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"Gay Rodeo Is Especially About Family"
Thom Sloan:
The International Gay Rodeo Association

Interview by Perry Brass

Thom Sloan, the spokesperson for the International Gay Rodeo Association lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has been involved with rodeo and the western life around it since he was a small child. He has also professionally been involved with opera, as a singer, and when I asked him to compare opera and rodeo, he answered, "They're both high drama performance situations." thom1.jpg - 14.22 K Thom Sloan

He is certainly right, and this interview gives us some insight into this fascinating, exciting, and sometimes controversial activity—rodeos—and the men and women involved with them.

Perry Brass: Can you tell us some things about yourself and your first involvement with rodeo?

Thom Sloan: I was born and raised in southern New Mexico, around Las Cruces and El Paso, TX. I spent most of my time on a farm, but my grandfather had a ranch near Alamogordo, NM. It had been homesteaded by my great-great grandparents in the 1870s.

My grandfather, uncles and father were all cowboys, so I spent lots of time at rodeos as a kid. I knew how to ride almost as soon as I could walk. I never had a talent for roping like my father. In fact, I rejected a lot of the western life-style and when I graduated from high school, I moved to Albuquerque to pursue my education. I was mostly involved in classical music and other urban pursuits until about 1991.

I went to my first IGRA rodeo in Albuquerque (the Zia Rodeo) and couldn't believe what I saw. There were gay cowboys. And they were pretty good at their sport!

Perry Brass: How long have you been involved with the world of rodeos?

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Thom Sloan: As I said, I started going to rodeos when I was a baby. My father was a roper and so he and my mom would take me with them when he competed. When I was a little older, my grandfather and father would hold me in their saddles in grand entry. I remember always going to the El Paso Livestock Show & Rodeo as well as lots of smaller rodeos around southern New Mexico, Arizona and West Texas.

Perry Brass: What was your initial attraction to rodeos, and how did you go from that into gay rodeos?

Thom Sloan: I think I always was attracted to the cowboys, but didn't know it until much later in life. There's an element of rodeo that's part of my heritage. It connects me to all my family in a special way.

As I said, my first gay rodeo was in 1991. I started to go to a few and realized that I wanted to get back into competing like I had as a kid. I decided, if my friends can do this, so can I.

Perry Brass: What is the IGRA, and how did it get started? Can you tell us something about your events, where they take place, their cost, and who competes?

Thom Sloan: Oh, this is the long answer. Basically, gay rodeo grew out of the Reno National Rodeo started by Phil Ragsdale in Reno, NV, in 1976. It was originally a fund-raiser for Muscular Dystrophy. As the event grew and attracted more and more gay cowboys from all over, a movement grew out of Colorado to develop more formal rules and organization to make the competition fair and consistent.

The IGRA first met in 1985, with associations from Colorado, California, Texas and Arizona. Oklahoma and Kansas joined soon there after; then Utah and New Mexico.

Today, there are over 2,500 individual members and 19 IGRA Associations representing 22 states in the U.S. and 2 Canadian provinces.

As far as events, well I have more detailed descriptions if you want them, but there are 13 events grouped into 4 categories: Roping Events, Speed Events [with horses], Rough Stock, and Camp Events.

All the events except Camp Events will be found in all kinds of other rodeo, with perhaps modified rules. In Roping, there's Calf Roping on Foot, Break Away Roping and Team Roping. Speed Events include Barrel Racing, Pole Bending and Flag Race. Rough Stock (our rides in IGRA are for 6 seconds rather than the 8 you see in other rodeos) includes Chute Dogging, Steer Riding, Bull Riding and Bareback Bronc Riding.

Previous Interviews from the GayToday Archive:
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John Loughery: A Pulitzer Prize Finalist's History of the 20th Century

Barry Lynn: Defeating the Religious Right

James T. Sears: Author of Lonely Hunters

Related Sites:
International Gay Rodeo Association Web Site

Author Perry Brass' Web Site
GayToday does not endorse related sites.

