The Sunshine Stampede: Gay Cowboys, Drag Queens, and Bull Riders

The Sunshine Stampede: Gay Cowboys, Drag Queens, and Bull Riders

The goat doesn't want to wear the undies. Can't blame him. Plus-sized, bleached-white tighty whities are not very chic.

A tall man, blue shirt tucked neatly into his jeans, holds up the animal's brown-and-white-mottled back end, while his teammate, a squat woman, tries to work the underpants on. The goat's hooves are jabbing like a frantic band leader's batons, so the woman can't quite sling them home. Up in the stands, the thousand cowpokes in attendance — from country-fried ranch lifers to cowboys-for-the-day — toss aside their cold beers, margaritas, and the occasional shots of Fireball to cheer loudly, lustily, for the man-versus-beast slapstick.

"James is used to pulling them down," cracks a female announcer through PA static. "He's having a little trouble getting them up."


The Sunshine Stampede: Gay Cowboys, Drag Queens, and Bull Riders

Once they finally get the garment up around the animal's waist, the pair beat it back across the chalky Mars-scape of furrowed dirt carpeting the Bergeron Rodeo Grounds in Davie. No sooner have they crossed the finish line and received their score than another pair line up and bolt. The goat, unclothed now by a member of the rodeo crew, waits tethered to a brick. As the new team runs toward the goat, one of the women face-plants into the dirt.

"Hoedown!" the announcer shouts. "We've got a ho down!"

This contest — officially called "goat dressing" — isn't one you'd see on the schedule at any of the usual rodeo events swinging through Bergeron. But for the eighth time since 2006, the arena is holding the Sunshine Stampede, a two-day, 13-event competition put on by the Florida Gay Rodeo Association (FGRA), the state chapter of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA).

Gay rodeo is a longtime staple of the LGBT community — a dusty crossroads where camp and cowboy meet, a rainbow flag planted in one of Americana's most conservative corners. For more than 30 years, gay folk with a hankering for horse and livestock competition have found refuge here, where they can be themselves without keeping their sexual identity folded away. IGRA events are the only places on any side of the Mississippi where you can put Hanes on livestock or ride a bucking steer while dressed in drag.

Sunshine Stampede in Davie is the largest of the 12 rodeos on the gay circuit, except for the finals held every year in Fort Worth, Texas. Historically, Florida is a can't-miss stop on the schedule, famed for big raucous crowds, quality competition, and a killer pool party. But at this year's rodeo, where the goat dressing gracefully slides into a steer-wrestling event, some insider squabbles are threatening to sour the festivities.

Due to what various rodeogoers describe as "too many chiefs, not enough Indians," "egos," and "bullshit," last year the FGRA had to cancel its rodeo, leaving the organization in a crossfire of finger-pointing. A rival faction ousted from the FGRA leadership is now trying to jump-start its own rodeo, potentially cracking Florida's cowboys and cowgirls into separate, competing camps. Is this state big enough for two gay rodeos?

The high-noon showdown comes as gay rodeo is working through growing pains around the country. The institution was a bedrock of LGBT life in the 20th Century, if for only a few, but now, it's having a shaky time finding footing in the 21st, leaving many to wonder if it's not earmarked for obsolescence.

But first: a pool party.

Top 40 hits ride the air outside the pool behind the Renaissance Hotel in Plantation where most of the rodeo competitors are bunking for the weekend. It's late Friday afternoon, and the first rodeo event is 16 hours away. About 100 men ring the pool or splash around the water. In back, a bartender fills plastic cups with stiff drinks and keg beer. One shirtless cowboy stands nears the pool's edge, jackhammering a closed fist over his crotch and shouting at passing friends, "Thanks for coming!"

Ron Rodriquez, barrel-squat and muscular, hoists himself out of the hot tub to talk about the 1,000 pounds he had between his legs this morning.

For three years, the Wilton Manors resident has wanted to climb aboard a bucking bull. Earlier this morning, the FGRA held a rodeo school for the uninitiated. Rodriquez got his chance, lasting a few jostled seconds before kissing dirt.

