Gay rodeo makes its triumphant return in Minnesota
Founded in 1990, the North Star Gay Rodeo is the local chapter of an international association.
HUGO, Minn. -- Scott Anderson’s RV was the unofficial “office” at this weekend’s gay rodeo in Hugo, Minn. Inside, a drag queen finished her makeup in the air conditioning before performing for the rodeo crowd in Saturday’s heat.
“I gotta be honest … I don’t know who she is,” Anderson, assistant rodeo director, says with a laugh as the queen closes the RV doors behind her.
That’s the spirit of the North Star Gay Rodeo – everyone is family.
Hundreds sat in the bleachers at Dead Broke Arena to watch cowboys and cowgirls compete across 13 events, drag shows and line dancing at Saturday and Sunday’s rodeo. It was North Star’s first event since 2018.
For many who’ve felt unwelcomed or discriminated against in traditional rodeo settings, the gay rodeo is a haven.
Gay rodeos are comprised of 13 events, most of which you’ll find at most standard rodeos, like calf roping, chute dogging, pole bending, steer riding and barrel racing.
Three additional competitions are unique to gay rodeo: steer decorating (a team works to tie a ribbon around the steer’s tail), goat dressing (putting underwear on a goat – but fast!) and a wild drag race (a team event with one member in drag riding the steer across the finish line).
Anyone can participate in any rodeo event, whereas traditional rodeos only let men compete in some events like bull riding.
The first gay rodeo was held in 1976 in Reno, Nev., nearly 10 years before the International Gay Rodeo Association was formed. In the early years, participants used pseudonyms for fear of the consequences of being out as gay.
The IGRA currently has more than a dozen member organizations across the U.S. and Canada, including the North Star Gay Rodeo Association, representing both Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Contestants compete in IGRA rodeos all over the country leading up to the World Gay Rodeo Finals, set this year in Oklahoma in October. The top 20 contestants in each event compete for the grand title of International Champion.
IGRA’s current president, Candy Pratt, competed in almost everything at this weekend’s rodeo. She met her wife of nearly 30 years at a gay rodeo in Minnesota and traveled this year from her home in Aubrey, Texas.
Gay rodeos are strictly volunteer run and not-for-profit. It’s tradition for members to volunteer and compete for other member rodeos. This weekend’s North Star Rodeo saw people travel to Hugo from all over – Missouri, California, Texas, Colorado, Arkansas and so on.
Sparse rodeo attendance in previous years inspired North Star to try something new this go around: free entrance. Past North Star events came with a $20 fee.
And the organization is pleased with the change, as several hundred people watched from behind the arena fence and in the bleachers on Saturday. Anderson said the crowd numbers were a dramatic increase from times past.
“We used to be a very, very large group,” says Anderson, who’s been with North Star since its inception in the early 1990s. “We’re aging, and we’re not getting younger people to come in and participate or become members anymore.”
The AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s had a significant impact on the rodeo. Hundreds of competitors died before the development of effective medication.
Anderson gets emotional when talking about the rodeo friends he lost to HIV and AIDS.
“I couldn’t even put a number on it.”
He encourages anyone with interest – regardless of experience – to reach out to North Star about getting involved.
“If you say, ‘Hey, I want to learn steer deco,’ we’ve got people to teach you.”
Anderson, 63, grew up chasing cattle on horseback on a 2,000-acre farm in Nicollet, Minn., between Mankato and New Ulm, giving him a natural interest in the rodeo.
After winning eight championships as a steer wrestler in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, ongoing injuries put Anderson’s rodeo career to a halt.
His boyfriend at the time, a student at Mankato State, cued him into the formation of a gay rodeo, and Anderson never looked back.
“It’s rodeo, but a completely different mindset. It encompasses everybody, and it’s fantastic,” he says.
In his role as rodeo director, Anderson oversees everything having to do with the rodeo arena, the stock and the contestants.
He’s a long-haul trucker and spends his time traveling to volunteer at other gay rodeos around the country with his partner of almost 20 years – Joel Lislegard, North Star’s treasurer, who is originally from the Iron Range town of Cook, Minn.
This year, the couple was honored as grand marshals, something that both Lislegard and Anderson accepted with great pride.
“Gay rodeo has just treated me so well,” Anderson said.
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