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A day at an annual event in rural California: the gay rodeo

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Duncans Mills in rural California has a population of 175 and is usually quiet. But on one recent weekend, hundreds of visitors took over the small town for an annual event - a gay rodeo. Tash Kimmel reports.

TASH KIMMELL, BYLINE: It's a balmy, cloudless Saturday at the Duncans Mills Rodeo Arena. A dusty sea of spectators in cowboy hats, boots and belt buckles watch the woman's calf roping on foot.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: We've only got one cowgirl left, ladies and gentleman.

KIMMELL: On one side of a chute, a calf waits to be released - on the other, a cowgirl. The goal is to rope the calf as it bolts from the chute.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: ...For first place right here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Open.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: There you go.

(CHEERING)

KIMMELL: Janet Stange snares the running calf with her lasso, taking home first place for the day. Stange has been competing in the rodeo for 18 years. She grew up around horses on a farm in Ohio. This event is one of many that happens each year affiliated with the International Gay Rodeo Association. After the competition, she leans on her car and drinks a beer.

JANET STANGE: One good thing about this for us as females is we get to compete in all the events that guys do. We have girl bulls. We have girl steer riding. We get to chute dog.

KIMMELL: She couldn't do steer wrestling, she says, in conventional rodeo. That's when a competitor has to wrestle a young bull to the ground by the horns.

STANGE: That's my favorite event.

KIMMELL: It's not just the sport she loves. It's also the community.

STANGE: This is our family. We help each other out, and we care for each other.

KIMMELL: Another cowgirl here is Tessa Trujillo.

TESSA TRUJILLO: So I dress in drag as a man to go to work, and I perform that. And then off hours, I'm Tessa.

KIMMELL: Trujillo is what's known as rodeo royalty. This year she was voted Miss Golden State Gay Rodeo. She's a kind of ambassador for the organization.

TRUJILLO: I promote. I have fundraising. I have fun.

KIMMELL: Trujillo found the International Gay Rodeo Association five years ago.

TRUJILLO: I wanted to be myself, and I felt like I couldn't. I started to get on the internet, and I started looking, and IGRA happened to come up. So I said, I'm going to this, so I went. And I found home. I found home.

KIMMELL: Gay rodeo is similar to traditional rodeo except with more camp. Organizer David Lawson stands in the stables where he works as a horse trainer, swatting a swarm of flies.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE NEIGHING)

KIMMELL: Lawson says people take this competition seriously.

DAVID LAWSON: Like, we're just as cowboy as everybody else, and we get it done just like, you know, everybody else.

KIMMELL: Lawson says the world has changed a lot since the first gay rodeo in 1976. There's currently about 5,000 members worldwide, but the organization is struggling to attract a new generation of riders who don't seek out an exclusively queer space.

LAWSON: I think, though, that once you realize that you need gay community, you're in. You're hooked.

KIMMELL: But there are some new competitors here. It's Laurynn Malilay's first time at the rodeo. She's barrel racing on the conventional circuit, as well, but she says she likes competing in both worlds.

LAURYNN MALILAY: I have a lot of friends that do, like, the barrel races and rodeos and stuff in Sonoma County. And they all know that I'm gay and stuff, so they're pretty cool about it. But it's nice to do it with your people, too.

KIMMELL: As the rodeo draws to a close, competitors and spectators get ready for a night of dancing and drag. This is one of the last competitions this year before the finals in Oklahoma. That's where judges will decide who is the best all-around queer cowboy and girl in the world. For NPR News, I'm Tash Kimmel in Duncans Mills, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF RINA SAWAYAMA SONG, "THIS HELL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tash Kimmell, KCAW