"It's about the craziest thing you can do," he says, bouncing from foot to foot, still feeling aftershocks of the adrenaline rush, "besides unprotected sex and driving on the highway in South Florida in season."

In the crowd are leaders of the FGRA and the IGRA. Dressed in pressed purple shirts, they stand out from the Speedoed revelers. Although their faces are plastered with relieved grins, they look like they'd benefit from a blood transfusion and a nap. IGRA events are planned by these volunteers. For nearly a year, they've wrung out whatever time and energy is left in workdays and weekends for logistics planning.

This year's Sunshine Stampede has been a particularly unwieldy bitch. Towering among the organizers, with a high Stetson hat adding extra inches to his tall frame, is Todd Garrett. One of the FGRA's founders, the goateed rancher from Bradenton has been darting around all day on last-minute prep. "I need a drink," he says exhaustedly, rattling a plastic cup.

Nearby, one of the only baby faces in the crowd is bug-eyed with suspicion. Dillon, 19, is from the rural town of Arcadia. He's only been out for two years, and it hasn't been easy, due to his ultrareligious family. His godfather brought him along, and this is the first time he's been around a large number of gay people. He's on red-alert.

"Because of how I look, [my godfather] said people are going to be grabbing on me," he matter-of-factly explains. "He said I'll be OK if I stick around him. And not accept drinks from strangers."

Three types of people show for gay rodeos, says a longtime participant who didn't want his name next to the quote. "Those that are contestants and those that come to support us," he explains. "And then there are those that are looking for their next 15 minutes." If you can imagine an eyebrow working up and down lubriciously, you'll catch his drift.

Sure, some folks might come to the IGRA for bedroom belt notches — hence the pool party, along with late-night boozy bacchanals at gay bars Ramrod and Bill's Filling Station — but for many, it's the actual competition that is the draw.

Some of the IGRA's top stars competed for years in straight rodeo before jumping into the gay circuit. David Renier, central-casting Marlboro Man-type from San Diego, still competes in both; he's been the IGRA All-Around Cowboy four times in the past five years. Along with Candy Pratt, an IGRA Hall of Famer out of Dallas, he's expected to be among the top competitors this weekend.

Ed Aiello, a lanky six-foot-something Fort Lauderdale rodeo competitor known around the circuit as "Lil' Hoss," stumbled onto the IGRA thanks to encouraging friends. In 2008, Aiello and a partner hit up 13 rodeos, consistently putting up good numbers. At season's end, Lil' Hoss was dubbed the IGRA's Rookie of the Year.

"I knew I could drop a football. I knew I could not hit a three-pointer. I knew that I couldn't stand up on ice skates," he says. "But who knew in my early 40s I'd find something I have a talent for? Wrestling steers onto the ground.

"It's definitely a labor of love," he says. "And for some, it's just another opportunity to take off your shirt and show your body."

Diane Ross, tiny and sun-cured as a raisin, struts the arena with true cowboy swagger. But she's not a competitor. Instead, she usually helps out with the chute crew or handling animals. Her bloodline, however, weaves back through generations of Saint Augustine cattlemen. Today, she owns 40 head of cracker cows, carries a whip around for snapping her animals to attention, and can knowledgeably pilot conversation on the history of the Florida cattle all the way back to the first Spanish explorers here.

"All gay people will tell you that in the [straight] cowboy world, they don't like gay people," she says. "Where I'm from, I'm the only gay cowgirl around, and all the cowgirls up there are crazy religious. Well, they don't like me."

The rancher went to her first IGRA event here in Fort Lauderdale. She was shocked. "It has totally changed my world as far as making me feel comfortable," she says. "There's no other place I want to be this weekend than here."

But even among the weekend cowpokes, Karey Lipham is a wild card. That's because buried beneath the all-smiles, freckle-dusted exterior of a 32-year-old Lakeland school teacher is a true fanatic of the most skull-crushingly intense of all rodeo competitions: bull-riding.

