Editor’s note: This story originally aired on July 24, 2015
Ryan Reed loves rodeo. And each July, he makes a pilgrimage here, to the so-called “Daddy of ‘Em All” in Cheyenne.
“You just feel like you’re on hallowed ground when you’re here.” Reed says.
Roaming the Frontier Days midway, this amateur steer wrestler and calf roper is like a kid in a candy store.
“Yesterday, during the bareback bronc, I actually got some dirt flung on me,” says Reed. “I really felt like I’d been hit by some special dirt or something. That’s just kind of the feeling I have about the place.”
Reed sports a cowboy hat and handlebar mustache. He looks like he belongs at the rodeo, but he hasn’t always felt that way—even though the sport was part of his childhood.
“I was around it, but, to some degree, felt probably excluded from it. As a young, gay closeted kid on the farm, you can kind of be afraid of your own shadow,” says Reed. “So, I probably just felt like maybe it wasn’t for me.”
Cheyenne Frontier Days has been Wyoming’s biggest party for nearly 120 years. The 10-day rodeo and all-around celebration of cowboy culture welcomes visitors from across the country and world every summer.
Frontier Days—and professional rodeo–help keep the tradition of the Old West alive and kicking, but for many gay and lesbian people, like Reed, the rodeo tradition is one of intolerance and exclusion.
Reed works with the International Gay Rodeo Association. It’s an amateur rodeo circuit with 20 local chapters that puts on about a dozen rodeos every year. Anyone can compete, but these rodeos are meant to be places where gay and lesbian cowboys and cowgirls who haven’t felt welcome at traditional rodeos can be themselves.
“Being openly gay and being involved in traditional rodeo—these two things clash and are unworkable,” says Reed. “One of the things we all love about rodeo is that there is a whole lifestyle and set of traditions around rodeo. But for some folks, part of that tradition is exclusionary of gays and lesbians and trans people.”
At Frontier Days, Reed says, this can be subtle. Take the ‘kiss cam’ for example—something you see at a lot of pro sports events.
“Of course it’s always a man and woman—and if they go for two men, it’s a joke,” says Reed. “Isn’t that funny? Two guys. It’s kind of a silly thing, but it’s a hallmark of putting forth the notion that the only people here are straight people. And I know that’s not the case. Me and my partner are here today. It’ll probably be a little while before my partner and I end up on the kiss cam, but I did tell him today, ‘Hey, if they do it, I’m kissing you.’”
The thing is, gay men and women are a part of this traditional rodeo culture, just not always openly. Like a man I’ll call Wayne—who’s been volunteering behind-the-scenes at Cheyenne Frontier Days for years.
“Well, Frontier Days and rodeo are an old traditional family values type of an event,” Wayne says.
The reason I’m calling him Wayne instead of using his real name is because working the rodeo means a lot to him. And he’s afraid that if everybody here learns he’s gay, he might not be able to do it anymore.
“Well, I don’t know what the implications would be,” says Wayne. “They could take me off the committee. Or they could assign me no duties or whatever. I don’t know. It’s up in the air.”
Wayne grew up in the Cowboy State, and has always been a rodeo fan. But because of the so-called ‘traditional family values’ he feels are such a part of this world, Wayne hides his own family life from some fellow volunteers.
“Like I said, some people know, some don’t,” says Wayne. “I just don’t broadcast.”
He says there are many gay people involved in rodeo in one way or another. But as long as the culture remains exclusive, it’s a missed opportunity.
“Not only do you have the participants and the producers, but there are a lot of fans out there, and a lot of them are gay,” Wayne says.
It was only through the gay rodeo circuit that Ryan Reed was able to get into the sport. Today, he’s visiting a statue of Lane Frost on the rodeo grounds, paying respects to the legendary bull rider who died here in Cheyenne in 1989.
“What I love about this is you can see it moving,” says Reed. “The statue is so well-done. The artist who did the sculpture did such an amazing job. It’s just going to move right in front of your eyes. We just think of Lane Frost as someone who loved rodeo as much or more than anybody else, and he gave it his all.”
There are no openly gay competitors in pro rodeo, but Reed points out that’s the reality for most sports, thanks to stereotypes about the athletic ability of gay men and concerns about fan backlash.
The tide is shifting, though. Teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers are hosting LGBT nights. But that’s L.A. and baseball. This is Wyoming—and rodeo. Reed’s not holding his breath.
“Would I love it if traditional rodeo became more open to LGBT people like other pro sports have? Yes, I would love to see that,” says Reed. “Do I think that we’re going to do that? No, probably not—except for the fact that maybe we’ll change people’s minds about whether gay people can rodeo or not. It turns out we can.”
Gay rodeos across the country show that all sorts of people are drawn to the cowboy tradition. But, if exclusion is the norm in mainstream rodeo culture, perhaps that’s one tradition that’s worth bucking.