© Dan White. No repro without permission.
Pushing through the swing doors of the Sidekick Saloon in downtown Kansas City I am greeted by the hard stares of six of the largest men I have ever seen in my life. Even without the stetsons on their heads not one of them can have been less than 6 foot 3 and they look nearly as wide. Loaded has come to the heart of God’s own country to check out one of the largest rodeo circuits in America. My nervousness is prompted not only by the size of the saloon customers, but also by uncertainty at the ideas that may be forming in their heads about me.
This is the Kansas City Gay Rodeo 2001. We came here to see if America’s most cherished myth is under attack from an army of Village People lookalikes wielding doilies. Confusion has set in and it is disconcerting that the first gay cowboys I meet look like they could take on the whole Sioux nation before breakfast and still be home in time for a mess of grits.
The confused signals in the Saloon are amplified when one of the cowboys sporting the dimensions of an industrial freezer greets me with, “howdy honey. What’s a purty li’l thang like you doin’ in a joint like this.”
Considering where I am, it is unwise to get indignant and aggressively press my heterosexual credentials. What is wise is to thank him politely for the compliment and humbly ask for permission to be straight. The cowboy spits on the floor, looks me up and down and in a voice that sounds like he’s chewing gravel replies, “no problem sugar.”
Not so long ago Kansas City was the jumping off point for the wagon trains heading across the prairie to get scalped by injuns and bored shitless by Kevin Costner. It was a frontier melting pot where gambling, gunfights and showgirls were the order of the day. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wild Bill Hickok and William “Buffalo Bill” Cody tried to keep order using the power of the gun and the hangman’s noose. These days it turns out that the most serious roughrider in town is a florist.
This is Cowboy Steve and before he was a peddler of floral arrangements he had a ranch in Arizona and farmed 800 hundred head of cattle. “I been ropin’ cattle since I was ten. Only been ropin’ other cowboys since I was 29. When my wife found out she set fire to my truck.” This florist not only knows how to lasoo a rogue steer, he also drinks like Oliver Reed in an airport bar on his way to a holiday in Saudi Arabia. Successive rounds of tequila shots are downed in turn. The only way out of this with honour is to fall down. Loaded falls down quite quickly. As I am helped to the taxi, Steve imparts one last piece of homespun wisdom, “don’t fuck with the lesbians. They’ll fuckin’ kill ya.”
I realise that means the cigar-smoking women arm wrestling in the corner may be volatile.
It was one Phil Ragsdale of Reno, Nevada who put on the first gay rodeo at Washoe County Fairgrounds in 1976. At first he could not get any local ranchers to allow cowboys the use of their animals. So, in true western style, he was alleged to have rustled five “wild” range cows, ten “wild” range calves, one pig, and a Shetland pony. The next day over 125 people took part in this first event and the winners were crowned; first, “King of the Cowboys,” second, “Queen of the Cowgirls,” and third, “Miss Dusty Spurs,” the drag queen. Within ten years it was as if a smoke signal had been transmitted from one side of America to another drawing together thousands of men in tight white jeans and big hats. Bar the odd knife fight amongst the ladies its been going strong ever since.
Arriving at the Waynedotte County Rodeo grounds I am stopped at the gates by a woman who, if anything, is more intimidating than last nights drinking companions. Rodeo riding is not the sort of thing undertaken by lipstick lesbians and this lady is well muscled and takes her security role seriously. “You cain’t take pictures. Hand over the camera.” After an explanation that I am here for a magazine and she has radioed the rodeo director, she sullenly backs down. I feel her eyes on my back as I make my way to the arena and distinctly hear a muttered, “eurotrash.”
Crowds in Western gear are beginning to fill the stands. The fact that I am the only one without the requisite ten-gallon hat adds to my growing feeling of separation. That and the fact that I would rather wash my hair in glue than put knife-edge creases in my wranglers. Contestants are warming up for the off by lasooing bits of wood and whooping alot. The sound of country and western greats crackle from the PA.
