Ropin’ the wind

As the International Gay Rodeo Finals return to North Texas, we examine the connection between the gay culture and the cowboy way

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THE COWBOY WAY | Charlie Colella shows the form necessary to score points at the rodeo, but his favorite event is pole bending, a combination of speed, precision and horsemanship. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

Like a true Texas transplant, Charlie Colella wasn’t born to the rodeo, but he got there as fast as he could.

Even today, at 51, Colella’s family doesn’t quite understand how a boy reared in the Chicago suburbs, who holds down a day job as an office working in corporate America (19 years with Xerox, now with FedEx), now lives on a 12-acre ranch in a small town (population: 1,200) an hour north of Dallas, breeding horses and pursuing his passion for the last 21 years: Ridin’ the rodeo.

In Texas, the connection between mankind and the rodeo is a familiar one. Even in urban North Texas, the Mesquite Rodeo less than 20 miles from Downtown Dallas looms as one of the most celebrated in the country. But Colella’s interest developed while he was living in, of all places, Bakersfield, Calif. — hardly the cliché of Western masculinity.

He has been riding almost as long the International Gay Rodeo Association has been around. “In 1990, I was living in Los Angeles and bored with my life and met these guys from the rodeo,” he explains. “I was a city boy. My folks took us camping and we rode trail horses when I was a kid, but even they said, ‘Where did this come from?’”

Surprisingly, the idea of a gay rodeo didn’t even arise in Texas. The first acknowledged event — a fundraiser to fight muscular dystrophy — took place in Reno, Nev., in 1976. In 1981, the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association had been formed, followed in 1982 by the Texas Gay Rodeo Association. By 1986, the IGRA was formed as an umbrella organization of regional groups, including ones from Canada (hence the “international” designation).

Colella started off his rodeo career big: Riding steer and bulls. That’s where a human sits atop a one-ton wild animal and tries to hold on for eight seconds. Even the best cowboys end their rides being thrown on their asses. “It often was one of the biggest rushes ever!” Colella gushes. Rodeo events have resulted in him suffering a fractured pelvis, a broken foot and a herniated vertebra. He doesn’t ride bulls anymore.

“There’s an old saying: To be a bull rider, you fill your mouth with marbles; every time you ride a bull, you spit out a marble; once you’ve lost all your marbles, you’re a bull rider,” he laughs. “I started with that and rode bulls for a couple years, but I’m a little older and little smarter now, so I don’t do the rough stuff.”

Colella pursues about 11 of the 14 competitions, and he’s qualified for seven events in the IGRA Finals, which take place at the Will Rogers Coliseum in Fort Worth this weekend. (For a complete schedule of events, go here.) The invitational event is considered the capstone of the gay rodeo season.

“Pole bending is the one I get nutted up about. I was sitting No. 1 in it [this year], but I had a bad day last time and someone pulled ahead of me,” he says.

Even with his current slate of events, Colella has had his share of close calls. Just last month, he “had a little argument with a steer,” as he puts it. “I’m not quite sure what happened — I think I got horned,” he says, pointing to a two-inch scar on his forehead smack dab between his eyes. “It was in Kansas City in, of all events, wild drag. My buddy does the drag and the steer got away from us. We caught it and he went around me with the rope. I ducked to keep from being penned and that’s when it happened. It went through my hat, so it could have been worse.”

All in the day of a cowboy’s life.

Or, for that matter, a cowgirl. Gay rodeo has traditionally embraced women in a way that mainstream rodeos have not. In 1989, a woman, Linn Copeland, was appointed to serve out the unexpired term of president of the IGRA, and in 1990 she was elected to another full term. While women’s and men’s events are still kept separate in competitions, Colella for one doesn’t see the women’s branch as being any less competitive: The events are the events, and the skills are exactly the same.

“We’ve had some incredible bulls and some pretty incredible female bull riders. I’d like to see more women get involved — there are like two guys for every girl.

“We compete men against men, women against women, but if we blended it all together some of these women would kick your butt. I was teasing a buddy once that he ‘threw like a girl,’ and did I get my ass chewed out.  I was being unfair — these women can throw a rope. Some of these girls’ll kick your ass!”

