The 2010 season of Professional Bull Riding recently returned to our television screens, and for any gay or bisexual male viewer who hasn’t caught a few minutes of this entertainment-driven version of the rough stock rodeo sport on NBC, FOX, or Versus.TV, you might not have realized something very interesting: bull riders are damn sexy.
Broadcast on Saturdays and Sundays, a typical PBR show unfolds like a candy-colored kaleidoscope version of Brokeback Mountain. Sporting snug denim jeans and elaborate western wear, ruggedly handsome riders like J.B. Mauney and Kasey Hayes make entrances on runways as lasers, fireworks and giant sculptures of bulls with flaming nostrils greet them.
The riders size each other up as they compete for the chance to compete on bulls with names such as Drunk Money or Charmed I’m Sure. Once the pairings are made, cameras take the TV audience right into the holding pen with the cowboys as they rosin their ropes (make them easier to grip with a type of resin) and are helped by other riders to steady the bucking bulls.
When the chute opens, man and bull burst into an arena packed with screaming fans, traditional leather chaps flailing wildly as the rider attempts the light-speed, counter-movement "interactive dance" that is said to be key to the sport.
The whole ride is over in 8 seconds.
But the show keeps going as the cameras capture the riders in breathless post-ride interviews, throwing tantrums, or even being dragged from the arena to the examining room after an injury as the crowd roars.
The showbiz razzle dazzle of a typical PBR broadcast is fake enough to have probably made Andy Warhol blush, and with all the elaborate western gear, helmets, bells, klieg lights, and, yes, beefcake backstage, the PBR footage often looks as if at any moment it could break into a scene from The Village People musical Can’t Stop the Music.
Which might be part of the reason PBR has gained a gay male cult following.
"I am not surprised that bull riding has a fan base of gay men," says PBR’s official rodeo clown and professional entertainer Flint Rasmussen (pictured, right). "Rodeo is a festival of family, parades, queens, clowns, and, of course, the rodeo. Although PBR events almost fall into the ’concert tour’ category, the cowboys are tough and gritty competitors who want to do whatever it takes to win. The fact that we’re appealing to a broader fan base is fine with me."
Wade Earp is currently the #1 bull rider for the 2009 season of the International Gay Rodeo Association (an umbrella organization comprised of regional gay rodeo associations across the U.S. and Canada), and has participated in gay
rodeo for 18 years. He plans on continuing to compete for the title through the current season which finishes up at the IGRA 2010 World Gay Rodeo Finals in Laughlin, Nevada in October.
"PBR? I watch it regularly," Earp says. "I first caught it on cable, now I’m hooked! For me, it’s like training. It helps me with my game."
Although he’s out-ranked by Earp, Steve Daigle is currently the most famous gay bull rider in popular culture, thanks to his being a cast member of the 10th season of CBS’ Big Brother in 2008 (not to mention Daigle’s recent foray into adult films).
Daigle was the 2006 bull-riding champion at the Cowtown Rodeo, a major event on the Texas Gay Rodeo Association circuit. He plans on competing at the Road Runner Regional Rodeo in Phoenix, Arizona this month, and hopes to score high enough to make the 2010 IGRA finals in October.
"Oh yeah, I love watching PBR!" Daigle says enthusiastically.
But is watching it a guilty pleasure for Daigle or something more? "No! I could compare PBR to Ultimate Fighting Championship," says Daigle. "I happened to catch UFC one night on cable, and I was like ’This is the hottest thing I’ve ever seen!’ I couldn’t stop watching. But then I got pulled into the sport, and began to develop respect for it, and the competitors, and follow it. If it takes a gay guy seeing a hot bull rider on PBR and getting legitimately pulled into the sport that way, then why not?"
"With gay rodeos, gays or lesbians who come to watch feel more included," says Brian Helander, president of the IGRA. "There isn’t that blockade of homophobia. We have a lot of people coming back after watching, saying ’I could do this,’ ’I could learn to ride a horse,’ or ’I’ve always wanted to be involved in this.’"
Of the 2,794 members on PBR fan-favorite J.B. Mauney’s Facebook fan page, roughly one half are male. Straight male viewers who enthusiastically watch sports but don’t participate are often revering them within the realm of "fantasy" imagining themselves as bull riders themselves.
J. B. Mauney
No doubt many gay men are imagining the same thing, but just as many are probably watching for a different kind of fantasy. No, not the erotic kind (though that probably is an aspect as well) but rather for the idealized romantic image of the American male in the American west, the lone cowboy out on the range as a kind of masculine ideal evoked in Brokeback Mountain.
So does one draw a line between straight and gay fans of rodeo? If so, where?
Author and activist Patricia Nell Warren has written extensively about gays and lesbians in the world of sports for 30 years. She is the author of the bestselling novel The Front Runner, the non-fiction book The Lavender Locker Room, as well as many other titles. Having also served as a special guest and marshal at gay rodeos, she has some insight into the sport when it comes to gay men.
"I’m not sure where you’d draw that line," says Warren. "There will always be a homoerotic element to men admiring a great tennis player, or a ’King of the Hardwood,’ or a bull rider. I think the line may be that gay men will acknowledge that they’re attracted to these sports stars. Whereas a straight man would rather be boiled in oil than admit that."
Could the gay and straight rodeo circuits ever cross paths? Could a gay rodeo star pass over into the mainstream? Might one of the PBR riders currently be in the closet?
"When you apply professional sports that are based on individual achievement, like tennis or equestrian sports, lots of people are out of the closet," says Patricia Nell Warren. "It’s the team sports factor that makes it harder for people to be out. However, even though bull riding is an individual sport, it’s in the country western rodeo realm, which is generally homophobic. So it’s a unique individual competition sport in that way."
"Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say our world is homophobic, I would just say the subject doesn’t really come up," says PBR’s Flint Rasmussen. "It is true that the majority of cowboys and our fan base fall into the conservative category. Most of the riders and crew come from rural backgrounds. I would imagine they probably don’t really think about it."
For some gay men, the gay and the straight rodeos have already intersected in their lives.
"I was raised with rodeo my whole life," says Wade Earp. "I had older brothers heavily involved in bull riding, and I participated in community rodeos we put on with my father. One year a brother got badly hurt, so my mother put a stop to it all. It wasn’t until years later in 1992 that I saw a local gay rodeo was happening in Dallas. I entered, and worked my way up to rough stock events."
"I actually started in straight rodeo," says Steven Daigle. "I began in ’jackpots,’ where a group of guys get together, contributed $25, and a local stock contractor gets bulls. Then I moved to local rodeos. After college I was introduced to gay rodeo, and that’s where I really took off."
"One of my friends I grew up with is a rodeo clown in the non-gay rodeo circuit," says Wade Earp. "Now, he comes to see me compete in gay rodeos all the time. Recently, we had a pro bull rider on the straight circuit come and compete at the Texas Tradition Rodeo in Seguine, Texas in 2009. He’d heard about it and just decided to sign up. And this is in west Texas!"
Why all this fuss about bull riders? Why is PBR so hypnotic to watch?
"Because a bull-rider is very romantic," says Earp. "It’s the thrill of man taming the beast."