The Arizona Gay Rodeo rides in to town for its 30th anniversary.
By Laura Latzko
The sport of rodeo is steeped in tradition. And, as one of the first gay rodeos in the nation, the Arizona Gay Rodeo celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
The 2015 rodeo, and related events, will take place from Feb. 13 to 15 at Corona Ranch and serve as the formal kick-off to rodeo season.
In honor of the Arizona Gay Rodeo's milestone anniversary, the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association (AGRA) has added special entertainers, guests and sponsors to create a bigger and better three-day-weekend event.
According to Todd Wyckoff, AGRA marketing director, every year AGRA aims to grow the rodeo and make it even more of a party atmosphere to attract more diverse and Larger crowds.
"We try to get people out there who might never have been to a rodeo [and] give them other reasons to come out," he said.
So, whether you pride yourself in your roping skills or you just want a new outlet to show your LGBT pride, here are the six things you need to know about rodeo weekend.
1. THE GRAND ENTRY
As part of the grand entry, the parade-Like spectacle accompanying the rodeo, AGRA generally honors individuals who have contributed to the AGRA or IGRA, celebrities and political figures with the grand marshal title.
This year Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton and Bob Hitchcock, the rodeo's bar manager for the past two years and the former coordinator of Men of Charlie's, will serve as the grand marshals.
And, in honor of three decades of AGRA, there will be surprise guests during the grand entry each day.
"We are honoring and recognizing community individuals who have been there throughout the 30 years," Wyckoff said, adding that AGRA also plans to showcase historic pictures commemorating its 30-year history.
2. THE ENTERTAINMENT
American Idol's season seven finalist David Hernandez will headline this year's entertainment.
Hernandez, who caused a stir on the show for his past as a stripper, is originally from Arizona. The soulful R&B singer, songwriter and actor has been performing since childhood and released his debut EP, I Am Who I Am, in 2011.
In addition to Hernandez, current and past pageant royalty, the winner of this year's Country Idol, Local band Cowboy Surprise, Local drag entertainers, mariachi performers, dancers and singers will share the stage throughout the weekend.
According to Bob Pimentel, rodeo director, the expansion in entertainment Lineup this year will contribute to a more of a festive atmosphere and encourage attendees stick around, spectate and socialize.
"We make a big party out of it because what we started out being and what we continue being is a way to raise money for nonprofit organizations," Pimentel said.
The entertainment Lineup includes: The Phoenix Heatwave Line dance troupe, former Miss Gay Arizona USOFA Newcomer Diamond Dallas, The Lady Christian Gospel Hour, Barbra Seville's Phoenix Phollies drag performance group, Pandora and the Gender Funk, singers Jesus Osuna and Jennifer Ortiz, dancer and impersonator Shari Cherie and vehicles on display courtesy of Lambda Car Club.
3. LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
When Arizona put on its first gay rodeo, the Corona Ranch and Rodeo Grounds was just a La Charro Mexican rodeo arena with a dance hall. But, after getting its start at Corona Ranch, the rodeo moved to Rawhide Western Towns in Scottsdale and then Wild Horse Pass in Chandler before moving back to its original location in 2013.
According to Wyckoff, Corona Ranch offers a more fan-friendly, centrally located venue that allows attendees to easily navigate from the rodeo grounds to the entertainment area.
Corona Ranch offers an intimate arena with seating on all sides, a dance hall with a stage for entertainment and an outdoor fireplace and a fountain. Inside the venue, vendors will have everything from Western wear to LGBT-related art for sale.
Additionally, Pimentel said that moving the event back to Corona Ranch has allowed the rodeo to make money again so that AGRA can continue to donate to local charities.
Last year, AGRA donated $14,000 to local charities, including Joshua Tree Feeding Program, PFLAG, one nten and the Community Church of Hope.
4. THE MAIN EVENT
Approximately 50 contestants, from within Arizona as well as nearby states, including New Mexico, California and Nevada, will compete in the rodeo.
Participants receive a certain number of points depending how they finish in different events. The points earned at individual rodeos are then tallied up points earned at toward their total scores for the season.
Doing well in Arizona can get contestants off to a good start for the gay rodeo season, which runs from February through September. The top 20 contestants in each event advance to the World Rodeo Finals, which will take place in Las Vegas in October.
"We have a lot of ... fierce competitors," Pimentel said. "They compete in gay and straight rodeos."