Somewhere on the prairies of the American mid-West there wanders a traumatised goat submerged in doubt and wearing a pair of crisp white panties. ‘Goat dressing’ is an activity that that does not usually figure in the tales of the Wild West myth, but here in Kansas City the ability to put a pair of knickers on a fast moving farmyard animal is the new showdown. At last year’s rodeo there was a hitch. Stunned at being press ganged into the world of wild west camp the goat passed out with shock as the knickers went on. The cowboys feeling mournful and guilty and thinking that he had shuffled off this mortal coil laid him out, like Old Shep, before going off to drown their sorrows in strong liquor. When they returned to bury him they found that, like Lazarus, the goat had been resurrected, raised up and had taken his chance to make a break for the big skies of the surrounding badlands never to be seen again. I can see the goat’s point of view. Over and over again he is chased around in the mud and roughly handled until, in a flurry of manic goat mauling, the cowboys leave him standing humiliated and pop-eyed in ill fitting pants.
It is no surprise to learn that these are the ‘camp events’. You won’t see these at other rodeos. Your average redneck American rodeo fan is as likely to get enthusiastic about “wild drag racing” as he is to enjoy a day out at the cricket in pink lycra and ballet pumps. Its Ikea furnishing and Tombstone all rolled into one.
The next event is ‘steer decorating’. The bloke to my left in the ironed wranglers explains the rules. “Well you gotta tie the purty ribbon on the tail o’ the purty steer ‘fore he runs off.”
The tying bit looks easy. Hanging on to him without him gutting you with his horns or braking your toes with his hooves looks harder. More often than not the ribbon goes on alright and the steer looks ridiculous. I am beginning to realise that this thing could turn a cow into a bigot. They are not only constantly manhandled, they are also made to look ridiculous.
‘Chute dogging’ is a straightforward contest of woman against beast. This ancient art of lesbian cow-judo just invokes sympathy for the steer who is having his head twisted off by the woman who won last night’s arm wrestling competition.
“Don’t let your children grow up to be cowboys,” crackles Willie Nelson across the rodeo grounds. The animals being mauled and decorated would be singing in chorus if they knew how as yet another of their number ends up bruised and humiliated in ill fitting pants or ribbons.
And now it looks like they are about to be given a chance to get their own back. We are moving from the camp to the suicidal. Bull riding must rank as the first extreme sport ever invented. There is no medical insurance on the planet that will cover this. It’s a sport that can kill you and make you poor. The bull weighs as much as a lorry and he is pissed off. This may well have something to do with the fact that a length of rope has been tied round his gonads and then been pulled tight thereby annoying him. Once the bull is released the rider has to stay on its back as long as he can and then, when he does fall off, he has to avoid having the bull stomp on his gonads with the full weight of righteous indignation and a desire to inflict tit-for-tat revenge.
Maybe the man with the most dangerous job in the arena is Wayne the bullfighter. He is not gay but he is, incongruously, dressed as a clown. He is in the business of ‘cowboy protection’. He has to drag the rider to safety from under hooves before the animal goes in for a stomping. “Make no mistake. This ain’t no fagot Spanish bull gonna be fooled by no stupid cape. This is an American bull and he don’t care if you’re gay or straight. He just wants you off his back.”
It’s a job made for lunatics. “I got run over once and found I liked it. Been run over 28 times since then. I busted all my ribs, smashed my hand and popped my knee. Like the guys riding, I like fear.”
Wayne’s compadre adrenaline junky is cowboy Steve and he is now in the gate and ready for the off. Released from the gate the bull goes completely mental. Cowboy Steve stays on for a dramatic seven seconds before being thrown headfirst into the mud. The bull boots him one before Wayne the kamikaze clown hauls him to safety.
“Nuthin sissy about that,” Steve points out as he staggers to the ambulance in a neck-brace.
