There is a belief, widely held, that as soon as you put "gay" in front of a word, it is less. Gay jocks are somehow less than jocks, gay churches less than churches, and gay rodeos-well, that's a contradiction in terms. Redneck will never equal homosexual.
Well, boys, I have been to a gay rodeo and I am here to tell you that gay can magnify. I have been to a gay rodeo and I tell you that redneck combines with homosexual-often, in large groups, and like rabbits.
After the dust had cleared at the Fair Grounds in Reno and that weekend of beer-swilling, bull-watching, casino-gambling, love-drug-taking had wound down, one horse had to be destroyed, one woman went into labor in the grandstand, and three men had to be carried back onto the L.A. charter flight in wheelchairs (twisted ankles, all gotten in glamorous positions.)
Actually, I know very little about what took place at the rodeo itself. I was behind the chutes during most of it, interviewing the riders [See page 30], many of whom had put their careers on the line to be here. However, in regard to those many people for whom the rodeo was secondary, a mere pretext and excuse for having one hell of a weekend-on this story, your faithful reporter was in the front trenches. Stay tuned.
The Gala Tours flight out of Los Angeles was not without incident. One of our cowboys tipped off the metal detector, bells ringing, lights flashing, because he was wearing a cockring. "This never happens on the L.A.-San Francisco run," he said afterward to a round of deep-pitched laughter and knowing nods. My flying companions were mostly well-heeled men on the crest of 40 with gym-built bodies and memberships to Probe. Quietly affluent, but then this little two-night, two hundred-dollar jaunt had affluence written all over it. Many of the men were preparing to drop two or three grand in Reno's casinos.
I had arrived at the airport early, so early in fact that not even the Gala Tours people were there. Only one other man arrived when I did, and we sat and waited, having a conversation by fits and starts. He was late-thirties, handsome, self-contained. He wore a black Stetson, aviator glasses that tinted purple in direct sunlight, and had his shirtsleeves rolled to show L.A. biceps-thick, tan and so attuned that they streaked when he just tapped his knee with hisforefinger impatiently. He was waiting for "a friend" (destined, naturally, to be one of the very last arrivals, an other late-thirties, built-up man in a cowboy hat, who, however, was not so selfcontained. This one would be constantly looking up into the other's purple-shielded eyes.) It was a bright afternoon at LAX, and the nighttime incongruity of our clothes-he in his Marlboro-Man fetishwear, me in a red rodeo shirt and spoofy black chaps-turned heads. Teenage boys, particularly, picked up the message, and certain stylishly weathered women who looked like they knew how to have a good time. "Wait," I told him. "Wait till they see what's coming."
That wait was not a long one. "Um... he's on the tour," I said when I first saw Bruno even though he was a long way off and obscured intermittently by crossing bodies. Concentration-camp hair, sunken sockets, long Western body in pointy boots. Bruno had one of those over-alert gay faces where the eyes jump around a great deal and seem to come to points, who within the first two minutes of introductions manages to tell you how much he enjoys getting fistfucked. Bruno was not his real name. "That's my name for him," he said, tapping the white-worn bulge in his jeans. But he called himself that now, and since his whole body was no more than an extension of that member-his legs for taking Bruno to a bar, his eyes for showing Bruno a magazine-we called him that too.
And when he had come upon us, he was upon us suddenly, with non-stop chatter. Yes, he had been to the rodeo before, and no, it was not a Howdy-Doody affair, hell, two of his friends entered events on the spur of the moment... and won. And the square dancing at the pre-rodeo bar-b-que, don't let the square dance fool you because it was just like disco except you stomp more. And he had really enjoyed getting fistfucked by the cowboy he met last year in the lobby of the Comstock. It was so hot, just sooo hot that it was then, in that position, that he made his decision, declared for the Gay Rodeo, vowing to return every year. And by the way, he hadn't eaten in three days.
"Wait a minute," I said. "Why haven't you eaten in three days?"
"Oh. Because then I would have to get on the hose. I don't want to waste time."
Reporters pray to meet people like Bruno for articles like this. He wasn't crazy, really, just a little... obsessed. He was one of those mysterious people that L.A. is so full of who manage to live without working. And live well. The luxury camera that hung around his neck took 3-D photos.
