Text and photos by Bill Arsenaux
ARRIVAL: 7:40 PM. Reno, Nevada, airport. August 4, 1978-Friday. United Airlines flight #1086 is touching down.
My first view of Reno is of rolling, empty "bad-land" hills all the way to the mountains. The heat is 88 degrees and the humidity is about the same. The only break in the barren landscape is to the east. The terra-cotta side walls of the new M-G-M Grand rise silo-like above the dry, brown rolling hills.
Directly in front of the main entrance a large red open-bed truck waits. The bed is lined on the sides with fresh bales of hay. Phil Ragsdale, director of the 3rd Annual Gay Reno Rodeo, steps forward to greet us. He's looking at us as hard as we're looking at him. Loose-limbed, in easy "nothing-special" western shirt and Levi's, with a quick, natural smile.
The setting sun is now blinding to look into. A breeze comes up. Bags tossed into the truck. Mount the hay bales-they feel like poly-foam. "Hold on to your hats!" The truck shoots off for the River Inn, our accommodations for this weekend in Reno, Nevada.
A quick look at the other guys doesn't reveal that two are real cowboys-one from Beverly Hills, the other from Hollywood. They would both be going home with prize belt-buckles. Two guys across from me are busy discovering each other by using verbal as well as braille anatomy. They will stay together all this weekend.
We must be doing about 60-per, now. Under a railroad bridge on a banked curve like a roller-coaster. It's getting cold. Some dig jackets out of luggage. Others look like they didn't bring one.
We've been following the Truckee River on our left and there is the River Inn. The CASINO sign blazes out over the parking lot. A building to the east of it says SPA in white wooden letters. Far to the west, ahead, are trailers and recreation vehicles surrounding an electric-blue swimming pool.
We're assigned our rooms and stared at by staff and guests alike. The "group that flew in from Hollywood." The accommodations are big. Two double beds and the far wall is one huge sliding glass door that puts the Truckee just about 30-feet away across a tennis court.
THE SQUARE DANCE: Country-Rock has taken the place of "dig-for-the-oyster, dive-for-the-clam" style of square-dancing. This thought hits you between the ears as you line up at the entrance to buy all of your tickets for the weekend events. Robin, a very attractive drag in a powder-blue tailored western suit, politely helps you in a calm manner. Tonight there is to be the contest for Mr. and Ms. National Gay Rodeo 1978. Every rodeo needs their King and Queen, right? No lesbians have signed up for the Ms., so the three entrants are men. A television camera crew is busy "catching all the action" and nobody seems to mind. Later at the Rodeo grounds, the riders will be wearing their numbers printed on white or red tags. Red means "No photographs." The bar is lost inside of a crowd of guys.
A sudden apparition of Dolly Parton's "ugly" sister moves into view. At about 7-feet up begins a 10-gallon hat from which are cascading three, maybe four "falls." Soft wooly white chaps only add to the illusion. This is Rusty, M.C. for this evening and Empress II of Reno-a very funny, clever man who will also serve as the lead rodeo "clown." Rusty, always polite, like all the folks at Reno, always asking, "Are you having a good time?" welcomes us, one and all. Then announces the Mr. and Ms. "contest" winner, based on the amount of money that the entrant's "court" raised for Muscular Dystrophy that year.
A REAL COWBOY: I had just taken a picture of a couple, one with his keys on the left, the other with a rhinestone-studded blue handkerchief neatly flopping from the right pocket of white, tight jeans. Suddenly, across a room of open western shirts and tight blue jeans, I spot a leather vest with panels of writing all down the back. "Cowboys can handle anything horny" catches my eye and I go around front.
Meet Sony King. That's the name he rides under, and he pronounces it "Sonny." The vest is nine years old. Could I take a picture of it? "Sure!" He says he is a circuit rider. Well ... he used to be a circuit rider. Mr. Vancouver. Mr. Austin, Texas, New Orleans, and even Dallas. That means that he was big man of the year. Sony was born in Nashville, Tennessee, some 31 years ago. He is a gemini, for those who care. He started rodeo riding at 19 in Tennessee and hit some small-town circuits. Then Cheyenne -- which Sony feels the same about as he does Montana -- nothing. Sony was married for five years and now has a five-year-old son, somewhere. The little woman left him in Colorado for another dude. Sony filed for desertion. Joined the army and discovered northern California. The circuit in Vancouver picked him up, or vice-versa, and treated him well. That means under the conditions, that when he was bad off, there was always someone else worse off. He learned the phrase "Everybody loves a winner." So he started to win.
I ask to let me cover him for the next two days of the rodeo. Good, even white teeth flash as he says "sure."