After the bull riding and the bucking broncs (bullriding-lite with the same fiendish, bollock-strapping incentive for the horse), the cowboys start just riding about very fast whooping. These are, not surprisingly, called speed events and are very, very boring unless you are actually a fan of whooping. I decide to wander off for a beer, which proves to be a big mistake.
The broncs may be wild and the bulls raging, but the women acting as sheriff and deputies are terrifying and Loaded soon becomes the outlaw. Once again I am collared by a lady with well-defined biceps who I call sir but who calls herself, “Angry Penis.” Earlier on she had been friendly. She had even agreed to show me where Joan Jett of, “I love Rock and Roll, put another song on the jukebox baby,” fame had tattooed an autograph on her arse. I was naive enough to think that this kindly mooning meant that we could be mates. Not to be. Unknowing I have wandered into the wrong part of the arena with a bottle of bud. I plead ignorance and forgiveness, but there is none. Angry Penis points out, with an air of menace, that in rodeo circles drinking alcohol near the livestock is an offence more serious than arson in a naval dockyard and I should leave. Brushing aside the bearded cowpoke in chiffon who jumps to my defence I start to understand how the goat must have felt. Faced with the prospect of a shootout with a hissing lesbian sporting dodgy tattoos even Alias Smith and Jones would have a gone for a change of a career. Even a spot of bull riding is starting to look tame. Everyone is shouting, the goats are bleating, the horses are snorting, the steers are mooing and Homer and Jethro are crackling “Mama Get The Hammer (There’s A Fly On Papa’s Head).” Enough is enough and knowing there is only one way out I take it. I throw myself through the swing doors and onto the street before possies are formed and Angry Penis decides on a lynching………
ENDS. WORDS 2012.
Alexander the Great
Conqueror of the whole known world and history’s most successful military commander, Alexander was totally Greek. Most of his soldiers were also Greek. He inspired love and devotion in his army who followed him about on foot for years and years. For a while they made everyone Greek, but were pushed back just at the start of the Hindu Kush.
America’s most famous macho icon, all round right wing brawler and outspoken champion of the American ideal started his career in the film business under a false name complaining, “I can’t have an actor’s name sounding like a girl’s.” So “Marion,” (meaning, “generous sea goddess”) Morrison was consigned to the dustbin of doubtful gender and was transformed into the unambiguous hero we have come to know as, “John Wayne”.
Richard the Lionheart
Although married to Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart was more than a fan of a wandering minstrel called Blondel who serenaded him whilst he was imprisoned in Austria on his way back from the Crusades. Eleanor decided to move out.
The living embodiment of gun toting Lara Croft, Angelina Jolie was quoted in The Sun as saying, “I’m the person most likely to sleep with my female fans, I genuinely love other women. And I think they know that.” Angelina, we salute you.
Despite having an affair with the young Queen Cleopatra and being the toughest man in the world, Julius Caesar was rumoured to have an affinity with the rough Soldiery. Before a battle he used to bolster their courage with a stand up comedy routine involving a carrot. Amazingly it worked and the Roman Empire was to last another 500 years. The only fly in the ointment was Britain’s butch Queen Boadicea.
Even as Rock Hudson portrayed the square jawed saviour of the kidnapped stagecoach in ‘Gun Fury’ it later became apparent that he would be far more inclined to rescue Lee Marvin than Donna Reed. By the 1980’s the Marlboro man was beginning to look decidedly suspect and it turned out that Rock had been living a lie.
Lawrence of Arabia
A masochistic, ex-public-schoolboy who spent months in the desert totally without moisturiser. The official story is that Lawrence was a British agent used to whip up anti-Turkish sentiment amongst the Arabs, but that was in fact just a cunning excuse to enable him to lurk around Tunisian steam-rooms and form ‘passionate friendships’.
Often rumoured to love everybody equally James Dean embodied teenage uncertainty at a time when being uncertain was barely legal. Asked if he had slept with male producers to get acting parts he replied, “I’m not going to live my life with one hand tied behind my back.” Back in the fifties no one knew what the hell he was talking about, so he was left unmolested by the moral majority until his death in a car accident.