"Oh, do you make postcards?"
"Naw, it's just my hobby." Nice hobby.
I don't have to tell you, do I, that all through this, he was making an unmistakable, inescapable play for the man next to me, leaning in close and instead of looking into his eyes locking on his biceps, making things so quickly uncomfortable that the man, who had zero in common with me, turned and addressed me intensely, throwing an arm around my shoulders at one point as if we were old buddies who had been through a storm or something. Bruno did not abate. Several mentions of "the friend" who was so late now. No avail. Hurricane Bruno kept locking in on those arms and mentioning the red handkerchief he kept in his right pocket. I hadn't even gotten on the plane yet and already I saw the weekend shaping up. It was going to be Where the Boys Are with everyone wanting the Yvette Mimieux role. I wondered how many sexed-out rodeoboys would be found, come Sunday, staggering down the middle of the Nevada State Highway.
"Is this a convention?" asked the sunny little stewardess when 42 men on the crest of 40 boarded her plane in cowboy hats.
"We're going to the rodeo," one of the cowboys told her.
"The Gay Rodeo in Reno."
"Oh. "No surprise, no surmise, nothing impolite registered on her face. If anything, her complexion became sunnier-these girls are trained like geishas. The "Oh" that came from the steward, however, a tall Negro with blow-dry hair and big Dior glasses, was near musical. Hunks to the left of him, hunks to the right of him, furred arms throwing overnight bags into overhead compartments, he disappeared for a moment in the prepared food nook, screamed silently, and then returned to meet his boys. He was not wearing glasses.
"May I help you with that?" "Would you like some assistance?" "Is there anything I can do for you?" Actually, there was something he could do for everyone. The drinking of doubles began almost before we left the ground.
The seat I drew turned out to be next to the Tour Director, Leon Bine, who had been directing men to the Gay Rodeo for five of the seven years it had been in existence. "In the first years, they used to meet the planes with haywagons and give everyone a hay-ride back to town. "Leon was a wise, white-haired roly-poly that people liked to cuddle. "Dirty old men need love too, "he'd say whenever a man, whose room he had just switched or luggage confirmed, impetuously jumped out of his seat and kissed him. You must understand, we were only 1/3 of the plane. In general, everyone was well behaved, big arms resting on the tops of adjoining seats, but toward the end of the flight when the drinks-and drugs? -were settling in, some men felt comfortable enough to call across aisles, stand, hold court, hug. The two straight blonde women sitting behind me, the good-looking Reno businessman opposite-conspicuous in this section because he was not in a cowboy hat but wore a light summer suit and sandals-all watched the proceedings with a non-commital interest.
When I was waiting for the john, I stood next to one of our men, on the crest of 50 and in the pink, who had enough gold on his fingers to be mistaken for a cardinal in Eastern Europe-that is if cardinals there had so thorough a penchant for turquoise in-lays. The steward, meanwhile, had been making playful announcements over the P.A., the best coming at the end when he thanked us for flying the friendly skies of United. "We regret that this was such a short hop and that we couldn't show you how friendly the 'friendly skies can be."
"Did he really say that?" Yes. Really. The men broke into laughter and applause.
We were descending along a curve. I was surprised how green and irrigated Reno looked. I had expected tumbleweeds, like Las Vegas. But Reno was upstate Nevada, closer to the lush forests of the Ponderosa than to Death Valley. Reno was where the wives in "The Women" got Reno-vated, the divorce capital of the world, and a loose-living town from way back. Even before the discovery of the Comstock Lode made everyone silver-rich in 1859, Reno was notorious for its whorehouses. Those houses, along with gambling casinos, would proliferate wildly in the years to follow when Reno became a railroad-town, where cowboys drove their steer for shipment and received end-of-the-drive paychecks. Today as ever a cow-hand would most likely go to Reno to blow his wad. Las Vegas was too foreign, full of Jews and Italians and "that Hollywood crowd"; Lake Tahoe was for San Francisco money; but Reno came closest to the Silver-Mining-Town-With-One-Opera House ideal of the Old West.
