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Life on the Gay Rodeo Circuit

Life on the Gay Rodeo Circuit

From lassos to line dancing, we saddled up in Phoenix for the start of rodeo season.

?"At least it?s a dry rain," quipped the cowboy as he headed out from under the shelter of the General Store?s porch into the gray drizzle to smoke, appropriately enough, a Marlboro.

Although the unseasonably weird mid-February rainfall was wetting the ground of Rawhide -- a touristy replica of a Wild West town -- it did little to dampen the great mood at the Road Runner Regional Rodeo in Phoenix, Arizona, the first stop on the International Gay Rodeo Association (IRGA) circuit, which runs from February through November.

For over 25 years, the IGRA has attracted amateur cowboys and cowgirls from all walks of life and all over North America to compete throughout the U.S. and Canada. Events for the competition include a lot of what you would expect to see at any rodeo: bull riding, team calf roping, and barrel racing to name a few.

However, there are also a few crowd-pleasing "camp events" which are special to the gay rodeo circuit like Steer Decorating (where a two-person team must lead a steer across a line and then tie its tail with a ribbon), the Wild Drag Race (which involves a cowboy and cowgirl leading a steer across a finish line with a man or woman in drag riding it), and the Goat Dressing event (where a two-person team attempts to put a pair of tighty whities on a goat. Yes, a goat.) Don't let this moniker of "camp" fool you though, competition is intense and there are competitors of all skill levels including those that have grown up on farms or around livestock and, so, arrive on the circuit as seasoned professionals.

 Besides livestock in skivvies, according to Michael Kraut, an attorney from Los Angeles who has competed in both gay and straight circuits, it?s the camaraderie that makes the LGBT events special. "It?s just a great group of people, always willing to help each other out," he says.

"Most of my best friends are the cowboys and cowgirls I?ve met on the circuit," seconded Steven Youngblood, a competitor and Vice President of Rodeo Operations for his hometown of Palm Springs. "It?s really another side of gay life that shows some of us are really just country folk at heart."

Unfortunately, Phoenix?s competition area was a bit desolate from the drizzle and only a few spectators were on hand to cheer on the stalwart competitors sloshing through Grand Canyon-sized mud puddles. The nearby exhibition hall, however, was buzzing with activity as spectators perused booths chock full of western wear, downed frothy cups of beer and two-stepped around the large hay-lined dance floor.

 Paul VerBurg, an artist from Prescott, Arizona, who was on hand to sell his work, agreed, "Everyone here?s really friendly. It?s the middle of the winter and it?s a great chance for folks from other parts of the country to escape the cold and have some fun." VerBurg, who has also designed a number of the official rodeo posters, showed off some of his vibrant cowboy-inspired oil paintings that were remarkable for how they seemed to capture quiet, reflective moments on the circuit: a cowboy on his horse gathering his thoughts before competition or a rodeo clown seated solemnly on a barrel awaiting his cue.

"What makes the gay rodeo special is that it?s a totally amateur event that welcomes everyone," remarked Greg Gillum, Public Relations Director for the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association. "A lot of our participants are really excited to come to Phoenix because we have a lot to offer."

Agreed. Even to a rodeo first-timer (and one who prefers mud wraps to mud puddles), Phoenix felt friendly and welcoming, offering a great mix of expansive desert landscapes with modern accommodations, luxury spas and vibrant clubs.

The Casbah, one of nine sparkling pools The PhoenicianBOARDING HOUSE
With grandiose chandeliers and ornate brass fixtures decorating its lobby, The Phoenician feels straight out of Dynasty, which makes sense considering Charles Keating (he of the savings and loan scandal) spared no expense building the 250-acre resort in the late 1980s. Starwood Resorts have since taken it over and updated the luxury with a palette of muted earth tones, beds dressed in crisp Italian linens, an impressive $25 million art collection as well as a fantastic collection of pools including one with a mother-of-pearl bottom. Besides excellent service, the property boasts a secluded cactus garden and spectacular views of Camelback Mountain (a prominent landmark and challenging hiking destination for metropolitan Phoenix).

Every cowboy and cowgirl we spoke to (and, yes, we mean every single one) said Charlie?s was the go-to watering hole for the Western set. Although the low ceilings and divey d?cor makes it a bit of a "sawdust-on-the-floor" kind of place, during rodeo season Charlie?s is packed tighter than the front of a cowboy?s Levis. During the rest of the year, this lively long-time Phoenix staple offers two-stepping lessons on Tuesdays, line dancing lessons on Thursdays, country hits on Saturdays and three-for-one drinks on Sundays.

The bold, flavorful dishes cooked up by James Beard Award-winning Chef Douglas Rodriguez shouldn?t be missed at Deseo, located at the Westin Kierland Resort & Spa. His specialties include the refreshing Millionaire Tacos -- a trio of yuca taco shells stuffed with spicy and citrusy preparations of lobster, ahi tuna and Japanese Hamachi -- and his bold Churrasco Style Beef Tenderloin, swathed in a horseradish chimichurri and paired with a sweet crab salad and purple Peruvian potato.

For a super-hip, gay-friendly spot, hit up St. Francis. Its cool, urban décor, all exposed brick walls and street art-inspired murals, and exceptionally attractive wait staff perfectly complement the delicious, homey fare like creamy Baked Goat Cheese and Pot Roast with corn polenta, bok choy and tomatoes.

Up in the air with Rainbow RyderSUPPLIES
For urban cowboys and cowgirls Gilbert Footwear in Old Town Scottsdale offers the best in designer boots from Lucchese and Old Gringo, with prices to match. Pairs in exotic skins like stingray, ostrich or crocodile can set you back well over $1,000. For the cowboy on a more modest budget, Saba's has two locations chock full of hats, Western shirts and giant belt buckles you?ll need to complete your look.

Gather as many as nine friends for an early morning bird?s eye view of Phoenix?s saguaro cactus-dotted landscape in one of Rainbow Ryder?s hot air balloons. A glass of champagne after touchdown helps calm the nerves if the gently gliding desert scenery didn?t do the trick already.

Whether caused by bucking broncos or humping up Camelback Mountain, sore muscles and sad complexions get quality attention at the recently built Spa Avania at the Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch, which covers over two and a half acres of indoor/outdoor spaces for pampering. For a complete experience, arrive early and take a steam in the sinus-clearing eucalyptus sauna or a dip in the hot tub before heading off to one of the many treatments on their extensive menu. Our fave: the detoxifying 60-minute Herbal Poultice Massage, where the therapist uses a well-heated sachet stuffed with lemongrass and other Eastern herbs to relax muscles and alleviate joint pain.

For more Phoenix tips, click here.
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Bryan Van Gorder