Utah’s gay rodeo returns after 19 years, bringing competition and belonging to the queer country community

ogden • Shortly after the contestants raced to pull a pair of tights on a goat tied to a concrete block on which a drag queen was sitting, and just before the contestants began to ride bucking oxen, Janelle sat down Jennissen onto a silver metal walkway overlooking the sand arena at the Golden Spike Event Center.

Jennissen, 29, has been in the rodeo world for most of her life. For more than a decade, since childhood, she has competed in barrel racing – a sport in which a horse and rider race around a series of barrels. She had never been to a rodeo like this before.

“I grew up where it was quite normal to call something gay a swear word,” she said, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a plaid shirt buttoned to the neck. “It was unthinkable to see or hear anyone who was queer.”

Even more unusual was that the entire rodeo was queer. But this one, the first in Utah in 19 years, was proven gay.

The Utah Gay Rodeo Association’s multi-day regional rodeo, Crossroads of the West, was held in Ogden last weekend had all the same amenities as a “traditional” rodeo. Similar competitions. Similar outfits – jeans, crisp button down shirts, cowboy hats. The manicured dirt and manure gave off the same earthy, stinky-sweet scent.

But mixed with nostalgia for rodeo, a pastime practiced by many here After feeling lost or left out, these competitors and viewers also felt a sense of belonging and a relief to be among their people — people who wouldn’t judge them for their boots or blue jeans who knew the words and brought them with them could be turned into silent tears by a song by Garth Brooks, who grew up with more horses than neighbors. Everyone is either queer themselves or friendly if you were.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A riderless horse enters the arena to honor LGBTQ community members who died during a ceremony at the Utah Gay Rodeo Association’s Crossroads of the West regional rodeo at the Golden Spike Arena in Ogden died on Saturday. June 17, 2023.

“It’s pretty cool. I never thought something like this existed and I had no idea what to expect,” Jennissen said. “I’ve been close to tears a few times because this community just exists (where ) you can be queer and be fully accepted.”

Although she grew up barrel racing, Jennissen said she stopped competing after coming out as LGBTQ to her parents, not because she wanted to but because she was being forced to leave home and her horse and to leave their sport behind.

She came to the Ogden rodeo on June 17th to try to reclaim that piece of herself – and find community.

“Everybody can participate”

Gay rodeo is about community building and providing LGBTQ people from “country and western backgrounds a safe space to compete,” said Kevin Hillman, trustee of the Utah Gay Rodeo Association.

The first gay rodeo was held in Reno, Nevada in 1976. It was a competition – and later an entire international federation – born out of stigma because, as Kathy Alday, President of the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association, put it, “Being gay in a professional rodeo doesn’t work.” Especially not at the time [work] at all.”

As Hillman put it, “Gay and rodeo are a contradiction in terms. People don’t see gay men and women, especially gay men, as people who would get down in the dirt and do things like that.”

The International Gay Rodeo Association was formed in Colorado about a decade later in 1985.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sam Merriman competes in the chute dogging competition during the Utah Gay Rodeo Association’s Crossroads of the West regional rodeo at the Golden Spike Arena in Ogden on Saturday, June 17, 2023.

Three years after that first rodeo in Nevada, Utah’s first gay rodeo club was formed. At the time, it was known as the Golden Spike Gay Rodeo Association, and it converted to the Utah Gay Rodeo Association in 1989, Hillman said. There are now 15 similar associations in the United States.

The Utah group held several rodeos in the early 2000s, but these ceased and the group later disbanded in 2006. They got back together in 2016, and this year was the first in which the organization was able to raise enough funds to host a rodeo. Hillman said even a small rodeo can cost around $60,000.

“We don’t care how you identify — straight, gay, bisexual, whatever locales,” Hillman said, joking that even if you’re straight, “the cattle are all gay … we’ve got that part covered.” “

Not only can LGBTQ people compete in gay rodeos without fear or harassment, But even at events there is no gender segregation. At the gay rodeo, women can ride bulls or broncs. Men can pole bend or barrel race.

“Anyone can participate,” Alday said.

Compete outside the box

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bull riding champion Linda Peterson chats with a friend during the Crossroads Of The West Regional Rodeo at the Golden Spike Arena in Ogden on Saturday, June 17, 2023.

One example is bull riding champion Linda Sue Peterson, a Lehi-American and this year’s Rodeo Grand Marshal.

For as long as she can remember, Peterson has wanted to ride bulls, even though she was allergic to “almost everything,” had severe asthma, and was born a girl.

