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The Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo is a staple event in the Denver area, not just because of its iconic status as a fun LGBTQ outing, but also because it creates an inclusive experience for Westerners and ranchers who identify outside of the straight community.

Part of the International Gay Rodeo Association, Colorado’s branch has been running strong for 35 years. The drive to hold gay rodeos was essentially born out of two necessities: the AIDS crisis and the need for inclusion in the rodeo world.

Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo, Denver, July 20, 1997. Photo by Bill Morris

The first Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo was in 1983, at the height of the AIDS hysteria. At the time, LGBTQ people weren’t getting the help they needed in terms of charitable assistance for medical expenses and care, even if they weren’t HIV positive. The first rodeos donated proceeds to charities — this is still the case today.

Another reason that the gay rodeo was necessary was because there were LGBTQ individuals who worked on ranches and wanted to be taken seriously in the rodeo scene. However, at that time in Middle America, it was not safe to be out and proud in that sector. People still feared physical injury or death, not just persecution and prejudice, for being openly queer. Gay rodeos created a space where people could be themselves and also compete seriously on the rodeo circuit.

Terry Bartlett, Denver, June 2-3, 1984. Photo by Bill Morris

While the Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo and other events in the IGRA are not quite as competitive or extreme as some professional rodeo events, they still involve real ranch-hand skill. Since they are considered amateur rodeos, anyone of any gender can compete together in the same events. This helps to erase gender lines and make things inclusive for those who are non-binary or trans. It also means that women can compete in some of the events typically reserved for men at professional rodeos, like bull riding. The rodeos also feature some entertainment-only events that anyone can participate in, such as goat dressing, which is just putting a pair of tighty-whities on a goat. These non-competitor events help to make everyone in the community feel involved.

The idea of gay rodeos was initially borrowed from another state, but Colorado did it better, leading to a long tradition of rodeo events.

Inspired by the first gay rodeo in Reno, Nevada, which was fun but not very successful in terms of organization, money, or fair play during contests, John King, founder of Charlie’s, Denver’s Western-themed gay bar, and a few others decided to start their own gay rodeo in Colorado. King had been hearing whispers at his bar about an “oxymoron” called the gay rodeo. He decided the Nevada rodeo was worth checking out in person, and the rest was history.

Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo, Denver, 2003. Photo by Bill Morris

“There is an unspoken comradeship that develops when people come in from a small town and attempt to navigate an established gay community in a big town, in a larger market area, and that is because many things that we take for granted growing up in a small town are not necessarily true, but when we get together in one place we don’t have to worry about that. There are some value systems that we know, so it gives us a head start as far as getting to know each other, becoming comfortable, and having a great weekend.”

Gay rodeos that are an official part of the International Gay Rodeo Association take place all across the U.S., in places like California, Florida, New Mexico, and Illinois. Canada has hosted rodeos in the past, making the association truly international, and Mexico and Canada are both showing some interest in starting up new rodeos. There is also international interest in the rodeos. They bring in LGBTQ folks from across the world with a passion for ranch work and entertainment.

The Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo has something that sets it apart. “This year is going to be very special for CGRA because we are the only Gay Rodeo Association to hold 35 consecutive rodeos,” explained Carolyn Herbert, Vice President of the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association Board of Directors. “That makes us pretty amazing, and we have a great group of people that have been supporting us for all of those years. People from all walks of life that were there in the beginning or have just joined us over the last year, they are the ones that keep us going.”

Header Photo: Rocky Mountain Regional Gay Rodeo, Denver, July 20, 1997, Photo by Bill Morris