It was love at first buck. When she was 8, Lipham was hypnotized as a family friend was flicked around on a bull at a local rodeo. Here was something that squeezed all the high-velocity jolts and zags of a roller coaster into just a second or two. She pestered her parents to let her try.

Just to shut her up, they agreed for Lipham's 13th birthday. That's how, on a rainy day in Plant City, she found herself sitting atop a strawberry-colored steer, ­waiting for the gate to swing open. "It lasted for a second, a blink of an eye," she says today. "I don't even think I tried to hold on. It was just so exciting, and then it was done."

By the time the girl was back on her feet, she was hooked for life — and ready to go again. "I lasted a little bit longer the second time," she says. "Two blinks."

Lipham rode here and there with the same family friend. But it wasn't easy for a girl to ride rodeo in backwoods Florida. When she hit high school, Lipham thought she could join up with the association and shoehorn bull-riding into her stocked schedule of high school sports. But, turns out girls weren't allowed to ride roughstock in any of the amateur or semipro setups. Sorry, darlin'.

"It's very frustrating for anyone to tell you you can't do something because of this thing that you can't change," she says.

It wasn't until 2006, when Lipham was now out and working as a school teacher, that she learned about the IGRA at a Pride event. It was like hitting the daily double of life-changing realizations: "I said, 'There's such a thing as gay cowboys? And there's a place where I can ride bulls?' I just felt like I was home."

The first gay rodeo was the brainstorm of a cowboy named Phil Ragsdale. In 1975, the Reno, Nevada, native was looking for a way to raise cash for a senior citizens' Thanksgiving drive. A rodeo would be fun, he figured, and dynamite gay stereotypes. It took Ragsdale a full year to cobble together the event. The next October, 125 people (including a drag queen named Miss Dusty Spurs) filed into the Washoe County Fairgrounds for the first gay rodeo.

The Reno event began a mainstay, growing in attendance over the next few years. Groups in California, Colorado, and Texas began sending teams to the rodeo. For rural gay men and women boxed in by small-town, Bible-thumping hegemony, it was a rare safe zone. By 1980, 10,000 people came for the Reno rodeo.

"Whether they were interested in rodeo or not, a lot of people came there because it was one of the few places where people could get together and be open," explains Frank Harrell, webmaster for the Gay Rodeo History Project site.

In 1985, the IGRA was founded as an umbrella group to set out rules for regional rodeos and run a national championship. But despite a shiny new national organization and growing popularity, gay rodeo faced — always did and probably always will — a wall of discrimination from the straight world.

"All professional sports really are behind the times as far as being accepting of the LGBT lifestyle, but rodeo I think is more so," says Matt Livadary, a filmmaker whose documentary on the IGRA, Queens and Cowboys, is currently surfing the festival circuit on waves of critical kudos. "It's the most homogeneous, the most closed-off. They call it the good ol' boys club. If you weren't born into it, you're really considered an outsider."

No Reno animal traders would rent bulls and horses to Ragsdale for his first 1976 rodeo when they learned it was a gay event. He had to buy the animals at the last minute.

In 1988, a judge in Churchill County, Nevada, issued a restraining order based on zoning minutiae to stop the Gay Rodeo National Championship. Even though the event was to be held on private property, 1,519 people signed a petition asking the court to intervene. Their concerns were "fear of AIDS" and "disapproval of gay lifestyles." Armed law enforcement kept contestants away from the property.

"We don't want our kids to see any of this. It's offending," one local told the area newspaper. "Supposing they was to come here and have their rodeo and buy a house here and buy a house there," another complained. "In ten years, my property might be worth nothing."

AIDS also bulled hard through the ranks. By the late '80s and '90s, it seemed like every rodeo's program contained a goodbye to another lost friend. Besides the heartbreak, the losses hurt the regional organizations. As a volunteer organization, when key members lost interest or became too sick to help or passed away, it left a gaping hole. As a result, many regional organizations died off, with others stretching out their geographic footprint to handle the slack.