The Camp Events are unique to gay rodeo and were created to give rodeo newcomers a chance to compete without owning expensive equipment or horses. These events include Goat Dressing [putting a pair of jockey shorts on a goat], Steer Decorating [tying a ribbon on a steer's tail], and Wild Drag Race (a fairly complicated event, getting a steer across a line down the arena—with a person in drag on its back).

Who competes? Well, IGRA is amateur rodeo. All you have to do to compete is belong to an IGRA Association. We have people who grew up in rodeo like myself, and people who are still professional cowboys/cowgirls.

But mostly its folks from all kinds of backgrounds and professions, who thought it would be fun to get involved in rodeo. We have doctors, lawyers, marketing people, flight attendants, you name it. We are talking a lot about men cowboys, but I want to say that about 30% of our contestants are women. And they compete in all events, just the same as their male counterparts.

As far as producing rodeos, the 1999 schedule has 18 regional rodeos, and the IGRA Finals Rodeo is in Little Rock, AR. Rodeos range from Washington, DC to Calgary, Alberta. The cost of production ranges a lot depending on the local market. Albuquerque is one of the cheapest to produce, at around $22,000. Many, in larger areas such as Washington DC and Los Angeles, can be 2 to 3 times that amount.

Ticket prices tend to range from $10 per day to $15 per day.

Perry Brass: What do you think is the attraction of gay men to rodeos and cowboy culture? Does it start off sexually, culturally, or just curiosity?

rodeo1.jpg - 12.33 K Thom Sloan: Well, I'm not a psychologist, but I can speak for myself in saying that the cowboy is one of the most masculine images in American culture. As a gay man, it's fairly natural to be attracted to masculine images [cops, fireman, military men].

The rodeo [with the exception of Women's Professional Rodeo events] is a very male culture. It's like any kind of sports atmosphere where men are competing with each other. Some serious male bonding occurs.

You combine all of this for a gay man, and to say there isn't a sexual element would be naive.

Perry Brass: Does rodeo culture represent the real "Other" to gay men, the attraction to what they absolutely are not? Or do they really become a part of it?

Thom Sloan: I think that may be true for some men, but for others, it represents a way to meet guys who are in fact "like you." Men who enjoy the western lifestyle, the rural life, etc.

Perry Brass: Is there much mixing between gay rodeo people and regular rodeo people? In other words, do gay rodeo competitors compete in mainstream rodeos, and are they ever *out* when they do?

Thom Sloan: There are quite a few contestants who compete in gay rodeos who also compete in other circuits, both as professionals and amateurs. We also have straight people who compete in gay rodeos. As a rule, I don't think most gay people are very "out" when they are outside the gay environment. There's just no point in it. However, this is not to say that we don't have lots of straight folks attending gay rodeos. Some markets, such as Washington D.C., actively promote their rodeo as an event everyone can come to.

Perry Brass: The popular conception of rodeos and cowboys in general as part of the American, Western hyper-masculine culture, is that they are very homophobic. Do you think this is true? Can you compare this culture to that of other sporting events, such as baseball, football, auto racing—in other words, other *guy* events—as far as homophobia is concerned?

Thom Sloan: I don't know much about auto racing or any other professional sports. Well, maybe a bit about baseball and football—just from my own experience.

First, I don't think it's fair to say rodeo is more homophobic than society at large, and certainly not more than other professional sports. As we all know, there have been some gay athletes in professional sports, such as Dave Kopay; and there are probably more that we don't know about. I think the same probably holds true for rodeo.

My experience in life is that the 10% rule is pretty much the case. There are gay people everywhere. I know cowboys who are wonderful warm people, tolerant and open-minded. I know attorneys who are bigoted, prejudiced and violent.

To stereotype any person because of his or her background, profession, or appearance is to commit the same kind of social injustice that gay people so commonly criticize.

Perry Brass: Has Matthew Shepard's death in Laramie, Wyoming, affected rodeo culture, gay and straight, in any way? Has it brought an awareness of homophobia, and of gay men themselves, more out in the open? Has it added more hostility towards gay men, less, or no difference?

