Gay Rodeo Supporters React to Alabama Efforts
Early on a Saturday morning in Fort Worth, Texas, today's gay rodeo is slowly picking up pace. Competitors quickly move to make it to their event and spectators wander about the arena. William Edlin of Austin, TX is bright-eyed and ready to go. In his eight years on the circuit, Edlin says he hasn't seen too much conflict and anticipates a gay rodeo in Alabama will have a positive impact.
"It'll open up a lot more eyes," says Edlin. "You see we don't have a lot in the audience right now, but later on we will. And it's not just gay people. It's also straight people that come and watch. My girlfriend who is straight is here. I've got some friends down in the arena who are straight that are here to watch too. They don't care. They just love to come and watch the competition."
Edlin says he's straight, but he still takes the competitions at a gay rodeo very seriously. We met Russell Schnitz of Gonzales, TX earlier in our series. He has a fresh cut on his cheek from getting thrown off a bull. Schnitz says he's seen competitors from traditional rodeo circuits make the mistake of treating a gay rodeo like a joke.
"They're always like, what? They have those?' and then in the past ten, fifteen years that we came to these, they [straight participants] always act like they're just going to come and dominate and beat the fags and you can't just show up at a gay rodeo- I don't care if you're the world champion."
Other competitors echo this underlying theme of the gay community clashing with the straight world. We met John Beck of Denver, CO in parts one and two of our series. He's known as the "Grandfather of the Gay Rodeo" and has been involved since the beginning. For Beck, his challenge with acceptance in the straight community started before he found solace in the gay rodeo.
"I was married four years. I got a divorce, no children. I grew up in a redneck town and I was threatened," says Beck. "Our barn caught on fire. They killed a collie puppy. I've been through a lot. But I've been much happier when I moved to Denver. I don't think I would have stayed in Denver if it hadn't been for the rodeos."
Beck is one of the circuit's more familiar faces in the arena today, but he's not the only one. Contestant Wade Earp stops to catch his breath in between events. If you follow the history of the Wild West, his last name may sound familiar. Wade is Wyatt Earp's great-great-great nephew. He's been competing in the gay rodeo circuit for 12 years and is optimistic that a gay rodeo in Alabama will be successful.
"We've been south before and they like us and we've also been there and they didn't like us. You would hope with this day and age with the passing of several gay marriage rights across the country that maybe Alabama can be progressive enough to accept it," says Earp.
Some fellow contestants may not be as quick to agree.
In the barn's arena, Gene Fraikes is putting his horse, Fancy, in her stall. He's the Vice President of the International Gay Rodeo Association, or IGRA. We met Fraikes earlier in our series. He says one arena in the Fort Worth area turned gay rodeo organizers away.
"And it's because we're gay," says Fraikes. "It's a gay rodeo and they actually cannot say that legally, but they insinuate that from the perspective of what they do and how they say things. It's actually pretty clear and they cannot come out and say those words and they know it, so they don't."
Fraikes won't say which arena he's referring to, but he says things are slowly getting better.
"I look forward to the day this can just be a charity rodeo and not a gay rodeo. I think it'll come, I don't know if I'll be around to see it, but in time it'll come."
To find out what roadblocks a gay rodeo might face in Alabama, we headed to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery. It's about one block away from the capital, and notable for the bulletproof glass and the security guards walking the perimeter. It's a civil rights organization heavily involved in gay rights in the South.
Staff Attorney Sam Wolfe says, "I think one of the things that a gay rodeo does is it helps really challenge the notion of what some people think about gay and lesbian and transgender people because it creates a space for people with a variety of gender expressions and sexual orientations. You don't have to be gay to participate in the gay rodeo or go watch the gay rodeo."
Wolfe says he's optimistic that gay rodeo organizers in Alabama will find corporate sponsors willing to back them up. If Alabama organizers are turned away from locations like Texas organizers were, Wolfe says not much can be done about it.
"That would be discrimination," says Wolfe. "Unfortunately, in Alabama and in many places in the United States, there is no specific public accommodations law that would prohibit that type of private discrimination against an entity. And so it would be difficult from a legal perspective to challenge that."
SPLC Senior Fellow Marc Potok doesn't share the same enthusiasm as his colleague.
"Frankly, I think it would be an uphill slog. I don't doubt that it would make the papers and there would be a furious letter-writing campaign from certain quarters. And it would be probably depicted as some kind of gigantic exercise in perversity," says Potok.
"Attitudes are changing towards the gay community, but there's still a lot of people out there who think 'gay rodeo' and they think it's a joke."
Rick Vaughn of Birmingham is aware of the challenges ahead. He's president of the Cotton States Gay Rodeo, and he says there'll be naysayers in Alabama. But his focus is giving back to his community and establishing a gay rodeo to raise money for local charities by 2014.