Before 2005, Florida was part of a larger, overburdened organization. But that summer, Todd Garrett was chatting with a friend over the hood of his red Chevy Silverado when he was hit with a question: Why doesn't Florida have its own gay rodeo?

"Most people don't realize that Florida is the horse capital of the world, and it has more cattle than Texas," Garrett says today. ­"Everything between I-75 and I-95 are big ranches."

Within six weeks, they'd written bylaws for the FGRA and solidified a 50-member core. By the next April, the Sunshine Stampede kicked off in Davie.

The FGRA originally wanted to jump the Stampede around to different rodeo grounds across the state. But the Davie location, parked near Fort Lauderdale's well-entrenched gay scene, drew huge crowds. Rodeos in Oklahoma or Arkansas might see a few hundred spectators sprinkled in the stands; the Sunshine Stampede packed in wild thousands.

"It's the Mardi Gras of the gay rodeo," says Livadary.

It is hot and cloudless in Davie on Saturday as the rodeo gets underway. The crowd at the Stampede clocks through the stalls and tents set up outside the arena. Vendors hock beer, standard fairground food, leather goods, and chain jewelry. Near the gate, the Barbers & Beer, Women & Wine Barbershop is providing massages and pressing free beer koozies into every passing palm. A dance floor is shaded under a large tent, where all day, cowboys will two-step to the gay-themed country music twanging from speakers.

Men outnumber women five-to-one, from waifish men in pipe-cleaner jeans and stylish country shirts to gym-huge guys hieroglyphed head to foot in tattoos, their sunglasses conveniently hanging from hoop nipple rings. Waves of cowboy hats river in and out of the shadows under the arena's rust-colored roof where the competition takes place.

IGRA events have all the fixings of your standard hey-dude giddyup rodeo. Competitors dog it out in 13 events. First up are standard roping contests, where contestants, either from the ground, on horseback, or in two-person teams, try to lasso calves as they shoot from the gate.

Chute-dogging is by far one of the most intense events. Contestants jump in the slot with a 500-pound steer and grab the animal in a headlock. Then, when the gate swings open, man (and woman) tries to wrestle the beast ten feet forward and onto the ground.

The horse events include pole bending, with riders weaving their horses through six poles for the best time. Barrel racing is also a contest against the clock, here by whipping the animal around three barrels placed in a triangle 150 feet apart from one another.

Rodeo staples like these share the schedule with "camp" competitions unique to the gay games. These include goat dressing and "wild drag," which features teams of three — including a man or woman in a dress — roping a bucking steer while the one in drag rides it across the finish line.

As in professional rodeo, the total point leader after the two days is crowned "all cowboy," so serious competitors have to sign up for as many events as possible if they want to win it all. Belt buckles — bedazzled metals about the size of a smushed bagel — are awarded to the point leader in each competition. In gay rodeo, however, the events aren't gender-specific. Men can do horse events just as women can ride bulls (roughstock is boy-only in nearly all professional and semipro circles).

But gay or straight, success at rodeo is often just a matter of luck. "You never get a buckle if you draw bad animals," counsels Janine Pardee, a middle-aged construction engineer out of Orlando. After carefully reading the animals in the pen, she agrees with the assessment circling among riders: The animals at this year's stampede are "rank," hard to handle, and easily spooked. "These ones are headshakers," she says, motioning toward the steers. "They're totally afraid of us. They think, 'I'm surrounded by predators; I've got to get away.'"

Animalwise, Pardee hit a jackpot in 2011. Looking for a new sport to try, she showed up at the rodeo school held before each Sunshine Stampede to glom the basics. "The next day, I caught my calf, dogged my steer, got two buckles at my first rodeo, and came in second overall," she says. "For two years, it was probably the only good day I had. But it answered a need for me. In straight rodeo, you can't get into it when you're an adult, especially later in life. But gay rodeo, anyone can."

