Reno, Nevada - It’s no easy task corralling the wild, wild historical elements of the American west into any sort of transportable package. The Nevada LGBT Archives’ Reno National Gay Rodeo — A Queer Celebration of Western Tradition Exhibition wrangles together some of the existing ephemera from a time when the gay community fought to deconstruct both gender and sexual barriers to create the world’s first gay rodeo.
Few words can describe the work of Phil Ragsdale, Emperor I of the Silver Dollar Court in Reno, during the late 1970s. According to LGBT Archives Scholar Jeff Auer, the term that pops into the minds of many is resilience.
"It was challenging gender stereotypes of the time,” Auer said. “Phil Ragsdale was trying to show that the LGBT community was not frightened easily and could do all the events that the "rough and tough" cowboy could. He also was driven in his desire to create an event that would be a fundraiser elderly people and those suffering from Muscular Dystrophy.
Ragsdale, and the Silver Dollar Court, sought the Washoe County Fairgrounds manager in October 1976 with plans to establish the Reno Gay Rodeo as a fundraiser event. Months prior, he and his partners reached out across Nevada for livestock. When Reno farmers and ranchers found out about the event’s queer roots, they backed out. The first National Reno Gay Rodeo opened on October 2, 1976 with five cows, ten calves, one Shetland pony and drew 150 people.
The less-than-substantial showing was a milestone none the less. During proceeding years, National Reno Gay Rodeo drew in huge crowds and brought in thousands of dollars for charities like the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation and the Veterans Administration Hospital in Reno.
Although it was a fruitful endeavor for members of the gay and straight communities alike, conservative backlash in the early 80’s would eventually lead to the end of an era in 1984. Misconceptions regarding the AIDS epidemic, which reached Nevada in 1983, and the tireless battle to protect the reputation of the gay community and its allies would put an end to the festivities. But, that wasn’t before the rodeo attracted a crowd of more than 10,000 in 1981 and larger than 20,000 in 1982 when world-famous comedian Joan Rivers served as grand marshal despite anti-gay protests in the area.
The event did return to Reno in 2004 with support from the High Sierra Rodeo Association. In 2006, the city hosted the IGRA Rodeo Finals.
National Reno Gay Rodeo is and was a symbol of progress and established the foundation for gay rodeo associations across the nation as well as the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) in 1985. Reno National Gay Rodeo — Queer Celebration of Western Tradition Exhibition is the revitalization of a time when gays crossed barriers and destroyed walls to imprint themselves into western Rodeo heritage.
The spirit of Gay Rodeo is rekindled.
Come check out the Reno National Gay Rodeo — Queer Celebration of Western Tradition Exhibition:
July 16, 2016 at Sassabration...a celebration of Community, Diversity and Unity in Carson City. Sassafras Eclectic Food Joint, 1500 Old Hot Springs Rd. 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
July 23, 2016 at Northern Nevada Pride Festival in Reno, NV. Wingfield Park, 300 W. 1st St. 11:00 a.m. - 6:00 p.m.
This program is made possible by a grant from Nevada Humanities, an independent, nonprofit affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities; the views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of Nevada Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities. This program is made possible by a grant from Reno's Biggest Little Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and individual contributions from across the country.