Thom Sloan: I really can't comment on this. I don't see anything one way or another. I personally see it as a media opportunity for groups like the HRC. It's sad what happened to this young man, but to say that it's some kind of harbinger event is a bit much. There are, supposedly, hate crimes everywhere all over the U.S. And they're not just directed at gays. I think what Shepard's death does indicate is that it's becoming more socially acceptable to hate other people in this country.

Perry Brass: Has the IGRA changed, somewhat, the perception of gayness in rodeo in general? Has it been recognized by other rodeo associations, and has this recognition been made public?

Thom Sloan: I don't think IGRA has done anything to other rodeo associations but make them nervous. It's hard to deny 2,500 members and 19 rodeos!

The IGRA has repeatedly attempted to gain access to associations with other rodeo groups and been denied. The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association [PRCA] has been helpful to a degree, as long as they don't know who their talking to. There is no official recognition of IGRA by other rodeo groups.

Perry Brass: How would you introduce gay men or lesbians to rodeos, who are going to them for the first time? What should they look out for? How would you get them interested?

rodeo3.jpg - 12.86 K Thom Sloan: Well, I think someone might want to come to the rodeo with an open mind. We have our share of detractors in the gay community, who are more concerned about the rights of animals than the rights of children in this country. Animal welfare and care is a big part of IGRA and every other legitimate rodeo association. Much care is taken to assure the proper care and respect is shown for rodeo animals.

Next I would suggest that folks just come to enjoy the action. Rodeo is like any sport in that you have to watch and learn about it to really appreciate it. We have lots of information on our website to help educate people about gay rodeo.

Last, I would say to remember that IGRA rodeos raise money for charity. We are a non-profit organization and have raised well over $2 million in our 14 years of existence for all kinds of local charities, from AIDS/HIV to Breast Cancer to Homeless Shelters.

Perry Brass: Rodeo, as a sporting and cultural event, has something in it that other sports don't, in that it comes directly out of ranch work. Has this made it easier for gay men who work on ranches to get involved with rodeo in general?

Thom Sloan: I honestly don't know anyone who is gay who works on a ranch who also does IGRA rodeo. Most of those kinds of people are very closeted and not comfortable with "gay culture" of any kind.

Perry Brass: You told me that at some point you were an opera singer. Since I have known several gay country-western fans who told me how "operatic" that music is, filled with conflicts, feelings, and drama, how would you compare opera to rodeo? How do you feel about country-western music, which is starting to get a real gay following?

Thom Sloan: Well, you have to understand that I grew up listening to Hank Williams, Don Reeves, Patsy Cline, and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. I love country-western music for its honesty and its very basic approach. It has certainly changed in the past years and is almost impossible to distinguish from pop music.

The only link I can make between opera and rodeo is that they both take a lot of preparation, they are big expensive productions, they certainly have lots of drama and flashy costumes, and its never over till the fat lady sings! Seriously, both endeavors require giving it all you've got and not holding back. You can't sing opera by playing it safe and that's true for rodeo as well.

Perry Brass: Do you think that gay rodeo fans look for something in other men that regular gay men don't, less superficiality, for instance? Is the "male bonding element" in rodeo something that attracts gay men to it, or does it make gays feel more left out, especially of straight rodeo?

Thom Sloan: There is no accounting for personal taste. Men like different things. Rodeo is not for everyone and won't appeal to everyone. I have never been—and will never go to—a "circuit party." I don't like the crowd. It's the same for rodeo. As far as feeling left out of straight rodeos, that's not my experience. You can go to any rodeo you want and if you're good enough, compete. Just be careful how long you leave your hand on that cute cowboy's butt!

Perry Brass: What is the most exciting moment you've ever had in rodeo? The most painful and hard to deal with? The most memorable?

Thom Sloan: Most of my most memorable moments in rodeo involve bronc riding. I enjoyed everything else I did, too, but there's nothing like sitting down in a chute on a horse and knowing that your challenge is to stay on him for 6 seconds.