Even the airport was primitive. They wheeled out one of those wobbly airplane staircases, and we deplaned into a long, low, aluminum-sided hangar that was passing for an airport. A good friend from college days, Nick D'Aurizio, out West on a visit to San Francisco, was meeting me in Reno. I saw him waiting at the end of the hangar... but Bruno got to him first, locking in on his lean body. Back at New York University, Nick, with his handsome goatee, had looked like Peter of Peter, Paul and Mary; he still had the goatee and now spare convict hair, but the years were taking him to other places. He now looked like one of those laconic, deadpan noblemen in the paintings of El Greco.
"How was your trip?" Nick said when he had hugged and shaken off Bruno. "Um, Nick, riding with a plane full of L.A. queens..."
"Yeah?" He was laughing already.
"... is like riding with a plane full of showgirls. I had a wonderful time."
Across the street from our hotel was a gay lounge that we could see from our window. We were high about it, looking through a picture window, and it was a tiny hole in the wall. Now every place in Reno had a marquee, extolling its casino, star acts and steak breakfasts. This tiny lounge had a marquee too, but with one simple message: "WE NEVER CLOSE." I think that must have been the motto of everyone I saw at the Gay Rodeo. People seemed pharmaceutically fueled to go on and on, get wilder and wilder. No one closed, least of all the gay residents of Reno. Reno had no gay-pride parade, so the Gay Rodeo functioned as their collective letting off of steam. You'd see over-sized drag queens dragging their heels into the little lounge at high noon, not the best light for layer upon layer of fotch. Or you'd hear screams in the night that got you out of your plush hotel bed and onto the terrace to see, among other things, a very young teen queen, unbothered by the row, making out with a cowboy against a pickup in the parking lot, or you'd hear spit-fire confrontations between drag queens and queer-baiters in jacked-up cars that would screech to lunging, spark-flying stops, as if to intimidate the answering queens. But nobody was about to intimidate these pioneer-stock Nevada girls. Not on Gay-Rodeo weekend! They'd scream and snarl and bring down a police squad to arrest everyone on the street before they'd back off from their territory.
The history of other cities was repeating itself in Reno. When the war for gay rights is first fought, it is fought by drag queens and drag dykes who will not (or can not) disappear into anyone's closet. I met an L.A. cowboy in the elevator who complained about the "tackiness" that went on below. Well, yes, it was tacky, I agreed, but maybe it was necessary. It was a drag queen, we should remember, a gutsy little drag queen and her loud refusal to be pushed around by policemen that sparked the Stonewall riot. The L.A. cowboy smiled, but I don't think he was remembering, and we all got on the bus to go to the barn dance.
The barn dance and bar-b-que were held the night before the rodeo at the Fair Grounds in what looked like another airplane hangar. Inside, the hangar was lit up like daybreak because the Real People cameras were filming. I wondered who had allowed this. Three school teachers, who had driven all the way from Salt Lake, were furious and left. I know the Gay Rodeo was put together by Phil Ragsdale, a gay Reno businessman, and since this was primarily a word-of-mouth event, he understandably wanted publicity. Still, I wondered if he had considered the kind of publicity he could expect from Real People, a TV program that regularly sank to the level of freak show. I wondered if he had considered how vicious those cameras could be if they chose to zoom in exclusively on the most exotic and frightening foibles of homosexuality. How many eye-rolls from Sarah Purcell would it take to ruin his Gay Rodeo forever? We had paid to come here, paid to enter and then upon entering were told we had just joined the circus. I wondered if he had, for one moment, considered any of us at all.
Anyway, the barn dance and bar-b-que were lit up like a sailor on payday. And those lights were hot. There was fine fiddling and fancy Texas dancing and hundreds of cowboys from places as far flung as British Columbia and Brooklyn. The proximity of San Francisco was apparent, if only by the number of black T-shirts worn with everything and anything. One burnt-out cockette, a certified Bay-Area type, roamed about in leather collar, leather halter, fishnet stockings. And everywhere you saw lots of Germanic Out-West faces, small-built men with bundles of farm boy muscle, long tall Westerners that went through the roof. The whole rodeo was a convention of humps. Beer was sold non-stop, pulled out from barrels of ice.
"We're boycotting Coors."
"But I thought... I mean, they have an ad in the Advocate..."
"Naw, the owner's wife gives money to Anita Bryant and Moral Majority and stuff like that."