BACK IN MY ROOM: With a fresh supply of Bud, the preferred brew for rodeo riders, we saunter down toward the room. Sony asks me if I know what a rodeo is. Good question. I say that the main things are that the stock is chosen for your ride at random and it can kill you by accident. So much is left to choice of the drawing of stock, and to chance, that the fact that anyone lives to win Mr. Rodeo is purely due to the luck and the death-defying skills of the rider.
Sony agrees, as I eventually learn what that slow and easy smile means. In fact, that smile looks and takes about as long as you need to fall in love. He is telling me now that the "circuit" isn't like it used to be. I nod.
We're settled down now between two piles of beer cans -- one full, the other empty. He has doubts about the "rodeo" tomorrow. Not because an ex-circuit rider is going into a "gay" rodeo. It's an honest question of how professional it will end up being. This will be his first Reno rodeo and these are the "first" gay rodeos ever held in the country -- at least publicized.
When did Sony become gay? The incident with his weening calf when he was 17 probably doesn't count. For now he skirts the issue and I don't push. "Tell me about tomorrow," I suggest.
Sony's concern is about the technicalities of entry into the upcoming events, such as the type of events and the stock available for them. "Gay rodeo? It's bull-shit to care about what people are wearing or what they do at night. It's the rodeo part I'm trying to get ready for."
Last week he'd telephoned from the bath-house he worked at in Phoenix and was told that registration had to be for five events per day. Tonight he was told that five events total for both days was o.k. He hoped that this was so, since events like "greased pig catching" and "barrel-racing" (which is a girls' event), were beneath a circuit rider's dignity. A scheduled "wild cow milking" contest left Sony with a blank stare.
Also, not having a mount for the "calf roping-mounted" event, complicated by the fact that there would probably be no horses to loan to riders without one, limited the number of events that a cowboy "traveling light" could enter.
It was getting late, even for a city kid, but it should be noted before this section ends, that until dawn on Saturday, there were more events around the out side tennis courts which could be called "wild cowboy milking," "room racing," not to mention a large number of "greased pork" events, than could ever have been held in the rodeo arena.
SATURDAY -- OPENING DAY: July is a busy month for Reno. The Annual Truckee River Raft Run is held. The one week long RCA (Rodeo Cowboy Association) sanctioned national Reno Rodeo is held at the Washoe County Fair Grounds which is also home to the Nevada State County Fair in September. We are now heading out there for the opening ceremonies of the 3rd Annual Gay Reno Rodeo. This will be the first year that it is to be held at the major fair grounds and it is scheduled to begin at 1pm.
We arrive to a series of delays. The post-hole digger has not arrived. To find another one is a problem on Saturday. The wrong lights were delivered, etc.
A semi pulls up to us and the woman driver asks, "Is it today that you need my pig, or tomorrow?" But there are typical problems with the gay community's efforts to do any major event. The "straight" clout and credibility are still missing. Last year, though, there were only 450 in attendance. It's triple that this year. Next year there will be automatic chutes and maybe the new outdoor arena which is being built. And so it goes. And so it must.
Besides, I had never seen a chute being built. Posts set in. Rough planks along the sides. Beams run through to hold the calf, steer or bronc just behind their haunches. The arena is the live-stock one and is half the size of a football field. A wooden roof keeps in the muggy moist air. Bleachers along both sides hold the 1000 or so that have already arrived. The judges', timer's and announcer's table is at the back just across the chute. Two large metal doors are at the back.
Sony and I visit the stock barns behind. I take a needed leak inside one of the empty stalls. To Sony's dismay he looks at the stock, steers and their calves. Although I find it rather picturesque, Sony informs me that herding steers with their calves would keep them both together no matter what the event. This later proved to be true when during the "steer riding" event, Sony was about to seat and the steer's calf joined them in the chute. "I can only ride one of these at a time!" Sony observed.
When we got up to the milking stock, he said that they were so young that his tits had more milk than the stock did.
My cowboy was getting antsy. He was on his third Bud since I had joined him here and, as legend has it, he hadn't eaten breakfast, nor any dinner last night and would not eat until tomorrow after the last event. Just beer.
"Is that in case of surgery?" I ask, hoping that the question would not be an omen.
"No, you just throw up a lot, and it's better when there isn't any food involved."
I began to notice that the beer-drinking part held true with everyone involved with the events. The camaraderie among the nervous riders behind the arena is a true relationship. "You did damn good, Patches!" But Patces just walks out of the arena's dust into the sunlight and kicks the dirt. Slowly they look at their sides, or shin, or whatever part got kicked or stepped on. The ambulance is sitting in the hot sun. Shiny and as big as a shark. The attendants watch carefully the rider's reactions. One guy has badly scraped ribs. The doctor seriously checks the wound, watching the cowboy as he questions him, and then decidedly says, "Put lots of cream on it tonight." Winking and hitting the cowboy on the ass, he saunters back into the air-conditioned ambulance.