On Saturday, the rodeo schedule pushes forward, the roping events giving way to steer-riding, goat-dressing leading into the horse events, until finally there's only one contest left, the culmination of every rodeo, gay or straight: bull-riding.

The crowd is still thick in the risers. Queen's "We Will Rock You" pounds out of the PA. With an audible gasp sounding off the spectators, the rodeo's first rider is out of the chute on an arching black bull.

With one bounce, he's flipped over the side, dangling down as the animal's hoofs stomp up clouds of red dirt. Now crumpled on the ground, the rider fails to return to his feet; rodeo crew rush out, followed shortly by onsite medics. As he's carried off on a stretcher, a tense silence creeps into the arena. Then Karey Lipham climbs into the chute.

She has a tan Kevlar vest cinched across her chest, her face boxed safely inside a black Bauer hockey helmet. The bull, named Freckles, tips the scales at nearly 1,000 pounds and hulks now in the stall like tractor equipment that's been draped with old beat-brown carpeting.

Lipham is one of the half dozen women bull-riders on the circuit. She's the only female rider here today, which means if she can hang on for six seconds — if she "covers," in rodeospeak — she'll go home with a buckle. It's also her last rodeo.

The metal gate knocks back.

One second: Freckles bounds out of the gate.

One and a half seconds: Freckles' front end twists up like a boat shouldering a wave.

Two seconds: Lipham is sitting in the dirt, her pixie smile still flashing from behind the facemask.

"That was great," she says moments later, knocking the dust off her jeans.

Yup, the Sunshine Stampede enjoyed a long run of successful rodeos, but trouble eventually rode into town. Hell, gay rodeo was facing tough times everywhere. But by the time the dust settled, Florida's gay rodeo scene was like an O.K. Corral where a lot of people had unloaded six-shooters of shit talk and allegations.

Throughout 2012, the FGRA board was poorly managed, according to some members. The organization ended up in tough straits. Bills from the 2011 season were left unpaid. Eighteen of the organization's bylaws were violated, including transparency provisions that allowed anyone in the group to listen in on board meetings. Bankruptcy was discussed. For longtime volunteers like Todd Garrett, who'd nursed the organization from the crib to its healthy popularity, the botched management was unforgivable.

"We got hit with these bills that were unpaid that totaled $6,500," he says. "There was a $1,200 dry-cleaning bill — explain that. We don't clean anything. These are the weird things that all of a sudden came up that had not been paid. That's a big deal, because you're starting in the hole."

"So a bunch of us founding members got rid of all the people who were in it for all the wrong reasons," says Kole Hillman, a former FGRA president. "We cleaned house."

A lot of the rancor settled on board member Bobby Fender, a longtime rodeo contestant from the Orlando area. According to him, most of the allegations were baseless. But by the time he and others resigned in 2012, they were scapegoated. "With any gay association, you are always going to have some drama," he says. "I hate it, but gay associations tend to eat their own. They have accused people of stealing, but when you asked for the proof, there is none. Most people would say that if you don't have any evidence, you keep your mouth shut."

As part of the process, Fender and others were put in "bad standing" by the IGRA. When the mud started sailing, Janine Pardee says she was ducking for cover and confused. She asked the reinstalled FGRA ­leadership for hard evidence about the allegations against people she considered friends. No one ever produced a smoking gun.

"So I dropped my membership," Pardee explains. "Then I tried to renew my membership so maybe I could help influence the next election and they basically ignored my application."

At the time, FGRA hadn't submitted plans for a new rodeo. Pardee and the other ousted members decided to fill the gap. "It is a lot more fun to compete than to be involved in any of the politics," she says. "So we formed our own association and quit fighting."

(Brian Helander, a spokesman for IGRA, declined to talk about specifics on Florida's situation. "At the current time, there are a couple of members in bad standing," he said, speaking generally. "From time to time, we do have to look at certain aspects of conduct, and we do so.")

The new group — the Gold Coast Rodeo Association — has yet to be approved by the IGRA. Until then, it can't hold its own rodeo. The Gold Coast crowd, however, says that Florida is big enough for two separate rodeo groups and that it'll get approved eventually.

