Author speaks at UCO on history of gay rodeo

Book cover for Ford and Scofield’s “Slapping Leathers: Queer Cowfolx at the Gay Rodeo”

As the Spring 2024 rodeo season kicked off across the states, Elyssa Ford, two-time author of books about rodeo, visited UCO from Missouri to talk about her research on gay rodeo. 

Queer rodeo rose in the 1960s and 1970s with the Golden State Cowboys, which began a wave of more gay rodeo groups popping up. It was a space for freedom and liberation, in keeping with the sexual freedom movement of the ’60s.

The gay rodeo became a space for activism, fundraising, and community support when it mattered most. There were stories of how the lesbian community stepped up to nurse patients who were dying of AIDS, fundraising and advocating for people who became like family. Ford said the world changed quickly once people became aware of the virus.

“This has an immediate impact on the rodeo,” Ford said. “Rodeo programs quickly moved from overt promotions of the sexual freedom, expression and enjoyment to some more conservative views on gay sex, ads about HIV/AIDS, medical advice and in memoriam announcements remembering those who died.” 

Though people started to become aware of the virus, it was still poorly understood and discrimination affected how it was discussed. Ford mentioned an infamous event in which President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary, Larry Speakes, was asked by Baltimore journalist Lester Kinsolving about the spread of HIV/AIDS.

“Representatives of the press, Reagan’s press secretary, they’re laughing about AIDS or ridiculing gay people. Any reporter who asks a question about AIDS, they make fun of that person and say, ‘Well, you only care because, like, he must be gay.’ And I think for new generations, even within queer spaces like out of the rodeo, it can be really difficult to understand the very real deep and traumatic experience of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s,” Ford said. 

Rodeo fundraising made a large impact. Just between 1982 and 1984, Texas rodeo royalty “donated over $30,000 annually,” Ford said. Throughout the country, this fundraising continued, but in Oklahoma there was an exception.

 In 1995, the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building was bombed in Oklahoma City, and gay rodeo took notice. The focus shifted from providing support to the HIV/AIDS crisis to providing support to many kinds of causes. This was the story now often told of Oklahomans banding together during crisis. Though gay rodeo was its own distinct community, there was a palpable time and place connection in this support that told the story of resilience and strength.

The rodeo has been an American cultural tradition, especially in rural areas, since Buffalo Bill created his Wild West Show in 1882. However, rodeo culture spreads much further and wider than the mainstream, as detailed in the companion book review to this article. However, from vaqueros in Mexico to group-specific rodeos like the gay rodeo, there is emphasized a connection to roots, home, and community.

Esquire magazine wrote in 1989 that “if you’re an American male, buried somewhere deep in your soul is a little bit of a cowboy.” 

These are the listings for rodeo events in the near future.

Ultimate Calf Roping

Apr 13, 2024 – Apr 14, 2024

Stephens County Fair & Expo Center

Duncan, OK 73533

Atoka ProRodeo

Apr 19, 2024 – Apr 20, 2024

Atoka Trail Riders Arena

Atoka, OK 74525

Pioneer Days Celebration & PRCA Rodeo

May 1, 2024 – May 5, 2024

Henry C. Hitch Pioneer Arena

Guymon, OK 73942

Cowboys of Color Rodeo

May 4, 2024

State Fairgrounds Arena

Oklahoma City, OK 73107

Will Rogers Stampede PRCA Rodeo

May 24, 2024 – May 26, 2024

Will Rogers Stampede Arena

Claremore, OK 74017

Boley Rodeo

May 25, 2024

Main Street & Rodeo Grounds

Boley, OK 74829

Durant Pro Rodeo

May 31, 2024 – Jun 1, 2024

1901 S 9th Ave

Durant, OK 74701

101 Wild West Rodeo

Jun 6, 2024 – Jun 8, 2024

101 Rodeo Grounds

Ponca City, OK 74601

Bonus Race World Finals Barrel Race

Jun 10, 2024 – Jun 16, 2024

Heart of Oklahoma Expo Center

Shawnee, OK 74804

Ben Johnson Days

Jun 12, 2024 – Jun 16, 2024

Osage County Fairgrounds

Pawhuska, OK 74056

Pauls Valley Heritage Days Rodeo

Jun 28, 2024 – Jun 29, 2024

2007 N Willow St

Pauls Valley, OK 73075

Great Plains Rodeo

August 9 – 11 2024

Canadian County Expo Center

3001 Jensen Rd

El Reno, OK

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