It has become apparent to me that Sony, as an ex-circuit rider, who "came out" at the height of his circuit days, had probably acquired his last four years of scars from falling out of beds, instead of off horses.
But Sony knows that the conflict at the moment is his personal desire to recreate an old reality -- that of his former circuit-riding days. Sony wanted to see how much distance had really been put down from those "good ole' days," and before the afternoon was over, he would know.
By now, behind the arena with horseshit on my shoes, even I realized that although this rodeo was a replica of the real thing, that week-long, talented pro -- vs. amateur up-and-coming rider, once the stock was under you in that chute, and the hand was white-knuckled around the cinch, the steer did not know the difterence between gay and straight and that one could get kicked in the face -- a point proved later that afternoon, when it actually happened.
EVENTS: "Calf-roping on foot" was first and proved to be an awkward task in the very soft dirt of the arena, until the seventh contestant, a funny dressed guy in a baggy red T-shirt and shorts, with large over-sized sunglasses walked out to the edge of the chute in his zorros and gave the high sign with rope hand. The calf came out, "Red" ran after it and put the rope around its neck in one fast toss. That ended that. Sony was not successful in this event.
For the second event, "calf-roping mounted," Sony did not have a mount available to him and therefore could not enter. It is standard procedure on the circuit to pick your best events and, if you don't have a mount with you, to arrange to borrow one, splitting any prize money won in the event. You never borrow another's rope.
The third event, "wild cow riding," was just that. A cinch (a wide band made up of several turnings of rope) is applied around the animal's middle, and with the left hand holding fast, and the right one swinging freely in the air at all times, you just stay that way for eight seconds. Five contestants. Sony wasn't able to stay on for eight seconds.
The fourth event was bare-back bronc riding, which made Sony's eyes shine. This was the one big shot at true circuit competition-style challenge, as there would be no brahma bulls.
Again, a cinch is applied to a wild bronc -- which, in the first instance, proved to be a 15-minute show of its own. This critter, Cantankerous by name, leapt up the side of the chute and out into the arena. Not once, but twice. Although Sony stayed on hard and fast, it was not for long enough. He hit the dirt, and therefore did not qualify in this event. By now my cowboy had thrown up twice and was looking and sounding more human.
In the stock area, while the broncs were being herded around in an attempt to get another one into the chute, one of the handlers got a serious kick in the head. Because of it, the remaining events were called off for the day. This wasn't exactly like the big time, but that was the point. Friends and lovers had been struggling with difficult stock, make-shift set-up conditions, under-staffed and over-worked. Everyone was tired and the day was getting on.
SUNDAY -- THE LAST DAY: Today the rodeo is old-hat. There are about 500 fewer in attendance, but with the advance sales, it is still profitable. Once again the opening ceremonies begin, with the same dialogue and the same horses, but with different shirts on the riders. Four flags of visiting states reappear and race around the arena. Then the American flag. Hotdogs and beer cans keep time to the singing of the National Anthem. Same stock enters the pen and the same two dozen riders appear at the back. Today, however, the events include those postponed from yesterday because of the accident.
"Bare bronc riding" is the first event. The "Greased pig catching" follows. Sony had had to enter this event. He looked a little defiant without his vest or his favorite T-shirt on. The 30-pound oinker is out in the center of the arena getting a shampoo of Wesson Oil. (Lard would no doubt have been in bad taste.) The nine contestants -- drag, lesbian and guys -- stand in a line by the chute and the remaining Wesson Oil is slopped into their outstretched hands. Sony makes a fist and shoves his arm back and forth at the crowd. A few guys wave back. They run and they skid and they jump. Sony is one of the three with the pig at the end, but, as he says, "Not as well as Patches did." This girl was doing her best to win belt-buckles.
Sony is smiling now. He's up. He's having the fun that was hoped for and meant by this "rodeo." I ask him how the game was going. "The game? .... The game is going just great!" Smiles.
DEPARTURE: And so the day goes. Less watching of the events. More gathering around the men's-room door and the beer stands. Shirts off. Levi's bulging. Boots dusty. Last night the tennis courts were empty. Friendships had been made and promiscuity was no longer king. Phil Ragsdale had his third, and most successful, rodeo under his belt. Eight prize belt-buckles had been stolen. A contract has since been signed for next year -- August 4th and 5th, 1979. The River Inn had had two wedding receptions in the barn-dance room. Sony had won a second place buckle for today's bare-back bronc riding. I would be landing in Los Angeles in 45 minutes. Lake Tahoe, below the plane, was shimmering under another thunder-head. Sun was again setting. What a weekend. A "gay" rodeo in Reno, Nevada. My, my, how times do change.