"The state of Florida is so vast that one association simply can't cater to the entire state," Fender says. "FGRA used to be heavily active in Fort Lauderdale because the rodeo was there. In recent years, it's been more active on the west coast, leaving the east coast vacant." The new group would cater more to the region between Orlando and Fort Lauderdale.

No one has really hosed out the bad aftertaste. Garrett says the previous group hasn't handed over the passwords to the organization's QuickBooks. Pardee says the FGRA still wouldn't take her back in the fold for this year's rodeo season. "For the previous two years, I was the top female point earner, and they wouldn't let me renew." Instead, she signed up with an Arizona IGRA affiliate.

With the bad blood still coursing, Pardee says it might be responsible for the lower number of competitors at this year's stampede — 53, compared to the usual 70s and 80s. Folks steered clear of the drama. "All that bickering had an effect," she explains. "Some people just didn't want to come."

Gold Coast plans to hold its own rodeo in Fort Lauderdale next year. "Hopefully the area can recapture what the Fort Lauderdale rodeo used to be," Fender says. "Gay people love to talk, they love to gossip, and it's going to take some PR work to get it back."

But Florida's squabbles are sideshow compared to the big-picture problems facing gay rodeo, issues that have more to do with cultural tectonics than personality conflicts. Ironically, it's the great jumps gay Americans have made in recent years that have outpaced the IGRA.

"When Phil Ragsdale started it, gay rodeo was the only real place where people could be open," Frank Harrell explains. "That's no longer the case. We can be open on practically most city streets around the country. The rodeo isn't acting as a release point anymore."

Lipham ticks them off casually like items on a to-do list. There was the shattered collarbone (surgery, metal plate). Then busted ribs (broken again three months later). And a punctured spleen. "I told them to go ahead and take it; I don't need it," she says, her voice, as always, kind and animated, like an adult reading bedtime stories to a child.

Lipham's time in the arena has earned her three belt buckles and shamed every weekend warrior who dares to hobble off a basketball court griping about something as minor as a stiff back. But her passion goes beyond the hardware. She's welded her whole being to a few intense seconds on the animal. "It's how I identify," she says. "I'm Karey the bull rider."

Which makes this Sunday morning bittersweet for Lipham as she walks around the arena, waiting for Advil to smother out the aches from yesterday's run-in with Freckles. She's calling it quits. The bull rider and her partner have decided to have a baby. Lipham will carry the child. The spurs and chaps are going on the shelf.

"At first, I really felt like I was losing a part of myself by giving it up," she explains. "But when I hate getting hurt more than I love getting on, that's when it's time, and it's come to that point."

There's symmetry to her swan song. Lipham's first IGRA rodeo was the Sunshine Stampede. And here she is, going for her last buckle back where it all started. And by day two of the rodeo, she's got two more opportunities to clinch the honors. In a few minutes, she'll step aboard a ­bucking steer. Later this afternoon, she'll take on yet another bull. If she can grip either for six seconds, she'll retire with glory.

And now: the steer.

The preparation is always the same, precise as a timepiece. A knot is already twisting her stomach when she places her equipment bag behind the animal pens. It's still there as she climbs into her gear — leather chaps, Kevlar vest, hockey helmet. But it's only when Lipham slides in an orange mouthpiece, making her breath pull in and out through her nose, that her jitters flatline.

The chute crew and animal handlers bustle about. But she settles inside a little bubble of calm. Nerve ends are all alive, every sense in high-def, thoughts whittled to nothing. She climbs onto the steer. We're about to do a dance, she thinks. And you're the lead.

When the gate swings, the steer jumps out. Lipham flips up and over the side, landing in the dirt.

Robin Thicke's earworm megahit "Blurred Lines" has hijacked the PA system, momentarily shoving aside the country songs that have been soundtracking the stampede. Then down in the dirt dance out the next three contestants in the wild drag competition: a guy dressed in a pink sports bra and matching tight shorts waving a big foam finger; a woman in a black-and-white-striped suit and sunglasses; and a bandannaed biker toting a huge teddy bear on his back.