(I think I heard that conversation at the barn dance, though it was such a drunk weekend, I'm not sure. Definitely, it was some place in Reno.)
You couldn't buy beer outright, you bought "script" (tickets) first-I guess to keep everybody honest. The script was sold by officiating drag queens: One braeing Dale Evans. One chic and debonair Divine. Ragsdale, you understand, being Emperor I of Reno and these two lovelies part of his Silver-Dollar Court-an example of the title-madness bartenders and gay-business owners get into out here. The titles are for fun, but the appointees often do good works. Part of the proceeds of the Gay Rodeo, for instance, was going to buy TV sets for the Veterans' Hospital (so they could watch Real People?), a Thanksgiving dinner for senior citizens, and (my favorite) a horse-washing facility for the teenagers of the 4-H Club.
And suddenly Bruno was upon us, actually upon Nick, who in the rapid fire, managed to slip in, "Come on, Bruno, I face the same side of the pillow you do." But Bruno was too busy not missing a trick, because everybody passing by, he was dying for, those over-alert eyes sharpening to points. And then for some reason, conversation turned, as it often will, to the subject of Sophia Loren. Sophia was Bruno's favorite actress, and guess what his favorite Sophia movie was. Not Two Women. Not Marriage, Italian Style. Not any of her important Italian stuff. Bruno was into the Hollywood period. Houseboat, he tells us and then-in the face of fiddles fiddling recklessly-proceeds to sing the theme. In Italian: "Prrresto, prrresto..."
I mean, here we were in Reno, three Italian kids now totally assimilated into advance Americana and cowboy outfits. It gave you pause. It made you see gayness as the great equalizer, the great educator.
"...with a bing bang bong. "Again Bruno." With a bing bang bong..."
The next day, we were at the rodeo. Nick with his camera and I with my tape recorder sneaked past the guard and quickly scooted behind the chutes to interview he riders. We had to skulk around like this because his majesty the Emperor had not sent us press passes-nor any of the other journalists and photographers I spoke to. Shoddy treatment of the press is not the mark of the professional promoter, and frankly there were a few complaints out in the grandstand that the rodeo was strictly junior, the stock not up to snuff, the rules too loosely observed. But these were the exceptions. Most people I could see-some 7,000 to 12,000 souls-were hooting and hollering and loving it all: The bucking bulls, the brave riders, the rag mop clowns, the San Framcisco Marching Band that introduced the whole shebang by playing "The Stripper" on glockenspiels and kicking like Rockettes.
Of all the things that happened to me in Reno, the rodeo is the thing I will remember the least. (With one exception.) I will remember it the least partly because I saw it the least (I was interviewing riders), partly because I understood it the least (it was my first rodeo) and partly, I suspect, because it was innately forgettable. But then this is the nature of sports. High-impact in the immediacy of the moment, low-import in retrospect. The pictures on these pages tell the story of that day. Here are a few snapshots from my collection:
Arriving at the rodeo, all the barn-dance humps are here, but tenfold. Lots of shirts off, pink sunburn, beer-swilling. Nick, I say, take a picture of him... and that one... Christ, get this guy...
"Relax, John. A lot of these looks are going to last all day." A gaggle of bloodshot cowboys tumble by, hitting a popper. "Some looks, of course," Nick continues, deadpan, "will get better."
Crowds clog the grandstand aisles: A Chinese cowboy. A punk cowboy with two-tone hair and a "Wanna Fuck?" T-shirt. For the first time since I got to Reno, I spot the airport man with the L.A. biceps, shiftless in black cowboy hat, followed by his "friend," also shiftless in black cowboy hat. You know you are close to San Francisco when you see someone pass with a T-shirt that says "HOT TUB SPOKEN HERE." And everywhere a procession of the Great Blue-Eyed American Men; all the cowboy stocks represented: The Dutch with their short-stop noses. The Germans with their vivid pink-and-blond complexions. The French with their long, melancholy faces. And your basic Nevadan with his stringy body made out of beef jerky.
"Hey guys!" The voice was familiar by now. "I'm ripped to the tits!"
And suddenly Bruno was upon us, his 3-D camera in hand, head turning every way, red-cracked eyes showing the strain of information overload. This will give you an idea of Bruno being flirtatious at the rodeo. He points down at a passing man's crotch.