For the most part gay rodeo participants train and compete in the same events as their straight counterparts. However, gay rodeos include three camp events: steer decorating, goat dressing and wild drag race.
Standard speed, roping and roughstock rodeo events include bull riding, chute dogging, barrel racing, pole bending, flag race, steer riding, mounted break-away roping, calf roping on foot and team roping. According to Pimentel, speed, roping, and camp events tend to be more popular than roughstock events in gay rodeos. This year, each event will be preceded with an explanation of the objective.
To generate interest in rodeo events and help amateur cowboys and cowgirls to improve their skills, AGRA hosts a rodeo school that includes clinics on variety of events, including barrel racing for the first time ever.
5. THE ASSOCIATIONS
The Arizona Gay Rodeo Association was one of the five founding members of the International Gay Rodeo Association, an organization with 25 local rodeo associations and more than 5,000 members.
Established in 1985, the IGRA is dedicated to providing a safe place for LGBT cowboys and cowgirls to compete, break stereotypes and raise money for charity.
Throughout the year, cowboys and cowgirls can attend 13 gay rodeos, which take place in Arizona, Fort Lauderdale, Little Rock, Palm Springs, Dallas, Las Vegas, Oklahoma City, Calgary, Denver, Minneapolis, Santa Fe, Kansas City and San Francisco.
AGRA is currently made up of more than 200 regular members and has seen recent growth.
While word of mouth and prior attendance are central to gaining new members, Wyckoff said the backgrounds of incoming individuals range from previous exposure to farm or ranch life to no horse riding experience, just a desire to become involved in the LGBT community.
6. THE DETAILS
This year, the number of party buses going to and from the rodeo grounds has expanded. A party bus ticket earns guests admission to the rodeo, $10 in drink tickets, drinks on the bus and transportation to and from the festivities.
On Saturday buses depart Charlie's Phoenix, 727 W. Camelback Road, for Corona Ranch every hour from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and return every hour from 6 to 9 p.m. On Sunday, buses depart Charlie's at noon and leave the rodeo grounds at 6 p.m.
Hotel 502, 502 W. Camelback Road, in Phoenix is this year's host hotel. The hotel will offer a $79 room rate during the rodeo. Rodeo goers can make reservations by mentioning the Arizona Gay Rodeo when calling 602-264-9290.
Additionally, free shuttles will run between Charlie's, Hotel502 and Corona Ranch Friday evening and all day Saturday and Sunday, with a three-hour break from 2 to 5 p.m.
The Corona Ranch RV Park offers packages from $35 to $80 for RVs. Tent camping is $5 per night. For more information, visit http://agra-phx.com/rvpark.shtml
Rodeo partners cross state lines to compete in Arizona Gay Rodeo
By Laura latzko
For some cowboys, rodeo isn't just a hobby - it's a way of life.
These cowboys spend their time training their horses, honing their craft and traveling the distance necessary to prepare for each competition.
One such cowboy, David Lawson of Santa Rosa, Calif., balances this lifestyle with his responsibilities as a junior high and high school teacher.
"It's my job. It's my hobby. It's my passion. [It's] my social circle. It's kind of all-consuming," Lawson said of his rodeo affiliation.
Lawson is also the rodeo partner of Arizona-based competitor Greg Begay, and the duo's geographic separation makes their two-year partnership unique.
"Greg and I just complement each other so well because my strength is in the timed events [and] his strength is in the roping events," Lawson said, "so we can kind of feed off from each other."
Begay and Lawson met more than two years ago at a rodeo in Palm Springs and first did a roping event together in the San Francisco gay rodeo later that year. After winning their first team roping event they went on to develop one of the strongest partnerships on the international gay rodeo circuit.
"We are best friends," Begay said. "It's sort of like a 'finish-each-other'sentences' kind of deal. We already click to where we know what the other person is thinking."
Begay and Lawson won all-around and reserve, or second place, honors at the World Rodeo Finals in Fort Worth last October. The all-around award goes to the men and women who score the most points in all events during the rodeo.
"We just try to help each other win as much as possible," Begay said, who has participated in rodeos since childhood and gay rodeos since 2009.
Both men compete in a total of nine events-three roping, three speed and three camp events.
Begay, who currently participates in both gay and pro rodeos, said he's had hundreds of different rodeo partners, but Lawson, who he considers his best friend and pseudo older brother, has been his longest-running partner.
In past years, the pair has competed in Las Vegas, Palm Springs, San Francisco, Denver and Santa Fe rodeos. And, to prepare, Begay flies to the Bay Area regularly to practice with Lawson.
For the Arizona Gay Rodeo, Lawson will drive more than 12 hours with his five-horse trailer, because he prefers to compete with horses he's trained so he's familiar with their strengths and weaknesses.
"I'm pretty good at catching riding horses, but it's not the same as having your equine partner," Lawson said, adding that his love of horses began at an early age.
Begay usually rides Lawson's stallion, Never Hit Seventeen, who will make the road trip with him. However, Lawson won't have Maverick, the quarter horse he is most partial to and has had for 12 years, with him this year. Instead, he'll bring Pay Czech, a horse in training.
Growing up in Iowa, lawson started riding in 7th grade and worked odd jobs to help pay for his first horse. While he went on to trained horses and teach barrel racing, he was nearly 30 years old before he heard of, and competed in, the gay rodeo circuit.
According to lawson, it's the environment of gay rodeos that made him want to get involved initially and has also kept him competing in the IGRA circuit.
"It's the gay camaraderie," he said. "There aren't many opportunities to combine the gay Lifestyle with the Western Lifestyle, so it's perfect for me. You're not going to go to pro rodeo and kiss your partner while you're walking up the alleyway. At the gay rodeo, you have a great run, and you can come out and kiss your partner."
In addition to competing in this year's rodeo, lawson will teach a barrel-racing clinic at the rodeo school for the first time. The one day sessions, he said, will focus on specific areas riders can improve the most.
"Rather than having several things to fix, maybe I'LL just find a couple of things that would make a huge difference for someone and try to fix those in the short lesson," lawson said.
But when he's not teaching or competing, lawson said the Arizona Gay Rodeo provides him with an annual opportunity to reconnect with rodeo friends.
"You miss seeing everybody," he said. "There's a lot of people that go to the rodeo [and] that's the only time I see them."
Jeffrey Smit named Mr. AGRA ahead of rodeo weekend
By Laura Latzko
He isn't a cowboy and didn't grow up on a farm, but Jeffrey Smit plans to get more involved in the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association by becoming one of the faces of the organization.
Smit was named Mr. AGRA during the royalty pageant Feb. 11. He was the only contestant competing for the title, which was held in 2014 by repeat titleholder Dan Oldenburg.
AGRA's annual royalty competition is comprised of Miss AGRA, which is open to drag queens; MsTer AGRA, which is open to drag kings; Ms. AGRA, which is open to females; and Mr AGRA, which is open to males.
Marcos Sandoval, AGRA vice president and former 2011 and 2012 Miss AGRA Trixxie Deluxx, said AGRA looks for titleholders committed to raising money for AGRA and other local charities.
"It is not just another pageant," Sandoval said, "it's about the community."
Ahead of the pageant, Smit worked to raise money for AGRA and his chosen charity, Aunt Rita's Foundation. He also performed in a charity show with reigning MsTer and Ms. AGRA, Luke and Roxi Ateraz, the proceeds of which went toward the crowns and belt buckles for the rodeo contestants.
Although Smit belonged to the Chicago Gay Men's Chorus for three years and was part of his father and uncle's 120-man barbershop chorus, he said he doesn't feel comfortable singing live on his own ... yet.
However, he is no stranger to performing to country music- including his signature song, Randy Houser's "Like a Cowboy" -and lipsynched in drag in a number with Savannah Stevens two years ago during a Diva Night.
To prepare for the pageant, he worked on a country music lip-sync number, which involved a costume change. Smit also competed in western wear, talent and interview categories.
Smit, who came out to his mom and two sisters last year, said he took an interest in AGRA after joining the Men of Charlie's in April 2013 and volunteering at the rodeo right a few months before that.
"Now there's no holding me back. That's why I want to run from Mr. AGRA and get involved," Smit said. "I feel like a part of the family."
Being involved in Men of Charlie's has allowed Smit to expand his social circle provided him with opportunities for new experiences, including taking part in a flag ceremony at Gay Games 9 in 2014.
Winners of the pageant an go on to compete at the national level at the IGRA royalty pageant. A number of past Arizona titleholders, including drag queens Pussy LeHoot, Ionna Doublewide and Victoria London, went on to become IGRA titleholders.