The force when the gate opens is like holding on to a motorcycle with one hand and it goes from 0-60 mph in a second! I am luck in that I was only hurt a few times in rodeo; broken arm, bad hematoma on my knee. I do remember being stepped on at the Denver Finals Rodeo in 1994. The sight of that horse's hooves coming down on my chest was something I never want to see again.

Now that I'm judging, I love to see a good ride or a good performance. I get almost as much a thrill by watching another cowboy improve and do well.

I have lots of great memories outside the arena, traveling with my friends to rodeos, sharing stories after it's over. There is a real camaraderie in rodeo and that is what brings people back. Folks will rally to help someone out in trouble. More experienced people help out the newcomers. That's not necessarily true in professional rodeo.

Perry Brass: Does your partner share your feelings about rodeo?

Thom Sloan: I'm single.

Perry Brass: A lot of people feel there is something "unhealthy" about the rodeo lifestyle, that it is cruel to animals, associated with heavy drinking and smoking ("Marlboro Country"); that it is pure male adolescence, the part that never grows up. How do you feel about this?

rodeo2.jpg - 14.40 K Tom Sloan: I already talked about animal welfare and the fact that IGRA has written policies and rules to protect animals and humans.

As far as drinking and smoking, I guess its true as compared to the general population. I know that folks tend to drink a lot. They work hard and they play hard. It just seems to come with the territory of rodeo. It takes some self-discipline not to abuse it. However, because rodeo people share so much and it can be so emotional, they like to share a beer together after the rodeo, too.

Perry Brass: Sexually, are you attracted to rodeo men? Would they be the archetype that turns you on, or are you able to leave this image out of your sexuality?

Thom Sloan: Get real! A hot cowboy is never anything I'd turn down.

Perry Brass: Transgenderism has become a very "hot" item to many gay youth, who feel that as a part of their liberation, they want to escape the bounds of gender. Rodeo seems to go in the opposite direction of this, so how do young people feel about rodeo, in your estimation?

Thom Sloan: That's a good point. I and others in IGRA have noticed that we are not attracting many younger gay people into rodeo. I think what you're talking about may be one reason why. We do have some transgendered folks in the rodeo, but its not a big deal.

Perry Brass: Are there any up-and-coming gay rodeo stars you want to tell us about? Or straight stars who have gay followings?

Thom Sloan: Well, again, we just held our Finals Rodeo in Phoenix in October. New International Champions were named in all events. Our All-Around Cowboy is Dennis Terrell who's been around a long time in rodeo and is still the best in IGRA. The All-Around Cowgirl was Trenda Monahan. This was her first time to make IGRA All Around. She's quite an athlete. Other new champions this year included Chuck Browning, who won 3 titles in Steer Riding, Chute Dogging and Goat Dressing. He's also Trustee for the Arizona Gay Rodeo Assoc. There's Sheri Ralston from New Mexico, who won the Pole Bending title; Waldo from California, who won the Bareback Bronc title; and J.C. McDonald from Iowa, who was the Rookie of the Year (and not bad on the eyes either!).

I don't know about straight or PRCA cowboys who have gay followings. I certainly noticed the cute gays at the National Finals Rodeo last week in Las Vegas. Just like people have photos clipped out of Bruce Baumgartner, the hunky Olympic wrestler who carried the US flag in Atlanta, I'm sure some guys buy the PRCA Cowboy calendar and drool!!

Perry Brass: Do you have any other things you'd like to add to this interview?

Thom Sloan: There's a lot to know about IGRA and people who work in it, compete in it and attend the rodeos. In the end, rodeo is really about family and gay rodeo is especially about family. Yes, there are hot men and women walking around, but the more you get to know the people, the more you think of them as your family.

Perry Brass: How can we get in touch with the International Gay Rodeo Association and find out more about your events?

Thom Sloan: Our website is You can also call our office in Denver at 303-832-IGRA.

Perry Brass's newest book, How to Survive Your Own Gay Life, has just gone into its second printing, six weeks after appearing in bookstores. It can be obtained through gay and other bookstores nationally, or through and other online services. He can be reached through his website:

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