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RIDE’ EM | Corella will compete in 7 of 14 events at the invitation-only IGRA this weekend. (Arnold Wayne Jones/Dallas Voice)

So what keeps men — and women — like Colella coming back year after year?

As a convert to cowboydom, Colella takes it seriously as a lifestyle. Even at work, he dresses daily in a pressed Western shirt, jeans and ostrich-skin boots; he proudly sports an oversized belt buckle, one of perhaps two dozen he has won over the years for his rodeo skills. (“I’ve got every ribbon, every buckle I’ve ever won. A lot of people put a lot of effort into getting that together and that means something to me,” he says.) For him, as gays are fond of saying, it’s a life, not a lifestyle.

“Anyone involved in the rodeo, gay or straight, says it’s a way of life,” he says. “I’m single, and it’s difficult dating living where I live, but I decided I wasn’t gonna sacrifice what I wanted for a guy. I have a great life so I’m pretty happy. This is who I am. It’s what I am.”

The rodeo also gives him a chance to show off his skills behind the scenes.

“It’s a kind of a gratification of how I’ve trained my horses,” he admits of each victory. ”The oldest horse I own is 19 and she’s the mother of another two, so I have bred them myself. You do well, it is a reflection of that. You’re saying, ‘My horse is very talented, and I did that.’”

But, Colella admits, there’s more to getting involved in the gay rodeo than all of that. It’s the sense of community that comes with it.

“Everyone just takes care of you,” he says. “I think it’s important that we all belong to a group, an organization, whether it’s your church or the leather community or the rodeo. IGRA helped me find who I am, helped define who I am. Any club who can bring out who you are [is valuable]. I’ve met so many people from around the country. It’s just amazing the amount of friends who offer support.

“Most of the people in the top 10 or 20 are competitive, but we all want everybody to do well. I wanna win, but I’m gonna root for the next guy and coach him to do just as well.”

Colella is fit and healthy, but now in his 50s, the most he’ll promise about what he’ll be doing five years from now is say he hopes to be upright. But the rodeo grabs ahold of you in a way you can’t fully control.

“There’s a friend of mine in the rodeo who’s over 60 and still doing all the events: He’s still wrestling steer and riding horses,” he says. “We joke that the day he dies, we’re all gonna say, ‘Thank god! Now we can stop,’ because as long as he’s doing it we can’t justifying quitting. But one day, I’ll do other things at home with my horses.”

Like any great movie cowboy, the time’ll come to ride off into the sunset.

But not this weekend. This weekend, there are ribbons and buckles and titles to be won and animals to be tamed. That’s life on the rodeo.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas

Cowboy up!

Full schedule of events planned around IGRA Finals Rodeo in Fort Worth this weekend

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HANGING ON | One of the most popular events in the IGRA Finals Rodeo is bullriding. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

The “best of the best” in the world of LGBT rodeo are coming to North Texas this weekend to dress goats, decorate steers, wrestle steers and ride wild horses and bulls, according to Randy Edlin, president of the Texas Gay Rodeo Association.

A total of 90 competitors will be competing in the 25th World Gay Rodeo Finals, being held Saturday and Sunday at the Watt Arena in the Will Rogers Memorial Center in Fort Worth. They will be representing the 27 local International Gay and Lesbian Rodeo Association affiliates around North America, including two from Texas — Texas Gay Rodeo Association, which has five chapters around the state, and Red River Rodeo Association, based in Aubrey, northeast of Denton.

Edlin said that participation in the IGRA Finals Rodeo is by invitation only. Contestants earn points through the year at regional rodeos, and the top 20 in each event are invited to the World Gay Rodeo Finals.

Edlin will compete in the chute-dogging event, sometimes known as steer wrestling, and in two camp events, the wild drag race and steer decorating.

Dan Nagel, president of the Dallas chapter of TGRA, said the camp events are one of the things that distinguish gay rodeo from traditional rodeo, adding to the entertainment and fun. But the inclusion of the camp events, he said, shouldn’t fool anyone into thinking gay rodeo contestants aren’t as tough as the mainstream rodeo cowboys and cowgirls.

In fact, Nagel said, the caliber of participants in IGRA’s 10 more traditional events are equal to those in any rodeo, and a number of members of TGRA also enter other rodeos.

