‘We Are America’s True Colors’: Meet the Stars of the Queer Rodeo Circuit

From Canada to Palm Springs, the International Gay Rodeo Association’s bull riders and steer ropers are bucking notions about what it means to be a ”cowboy”

As a kid in Malibu, Lee Knight sat on a bed, rapt as a bull rider bucked and swayed in a cloud of dust on TV. “I thought, man, I could do that,” Knight says. “I could be this cowboy and I could ride bulls.”

It wasn’t until a move from California to Colorado during Knight’s final year of college that the L.A. native stumbled upon the opportunity to get on a bull at at an event organized by the International Gay Rodeo Association.

“I like being in the gay rodeo,” says Knight, who identifies as trans and Black, and uses the pronouns they, them, and their. “I don’t have to worry about severely negative consequences because of my identity. I can just focus on my task at hand—and that’s where you want your head to be when you’re getting on the back of a Brahman bull.”

queer rodeo lee
Lee Knight fell in love with rodeo watching TV as a kid

Luke Gilford

When Knight isn’t riding bulls, they’re a step parent who works in tech and plays the trombone at church. At the IGRA, they discovered an inclusive community of people who also have kids and work regular day jobs and play cowboy on the weekends—and most of them identify as queer.

“Being gay is nothing new, being a person of color is nothing new,” Knight says. “And we have the IGRA, which has existed to create a place for people like us to do what we love in a safe space.”

The IGRA’s beginnings can be traced back to 1976, when the first gay rodeo kicked off at the Washoe County Fairgrounds in Nevada. Now, the amateur rodeo circuit has events throughout the U.S. and Canada.

“It speaks to the fact that we are America, we are all of America’s true colors—and if America has situated itself as this land of opportunity, we are that promise,” Knight adds.

Photographer and filmmaker Luke Gilford captures that promise in his celebrated debut monograph National Anthem, published in late 2020 by Domani.

Gilford is a UCLA alum who has been documenting the queer rodeo scene for more than four years in between shooting the likes of Lizzo, Lily Depp, and Bella Hadid—and working on an edgy futuristic film with Pamela Anderson. His work on National Anthem took him beyond the sheen of Hollywood to rural corners of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, and Colorado, where he has deep roots.

The photographer was born in Colorado, where his father was a rodeo champion and judge. When Gilford was young, he and his mom would go with his dad to events to watch the bulls buck and rumble in the arena, surrounded by Western pageantry. He says the queer rodeo is different than the standard, often patriarchal rodeo he once frequented. “A lot of times community events where rodeos exist are not safe spaces to be queer. The gaze between people of the same sex must be diverted,” Gilford says. “But at [the queer rodeo] it can be held and it can be celebrated… It’s very unapologetic…. There’s a lot of camp that goes into it. There’s drag queens and a lot of T-shirts with witty gay phrases on them, and rainbow flags.”

It was important for National Anthem to reflect the acceptance and diversity that distinguish the queer rodeo scene from other circuits. His book’s subjects are gay, straight, trans, Black, Latinx, white, and span multiple generations. The gay rodeo is a family setting, and images of baby-faced teenagers and tweens are scattered throughout his work.

In an opening essay for the book, Gilford writes: “One of the great powers of the queer rodeo is its ability to disrupt America’s tribal dichotomies that cannot contain who we really are—liberal versus conservative, urban versus rural, ‘coastal elite’ versus ‘middle America.’ It’s incredibly rare to find a community that actually embraces both ends of the spectrum.”

In the pages of National Anthem, Gilford introduces us to the faces of that spectrum.

One image shows Knight standing in a Colorado arena commanding the page with a steady stare and cream-hued cowboy hat. There’s the long-lashed Alexis Cole, a sweetheart Texas nurse and single military parent, who is outfitted in drag with a fetching amber wig. Maryland mechanical engineer Nick Luciano is on the cover on horseback nude alongside his equally bare-skinned partner. Also in drag is New Mexico’s glamorous Priscilla Bouvier—winner of the 2019 Miss International Gay Rodeo Association—whose crown is almost as dazzling as the storm clouds gathering in the distance.

queer rodeo
Priscilla Bouvier, 2019 Miss International Gay Rodeo Association

Luke Gilford

By day the couture-adoring Bouvier is known as Paul Virgil and he can be found baling hay or wrangling cattle. Virgil grew up in a ranching family in New Mexico, and went to university on a rodeo scholarship. “I did that and got married to a woman and had two kids, and then came out… That was about 20 years ago. I’ve been involved with the New Mexico Gay Rodeo Association for 15 years now,” Virgil says.

The New Mexico native’s involvement has included bucking the notion of masculinity that is often tethered to a rodeo cowboy. Virgil has two older brothers; he came out to them over beers after a long day of branding cattle. Initially, one of the men didn’t believe him. Virgil asked his brother why.

“He goes: ‘We’ve just been branding some 100 head of cattle. You’ve been out here in the heat. You’ve been riding and roping and working a branding iron. There’s no way you can be gay doing that.’… I go, ‘What do you want me to do run around in a tutu?’ That killed him. And ever since then it was never an issue,” Virgil says.

He’s not the only crown-sporting member of the IGRA on the circuit. Texas-born Phillip Blakesley—known in the gay rodeo scene by the drag name Alexis Cole, has also worn a crown as Miss Texas Gay Rodeo Association.

He performs in drag and competes in full hair, makeup, and jewelry. “I do compete in nails. I’ve never had an issue there,” Blakesley says. “My first competition ever, I was getting ready to go in a rough stock event. Well, when I got to put my safety vest on—and my boobs did not fit. I had to take them off… So I pull them out, and I laid them beside the bull pen.”

queer rodeo
Phillip Blakesley, aka Alexis Cole

Luke Gilford

IGRA, which is an amateur circuit, is unlike traditional rodeos in that both men and women can compete in whichever events they choose. “We’ll do roping, we’ll do steer riding. And I also compete in speed events, which is barrel racing and pole bending. Some of them are rough stock events where you’re actually on the back of the steer riding ’em,” says National Anthem cover star Luciano. He has been involved in IGRA for the past five years.

But, according to Luciano and Gilford, what really distinguishes the IGRA is its welcoming community—one that’s open to gay, trans, BIPOC, and straight allies. “It’s somewhere you can come and break the stereotypes,” Luciano says. “And just be yourself and be surrounded by family and community that loves you, regardless.”

The images in National Anthem serve as a tribute to that love.

As Gilford notes in his book, “These portraits are evidence of something beyond the frame: a way of life, unconfined by image… the power of chosen families.”

The International Gay Rodeo hosts multiple events throughout the year in California, including May’s Hot Rodeo in Palm Springs and September’s Best Buck in the Bay in San Francisco. This year Hot Rodeo is on hold due to COVID-19. Check the IGRA calendar for updates on future events.

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