“That’s all I can think of. Every drawing I made was [of] bull riding. But they wouldn’t let you drive in high school because you’re a woman and stuff like that,” Peterson said. “So I finally got out there, made friends and learned about gay rodeo.”

A lot of bull riding happens in a person’s head, she said. If you think Taurus will throw you, then he will too. If you think you can ride it, you have a chance. And Peterson knew she could ride bulls.

She would have won a medal at her first gay rodeo in Arizona had it not been for a formality, according to her Grand Marshal biography, which is reprinted in the Ogden event brochure. Still dissatisfied with her riding, after this defeat she went to the bull riding school.

“Fifty-two guys and I,” Peterson said, “and I’m the only one who didn’t stay upside down, and I hit the jackpot on the last day.”

That year, 1994, she placed second in the International Gay Rodeo Association bull riding finals.

But after that season, “work started to bother me,” she said. Peterson was working as an officer with the US Forest Service at the time. Then one of her colleagues, one of her few supporters at work, died by suicide. She quit rodeo to end the harassment, she said.

Peterson gave up retirement in 2000 when she heard the Utah Union was hosting a rodeo again, saying to herself, “Nobody remembers #2. I want to be #1.” first place and reached the finals in New Mexico, where she bred a bull named Slow Poke who had never been ridden before.

“Well, he will today,” Peterson recalled. “And I’ll probably end up in the ’90s.”

And she did. Her score of 91 remains the highest ever achieved by a woman on the international gay rodeo scene.

Peterson said it was special to be back at the Utah Gay Rodeo last weekend “to celebrate just being yourself, doing what you love and being with people you love. “

She cried as she drove to the convention center and saw the rainbow and blue, white and pink Pride flags waving along the entrance road. And she was heartened to see more viewers and competitors than she ever remembered in years past, when the LGBTQ community was even more stigmatized than it is today.

She probably wouldn’t have been able to be a grand marshal at a traditional rodeo — the honor usually goes to a heterosexual couple, she said.

When Peterson was browsing photos and looking for pictures that showed her on the back of a bull, she lamented that there weren’t many pictures because cameras were risky back then. No one wanted to out someone who wasn’t ready.

“It’s come a long way,” she later said in a text message, “but there’s still a long way to go.”

(Photo by Linda Peterson) Linda Peterson rides a bull in this undated photo.

‘Rodeo is cool’ but gay rodeo is ‘cute’

In addition to the standard rodeo events, gay rodeos host three uniquely queer events: Ox Dressing, Goat Dressing, and the Wild Drag Race.

The grand procession will also feature a riderless ceremony to honor parishioners who have died “either of AIDS, cancer,” or something else, a spokesman said on June 17 as a man guided a saddled horse through the arena and the contestants and the audience led The members stood in silence, hands or hats covering their hearts.

A pair of boots slid backwards in the stirrups as Brooks’ “The Dance” blared through the speakers, hitting the final lines of the song’s chorus: “Our lives are better left to chance. I could have missed the pain. But I should have given up the dance.”

The announcer continued, voice strained with emotion, “We’ve lost so many.”

Hillman said Tuesday it’s not clear if the organization will be able to host another rodeo next year.

Organizers were hoping for better turnout over the weekend to help offset costs and have enough left over to donate to other organizations. Although there were a few people in the stands throughout the rodeo, Hillman said not enough people showed up.

“It’s heartbreaking, you know,” Hillman said, “but that’s life.”

Despite the low turnout, the rodeo was enjoyed by the participants.

Scooter Peterson, Ivey Gramer and Edward Snow had been looking forward to the rodeo ever since they found out about it at last year’s Ogden Pride.

Scooter Peterson and Gramer wore cowboy hats, while Snow wore a modified blue Dorothy dress from The Wizard of Oz — complete with rainbow-striped stockings and a straw hat — as they sat in the stands on June 17, just as the riding on the Oxen started this afternoon.

The occasion was an excuse to dress up, Gramer said, and she loved seeing other people’s outfits. It felt nostalgic for Snow, who grew up in central Utah and was strapped onto the back of a horse before he even had a clue what he was doing up there.

“I did it growing up, but it just felt like I wasn’t culturally aligned with the people who went to the regular rodeos,” Snow said.

Peterson said he appreciated “the spectacle of masculinity” — bringing a “gay twist” to a sport with so much machismo.

“A rodeo is cool,” he said, “but a gay rodeo has to be cute.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Performers dance before the Utah Gay Rodeo Association’s “Crossroads of the West” regional rodeo at the Golden Spike Arena in Ogden on Saturday, June 17, 2023.

Editor’s Note • This story is available only to Salt Lake Tribune subscribers. Thank you for supporting local journalism.

Justin Scaccy

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