The queer rodeo is disrupting the traditional ideas of gender one would associate with rural America, as depicted in photographer Luke Gilford's ethereal images.
What do you think of when you imagine rural America? Uneducated hicks? Conservatives who cannot look beyond the gender binary? Men obsessed with too-obvious performances of toxic masculinity? Well, whatever it is, the rodeos of rural America will challenge these outdated stereotypes. In what can only be described as a magical photography project, Luke Gilford, a filmmaker and photographer born in Denver, Colorado, depicts the rich culture of the rural American rodeo. In an interview with CNN, he revealed what motivated him to launch the project and what he hoped to show through his ethereal images. "It's quite a sensory experience," he said. "It's quite a thing."
One of the photographer's earliest memories is of his father taking him to the rodeo in Denver when he was a child. He recalls "a bold, colorful world of Stetson hats and snakeskin shoes, of barbecued meat and majestic horses." It is a culture he really loved, one that many would relate more to a drag show than a rodeo, one of "pastel sunsets, line dancing, hairspray, and sequins." The rodeos of his childhood, however, were very much like the ones you would imagine to take place in the Southwest. Dominated by "a culture of frontier masculinity," these extravagant events were rife with homophobia. Nonetheless, more recently, Gilford has discovered the "queer rodeo," quite unlike the ones he was accustomed to as a young child.
This "multifaceted, multicultural world of LGBTQ+ rodeo" existed in his home state under a branch of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). The photographer first came across members of IGRA when he was attending a Pride event in northern California. "I could tell that they were authentic cowboys and cowgirls just because I'm from Colorado," he shared. "I know one when I see one. I was so shocked to see them at a Pride event. I went up and talked to them and they were so warm and so welcoming, and they encouraged me to come check it out." When he did end up checking it out, he became immersed in the queer rodeo scene for several years.
It had originally begun in 1976. That is when the first gay rodeo was held in Nevada, following which rodeos branched out across states through rodeo associations that unified under the IGRA name in 1985. Gilford's newly released book National Anthem: America's Queer Rodeo takes a look at the marginalized community that reappropriates rodeos from the conservative mainstream. He said of the rodeos themselves, "It's interesting because the arenas where the queer rodeos take place are where the mainstream rodeos take place. We're quite literally borrowing queer space and time in places that were not built for or by us. There's a subversion of power there, even if only for a weekend, to be co-opting this space and making it our own."
His book depicts this subversion of power. In one image, Priscilla Toya Bouvier, who was crowned Miss IGRA in 2019, proudly displays a towering, bejeweled crown on top of dramatically coiffed hair. Priscilla, the father of two daughters, embodies the title of rodeo queen with grace. In another, three rodeo participants all dressed up in classic rodeo attire stand with their backs to Gilford's lens, embracing each other. This one photo displaying "gentle companionship" questions everything we know about traditional (and typically toxic) ideas of masculinity. Most essentially, Gilford's images bring a sense of complexity to the country's binary of blue and red states. He affirmed, "There [are] these tribal dichotomies in America that cannot contain who we really are. There's the red and blue states, the coastal elites versus middle America, and the conservatives versus the liberals. It's just so binary and polarizing. What's so beautiful about this community is that they really embrace both ends of the American cultural spectrum and everything in between. It's what we would hope America would be in the first place."