals.
"I can't tell you how many times I've gotten choked up about doing what we're doing and loving it so much," he adds. "That's our mission -- to support country-western heritage and lifestyle in the gay community."
With Bud Lite on board as a sponsor, gay rodeo is growing, yet another example of the mainstream world accepting gay culture and the gay dollar. "Business is business," Pat Bell of the Calgary Convention and Visitors Bureau says of the rodeo's impact on Cowtown. "The cash register has no opinion."
Neither do the bulls.