"Is that a sock?"
It sure ain't." "Really!" And goodbye Bruno. Scene change: Hanging out behind the chutes, chatting up the riders. "Who," says a hefty cowgirl, pointing to a perfect sweetheart of a platinum horse, "Who is riding this mother?" Men are helping each other with the back buckles of their chaps and kissing one another good luck. A beautiful cowgirl, striking in her iciness and authority, sits on the fence. In her grey felt Stetson is a pin, the armadillo, symbol of Texas. A cowboy passes by. In his hat is also a pin, two cherubs in sunglasses, symbol of Fiorruci's.
But in regards to the rodeo, I did make one exception. One thing happened there that will stay with me a long time. We have to run the film backwards now to the start of the rodeo, the very, very start, the National Anthem. I've been to gay parades, I've seen gay people in huge masses; I just never saw them all assembled to salute the flag before. The aisles had just unclogged, people were settling in their seats, when the announcement came over the P.A.
And then they played the National Anthem and everybody got real solemn and stood up and sang with their chests pushed out, a little louder and a little more desperately, the way gay people often do when the subject turns to patriotism or religion because they have something to prove, or have been made to feel they must prove something that should be taken for granted. And so here they were-big town, cow town, redneck, white collar, liberal, Baptist-singing their allegiance with their hats over their hearts, the most denied, the most legislated against. And I'm feeling like I'm not even there. I'm getting this weird reading on things. Flags are waving and I'm thinking about Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes was a black poet who wrote about the back-of-the-bus situation of black people, and his words are traveling very well to me in that dust field in Reno:
0, let America be America again-
The land that never has been yet-
And yet must be.
And yet must be!
That night was a Saturday night, and the Reno gay bars were packed, spilling out into the streets, bringing down police harassment. "Off the sidewalk or go to jail," the cops said, getting out of paddy wagons with nervous German shepherds advancing on leashes, and proceeded to arrest people-the Emperor of Chicago was one of the bigger cats netted-outside Club 99 and Chute #1. Ragsdale was so annoyed that he later demanded an audience with the mayor of Reno and had the clout to get it. Ragsdale complained about the plainly harassing posture of the police and the disgusting, selective enforcement of a law-no drinking outside the door of a bar-that was totally ignored in Reno, especially downtown where visitors casino-hopped from Harrah's to the Sahara to the Shy Clown with drinks in hand.
I didn't see the arrests myself, though I was at one of those bars. I read about them in an astute, struggling gay newspaper, out of Sacramento, with the whimsical name. Mom...Guess What' But I was in no condition to observe arrests anyway, being myself quite arrested by a longhaired cowboy who looked like a male Sissy Spacek and had that same spooked out, pink-eyed quality. "Definitely stay away from him," Nick said when we first saw him. "He looks like he's about to go out and commit a mass murder." Ah-huh. In any event by the end of the evening I got to know him...very well. He turned out to be a sweet, even somewhat frightened guy who lived in a remote mountainside section of the Sacramento Valley, was very taken with my East Coast ways and left a big, clunky ring behind in my hotel room...by accident? Anyway, his way of cruising was to sing to me, drunkenly, across the room, singing along with the live Country-Western band. The song I remember best was a song he sang again later in the hotel room. It was a song I would hear on the radio in Reno right as I was leaving and that I eventually had to buy because I was missing Reno. I guess I had fallen a little in love with the place and its gung-ho, Out-West spirit, its romantic involvement with the past. The past, in fact, was more vivid than its present, intruding a double image on things. Even the streets you traveled on spoke of vibrant mythological periods: Eureka Avenue, Mill Street, Bret Harte Avenue, Mark Twain Avenue, and six little courts, one right after the other, named Borite, Calcite, Dolomite, Erbium, Flourite and Graphite. The song the cowboy sang to me had a part that went:
You're just a Coca-Cola cowboy
With an Eastwood smile
And Robert-Redford hair.
But you walked across my heart
Like it was Texas.
And you taught me how to say,
"I just don't,care."
And that pretty much puts the finger on the way I felt about the gay rodeo in Reno.
(Now turn to page 40 to see exactly how hot Kevin got when O.J. took photos of him bareback and bucking!) (webmaster's comment: Sorry, I really can't post those on this page. ;-)