The trio — miming the infamous Miley Cyrus VMA jawdropper — sets off with a chain of grimy twerks that comes pretty close to canceling out the stampede's professed "family friendly" agenda. While the crowd screams, the contestants quickly ditch their props. A steer charges out of the chute.

In wild drag, teams of three must pull a roped steer over a line in the center of the arena. Then the person in drag has to hop on the animal and ride it back over the line. As easy as it might sound in theory, it's notoriously difficult, landing more competitors in the hospital than the ballsier roughstock events. At this year's rodeo, by Sunday no team has successfully finished the event. Steers too rank, consensus says.

Team Miley slowly creeps in on the target. But before anyone can grapple with the animal, it bolts. After some teasing attempts, the biker — none other than "Lil' Hoss" Aiello — manages to grab hold of the animal's horns. Miley is soon up and ­tentatively on the steer. The animal is frozen, legs locked. The crowd is up and loud like it's the bottom of the ninth with the go-ahead run at the plate. Finally, the steer jerks forward over the line, Miley still aboard.

From the sidelines, Lipham watches. Even though her last bull ride is now on deck, she will continue coming to the rodeos to compete in other events — wild drag included. "I'll still have a place here."

As the rodeo winds down on day two, ­David Raneer and Candy Pratt — the two biggest names on the circuit at the Stampede — both have commanding leads for all-around cowboy and cowgirl out of the 51 competitors. And although by Sunday afternoon, many will feel the event was a successful return to glory days, the number of competitors is down.

Part of the lower 2014 turnout can be pinned to the upcoming Gay Games: The international gay competition will be held in August in Ohio and will feature a full rodeo. Some serious cowpoke contenders are keeping off the dusty circuit to save up for the event.

But 46 is the other number staring the IGRA in the face: the average age of competitors. Gay rodeo simply isn't pulling in younger people, shadowing the sport's future trajectory with uncertainty.

"There's always going to be a spot for gay rodeo," Todd Garrett says. "I think it's all about getting new blood. Believe it or not, there are a lot of people who don't realize it exists now. I think in the future, new marketing techniques are going to have to happen." Ironically, the demographic that's turning up more and more at events: straight folks. "We've always welcomed that," Garrett explains.

But for lonely kids trying to unknot their sexuality in conservative small-town pressure cookers, gay rodeo is an important set of training wheels. By the last day of competition, 19-year-old Dillon is convinced he'll be back. "There are people out there that are actually like me," he says. "Here, I can actually be me and not have to hide a damn thing."

And now: the final bull-riding event. It unrolls eerily like repeat footage from yesterday. Once again, Lipham is behind the chute as the crew bustles about. She's inside her little bubble of calm. Thoughts are clean as an empty eraser board. Once again, Queen stomps out of the PA.

Last year, Lipham had tried to give up bull-riding, convincing herself to quit after a rodeo in Texas. It didn't stick. Afterward, she was angry about hacking herself free from something that had completely swallowed her life. Give it another year. But now in Davie, she's feeling differently.

"I'm pretty at peace," she'll say later, thinking back on her last appearance in the ring. "I'm getting old. I want to start a family. It's time. But there probably will never be a time when I don't see bull-riding and think it's exciting."

The gate knocks open; a black bull rips free. Lipham's gloved right hand aims at the rust-colored roof as if she's hailing the crowd. Before the timer has eaten up three seconds, she's thrown forward, then sprawled on the arena floor, where clouds of dust twist up and apart in slanting afternoon light.

Ed Aiello, known on the International Gay Rodeo Association circuit as "Lil' Hoss," clinched Rookie of the Year in 2008.
Ed Aiello, known on the International Gay Rodeo Association circuit as "Lil' Hoss," clinched Rookie of the Year in 2008.
Photo by George Martinez

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