RENO, Nev. (AP) - Cowboys and cowgirls are thronging to a rodeo with a twist this weekend - the National Reno Gay Rodeo, which is taking place over the objections of an outraged group of fundamentalist Christians.
Part traditional rodeo, part social event, both the size and controversy of the Gay Rodeo have been growing annually since it began in 1976.
But this year, the concern over acquired immune deficiency syndrome has given urgency to the outcry of opponents and given rodeo organizers a new cause.
A group calling itself the Pro FAmily Christian Coalition has tried to shut the rodeo, claiming the gathering menaces the public by threatening to spread AIDS, and incurable, killer disease that mainly affects homosexual men.
The group called on the Washoe County Commission to cancel a contract for use of the Nevada State Fairgrounds and demanded that Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan stop the event. The commission refused to act and Bryan refused to meet with the opponents.
Coalition Chairman Daniel Hansed vowed Friday to continue his effort to meet with Bryan and present him a petition calling for "positive, bold and effective action ... to stop said homosexual celebration."
But Phil Ragsdale, founder and organizer of the Gay Rodeo, dismissed the coalition as "a real extremist group," and said they were "using" AIDS to mask their religious objections to homosexuality.
"I feel they lost their credibility when they starting using scare tactics, saying it (AIDS) could be contacted by close association, or by mosquitoes."
Ragsdale admitted that AIDS had put a slight damper on the gathering and had made some people "leery about coming to the rodeo or any other gay event."
"But most people have just said it's something that we have to live with, and that's what they're doing." he said.
Ragsdale, 41, who describes himself as a self-employed salesman, predicted attendance of 40,000 to 42,000 over the four days of the event. A portion of the proceeds is being targeted for financing of research on AIDS. Ragsdale said he could not estimate how much money would be raised.