So many cowboys in Reno, so precious little time. Seems "The Biggest Little City in the World" corralled "cowboys" from the United States, Europe, England and Canada for the National Reno Gay Rodeo Saturday, July 30,and Sunday, Aug. 1. It appeared that all the hunks in the world grew up to be cowboys. Two days of bull riding, bareback bronc riding, team roping and other daredevil events set spines a-tingle and made the rugged rodeo performers screw their courage to the sticking point.
The huge crowd of 22,000 began gathering the Friday before the rodeo for the Country Fair and the Barn Dance. Western Gay Pride, the theme of the seventh annual Gay Rodeo, became a very palpable thing as the power of numbers (and what numbers!) increased. There's no macho man like a gay man. Boots and cowboy hats were everywhere. But not many Stetsons. The beaver fur hats originally crafted 120 years ago are just too expensive now, even for gays with fabled discretionary incomes. Felt and straw hats must do, but adorned with enough feathers to tickle a Ziegfeld showgirl.
It wasn't what the men wore that made them the most sexy, sensual, sensational, spectacular aggregation of male pulchritude these dazzled eyes ever beheld. Oceans of lotion creamed biceps, pecs, shoulders, legs and physiognomies already tanned to perfection. The configurations of chest hair could have inspired wallpaper designs. (Let's take the pierced nipples for the bathroom.)
Strolling through the fair, watching gay men and women selling their colorful wares in the many booths, I thought of Ben Jonson's Bartholomew Fair and the play's fiercely disapproving Puritan character, Zeal-of-the-Land Busy, the Elizabethan/Jacobean prototype of today's Moral Majoritarian. That Puritan busybody would be zealous indeed to condemn the boots, hats, shirts, jewelry, belts, purses and feathers that help the urban cowboy recreate the image of a spiritual ancestor who stands for comradeship in one of its most appealing guises.
The cowboy loves to dance-usually with another cowboy. Visitors to the fair kicked up their heels at Friday's Barn Dance to music of Houston's Texas Mustang Band and San Francisco's Western Electric. When hundreds and hundreds of happy, smiling hunks partner each other, there's nothing square about the dance they're doing but the name. Whenever the dancers took a breather and inhaled another batch of Bud (Budweiser is the official rodeo beer), the pauses were filled with more fun and music. San Francisco "Entertainer of the Year" Sharon McNight belted her numbers the way the boys like 'em: loud, lusty and keyed to laughter.
The Western Barbecue scheduled for Friday night was canceled, however. Thousands of steaks had inadvertently been exposed to the sun and left to spoil. The rumor that political harassment was responsible for the cancellation was conceivably false. It seems highly unlikely that a city that took its cue from Mayor Barbara Bennett (who offered "best wishes for an exciting and successful event" in the rodeo program) and dispensed unequivocal hospitality to gay guests would initiate any vindictive action. Gay Rodeo founder/producer Phil Ragsdale refunded four dollars to every ticket holder.
The Mr., Ms. and Miss National Reno Gay Rodeo Contest, founded by Ragsdale in 1977, contributed to charity again this year. Last year's contests, conducted in some 20 states, raised over $35,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Nearly twice that amount was raised for the charity this year.
There was little S/M (Stand and Model) frostiness during the warm, wonderful weekend. One of eight men from Portland, Ore., spoke for all his friends when he said they were "ecstatic" to be at the rodeo. It was the first time in Reno for two of the party, who were enjoying a delayed honeymoon. "It's been long, planned and well deserved," said Jack Larrison. "We've been together more than a year," added Mike Kurth.
Between 60 and 80 Court members, headed by Emperor Michael VII and Empress Wilma VII, came from Utah for the rodeo. Two dressed, alike lovers, resplendent in basic black with white, fringed cowboy shirts, extolled the closeness of Utah's gay community. They couldn't have been happier to be at this major event with their extended family. The Utah contingent included Salt Lake City actress Tonya, who is Ms. Utah. Gay Rodeo, and Madge, Miss Utah Gay Rodeo.
Crawford Taylor, Mr. Phoenix Gay Rodeo 1982, entered the Mr., Ms. and Miss, National Reno Gay Rodeo Contest again for 1983. "The rodeo has grown immensely," he was proud to say. "To me it's better than the Gay Pride march. Don't misunderstand me, I respect the march. But this isn't political; this is what gay life is all about. The rodeo draws men closer together. I've met many wonderful people, and we keep in touch."
The sun-drenched grandstands were overflowing on opening day. Anticipatory excitement gave way to enthusiastic cheering with the introduction of the rodeo colors, and cheering to exultation with the appearance of Grand Marshal Joan Rivers heading the National Reno Gay Rodeo Parade. The comedienne sat gamely astride one of a team of huge sculpted Clydesdales on a flatbed truck strewn with bales of hay. Wielding a long whip on her plaster mount and waving a bunch of colored handkerchiefs, Rivers let her admirers know that her keys were "centered." She wore a mirrored pink vest and a Marlboro Man's hat, which, she told me before the rodeo, a "gay friend gave me."
"All gays are my friends," said Rivers. "Gay audiences are the best in the world. They find you first and stick with you longer. They're brighter too. When I started in small clubs, they were the only ones who would laugh. I needed them, God bless 'em. I take the rodeo seriously because I take gay people seriously. The mainstream press wanted me to make isn't-it-a-hoot disparaging comments. I refused to talk. We can make jokes about 'gay' among ourselves; we're family. I can make jokes about being Jewish, but WASPs shouldn't. How do I feel about being grand marshal?-thrilled, hysterical, can't wait."
After the invocation and the playing of the national anthem, which is seldom sung better or with more feeling than by that vast choir of chesty baritones, the barriers opened, animals and cowboys dashed into the arena, and the first event was kicking up the dust. Both days a charming little clown in a winged Mercury-cap flitted about pasting tiny red hearts on spectators' faces, backsides and erogenous zones. You've never seen so many guys with hearts on.
Ragsdale has announced that the 1983 National Reno Gay Rodeo will be expanded to four days: Aug. 4, 7. There'll be a little more time in Reno next year. And so many more cowboys.