Another difference between the gay rodeos and mainstream rodeos is that in gay rodeos, men and women may compete in all events.

In mainstream rodeos, you usually only see women competing in barrel racing. In gay rodeos, men race the barrels, too. Chute-dogging is usually a men’s event in the mainstream, but the women are out there wrestling steers, too, at the gay rodeos.

Nagel called those two events two of the most competitive on the circuit.

Gary Miller, owner of Dallas’ Round-Up Saloon who is also a former TGRA president, explained that while men and women compete together in chute-dogging, the top male competitor and the top female competitor both get first place trophy buckles.

Miller encouraged people who might be interested in participating in rodeo come to Fort Worth  to see the sport’s finest athletes and recommended the camp events for those just starting.

“Try goat decorating,” Miller said. “You won’t get hurt and you don’t have to have the skills of riding a horse or roping.”

Nagel agreed that some camp events are great for newcomers. But he called the wild drag race — in which teams of three, with one of the three in drag, work to get their member in drag on a steer and across the finish line in the fastest time — one of the most dangerous events on the circuit.

Miller and his partner, Alan Pierce, have been named honorary grand marshals of the rodeo. Miller joked that it was a role he was getting very used to filling. Two weeks ago, the pair were grand marshals of the Alan Ross Texas Freedom Parade.

“It’s an honor for us since we’ve been involved since the 1980s,” Miller said.

Miller was among founding members of Texas Gay Rodeo Association in 1985 and served as its first president. Pierce helped form the Houston chapter while working at Bayou Landing, a country-western bar in that city.

The couple met through their work with the rodeo and became owners of the Round-Up in 1998. They celebrated their 26th anniversary this year.

Miller said the Round-Up Saloon sponsors five participants by paying their entry fees. He said rodeo can become an expensive sport, especially
for those traveling with their horses.

“It’s a big deal to trailer one in, especially from the coasts,” Miller said.

He said the trip takes several days because they have to stop every few hours to exercise the horses.

Events connected with the rodeo begin at the Crowne Plaza Fort Worth South, the host hotel, on Friday, Oct. 7. The honorary grand marshals will be presented at a dance at the hotel that evening.

The finals rodeo events begin at 8 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 8, then again at 9 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 9.

“Peak spectator time is noon to 5 p.m.,” Nagel said. “They’ll run slack in the morning.”

“Running slack” means that rather than have all 20 competitors take part in one event twice in one day and declare winners, some of the entries from a variety of events will run in the morning. That way people attending during the peak afternoon hours will get to see the full variety of events.

Winners won’t be named until Sunday evening after each competitor in each event has been scored in that event twice.

In addition to the competitions taking place in the Watt Arena, a vendor area and an entertainment area will be set up in an adjoining building.

Edlin said each regional association has “royalty” — association members who have competed throughout the year and raised money for their associations to claim the Mr., Miss and Ms. Titles — and they will be entertaining throughout the day.

Nagel said that IGRA’s archives of the 35 years of gay rodeo and 25 years of international competition will be on display at the arena as well.

Dance has always been a big part of gay rodeo. Saturday night, a dance competition takes place at the host hotel.

Despite the fact that a Nevada sheriff shut down the finals in 1988 because area residents didn’t want “those type of people” in town, Edlin said the rodeo is a great place to bring kids.

“Gay rodeo is very family-oriented,” Edlin said. “It’s not cut-throat competition.”

Edlin has been involved since 1999.

“Friends took me to a gay rodeo in Calgary and I was hooked,” he said. “I’ve been involved ever since.”

Edlin said gay rodeo is so welcoming and family-oriented that a number of straight people participate in gay rodeo — including his straight son, a two-time Iraq War veteran who competes in chute-dogging and junior bull riding.

Nagel said TGRA has a number of straight members who enjoy the close friendships and fun.

“But the other side of all this is that we give money to the community,” he said.

Last year, the Dallas chapter of TGRA gave $30,000 to eight local groups including Resource Center Dallas and Youth First Texas. This year, he said, they’re already ahead in the amount they’ve collected. They’ll distribute  those funds in March.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 7, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas