Epitomized by gritty cowboys, seedy saloons, and sleek mustangs, the American West has been immortalized in literature, movies, and television for decades. Today, that culture still pulses through the states that made up the Old West, taking the form of rodeos, stock shows, and other traditions that have been carried through generations.
But as vibrant as the recorded history and culture of the West is, it often overlooks the region’s rich diversity.
One of the most prominent groups bypassed in those stories is the vibrant LGBTQ+ community that existed on the American frontier. Idaho native Rebecca Scofield, who returned to her home state as an assistant professor of 20th-century American history at the University of Idaho, has spent her professional career working to make that history more well known.
Scofield’s interest in the history of the West began as a child growing up in Idaho. Years later, as an American history Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, her fascination led her to something she didn’t expect: an LGBTQ+ rodeo community on the American frontier.
“I was increasingly interested in western wear, mechanical bull riding, and questions of how the West is imagined and consumed, and I stumbled upon the fact that there was a gay rodeo,” Scofield said.
That finding went on to inform both her dissertation and her most recent project: compiling an oral history of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), a community of people who watch, host, and participate in what they call gay rodeo. Founded in 1985, the organization holds competitions around the country with the mission of fostering a positive and welcoming environment and promoting the LGBTQ+ country western lifestyle.
Scofield and her students travel across the country to the IGRA events, which include bull riding, steer decorating, and wild drag racing, and listen to the experiences of people who have had a front-row seat to the past several decades of LGBTQ+ history in the West. The narratives they collect are compiled into an oral history, which has been published in Scofield’s book and online.
Kevin Hillman talks about his history with the Gay Rodeo
Audio courtesy of Rebecca Scofield
I grew up on a farm in a little town called Driggs, Idaho. My mother's family were Hereford brewers, my father's family were potato farmers. So when they merged, we ended up with a small registered herding breed of Herefords. And of course, we had milk cows and horses and chickens and pigs and then our cash crop was potatoes. And then me and my brothers as we got older, had a small herd of sheep that we raised. And so that's where I grew up with seven siblings and my mom and my dad on this, about 800 acre farm.
I enjoyed it and made friends all over the country. And because of that, my involvement in gay rodeo, it gave me an opportunity to have family in rodeo and be able to do the "farm stuff" you might say and some of the stuff I like to do being around livestock, and animals, and things like that. So it kind of came full circle from leaving the farm, to the 90's, to being involved with gay rodeo the other things I was doing... My fingers were in a lot of places during the early 90's, and then I started focusing more on gay rodeo near the end of that time.
I actually attended the gay rodeos in Reno, Nevada, when they had them there, which were the first rodeos they had. I remember our grand marshal was... Shoot... Bette Midler was there one year, but when I was there, it was Joan Rivers, so I had a great time. So I knew there was something out there. When I moved to Utah, one night at the bar with the royal court system, somebody was saying that this Golden Spike Gay Rodeo Association was doing something. I went and introduced myself to them. That was before I had quit working for the medical software company. When I quit working for them, I looked that group up again and they changed their name to the Utah Gay Rodeo Association, and they were seated that year at the IGRA convention and I became involved with them, and in '91 I ran to be their Mr. UGRA, and so I was Mr. UGRA 1992 as a representative and fundraising director for the Utah Gay Rodeo Association. And I actually ran for Mr. IGRA, and made enough mistakes in my presentations at the IGRA royalty level, but I still ended up fourth out of ten men who were running for that title and made some lifetime friends from that.
So that was how I'd gotten started with gay rodeo. Grabbed my horses from my family, loaded them in a horse trailer, and hauled them to the Phoenix rodeo with my royalty team and my friends, and we went down and competed at the Phoenix rodeo and had a great time. That's how, basically, I got heavily involved with gay rodeo and became totally enthralled with being a part of it.
The people involved with gay rodeo are very young, most of them. There's a couple oldies, but they're very energized, they're go getters, and I hate to say it, but sometimes I feel I have to put the reins on a little bit. I like to be a voice of reason with them. When it comes to the gay community as a whole, I lost so many of my peers to HIV, and so many of my compadres, but I'm looking at a generation of people who didn't have to do the fights that we did - didn't have to face the discrimination. So a lot of them don't understand the need or the reasoning behind gay organizations like gay rodeo, like the royal court, and those types of organizations because their friends are so accepting of them, and will party with them. So it's going to be a difficult outreach to get these young people to understand the need for these organizations and the compadre and the family that they can be a part of.
So we have a lot of work ahead of us, as gay rodeo and as an organization in Utah, to bring those young people that word, that information, and try and get them involved so that all of these organizations can survive.
You know I think of myself more of a country boy. I call it "cowboy drag" when I dress up in my cowboy clothes, so I think of myself more of a country boy, I don't think of myself so much as a cowboy, even though that is... I guess the reason I really don't is because that's a fantasy life to me, and I kind of like to keep that fantasy life. I don't have a problem putting out a pair of tennis shoes and a pair of cutoffs and a baseball cap and a t-shirt and being comfortable and going to a rodeo or an event. But I also like getting dressed up and putting on my boots and my hat and going out too.
I hope to see gay rodeo grow again. I remember when we used to have about twenty rodeos a year, and I hope to see Utah's association grow and be able to do what we did in the past, and put on some successful rodeos and the dance and become a major player on the gay rodeo circuit. I had big dreams and so do the kids that I'm working with, so I hope we can put them together and make them come true.
“I’m hoping that it serves as both an exhibit where a casual viewer, who doesn’t know much about IGRA, can go and see the breadth of the community, and then also it could serve researchers in terms of getting them interested in the larger archives,” Scofield said. “[It will] hopefully set more and more researchers down this road of investigating these questions about LGBTQ+ communities.”
Scofield believes that inclusive histories are a positive force that make communities stronger. Although the stories are not always perfect, she says, acknowledging people’s backgrounds and setting aside their differences is fundamental to helping people identify with one another and build a better future for the places in which they live.
“These histories are not easy, and they’re not neat, but they are histories we have to grapple with in order to understand where we live and the communities we want to build,” Scofield said. “This is our history. Let’s embrace this history, let’s talk about it and be critical of it and understand the fraught nature of it.”
Continuing their endeavor to bring people together, Scofield and her team of students are hoping to produce podcasts and a theatre production about the hidden stories of the IGRA, with the goal of making the group’s history as widely available as possible.
Echoing a phrase made famous by former President Barack Obama, Scofield summed up her work.
“There isn’t American history, and then LGBTQ+ history, and then Black history and then women’s history,” Scofield said. “It’s all American history. Until we can tell those nuanced stories, then we still have work to do.”