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Progress a challenge to gay rodeo in Alberta

A cowboy puts his arm around his partner after his ride at the 2014 Canadian Rockies International Rodeo and Music Festival in Strathmore, Alberta on Sunday, June 29, 2014. The Albert Gay Rockies Rodeo Association held its 21st annual weekend rodeo with over 65 competitors in the three-day event, It's the only gay rodeo in Canada, drawing spectators and participants from B.C. to Manitoba and south of the border.

Chris Bolin/The Globe and Mail

Strathmore's gay rodeo, the crown jewel of the North American gay rodeo circuit, is under threat.

The event, created about two decades ago when many felt they had to hide their sexual orientation, is now facing a different challenge: progress.

As the organization plays host to its 21st annual rodeo in this town of 12,000 about a 40-minute drive east of Calgary, younger members of the LGBT community no longer need to steal away to events that used to be under the radar. This is a huge change from when the Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association held its first meeting in 1991 and inaugural rodeo in 1993 – a time when participants could sign documents demanding no one take their photo.

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While the grandstand and infield at Strathmore's rodeo grounds can seat about 5,000 people, only a couple dozen held down its blue and burgundy seats last Sunday, the final day of the rodeo. And some in those stands were competitors.

"Youth don't feel the need to come out [to the gay rodeo] and be part of this," Janie Van Santen, an ARGRA trustee, said by the metal chutes at the event. "And that's a good in that they have the freedoms that we didn't have, but it is hard for those organizations that got them those freedoms, because they are dying." As she spoke, the crowd was quiet – a stark contrast to the rodeo-goers at the Calgary Stampede, which kicks off Friday.

At the gay rodeo this year, sixty-two people signed up to rope calves, wrestle steers, ride bulls, race to put white Fruit of the Loom underwear on goats, and participate in other events. They are mostly baby boomers – the generation that spent decades keeping their sexual orientation hidden.

"Look at all the grey hair here," said the 56-year-old Ms. Van Santen. "We're going to have to engage the mainstream rodeos more to help us survive."

And so ARGRA reached out to other associations this year, inviting their competitors to join them in Strathmore. (Sexual orientation is not a factor at this rodeo. All genders are welcome in all events). They heard only crickets in response, but organizers shrug off the silence. Maybe next year. Or the year after that.

The Strathmore gay rodeo, however, remains one of the most celebrated events on the International Gay Rodeo Association circuit because of the way it is adopting to progress. There are 14 gay rodeos on the circuit, and ARGRA's event is the only one in Canada. The organizers here have broadened its appeal by putting on a music festival, setting up a mini-midway with an art gallery and vendors, and throwing a nightly party similar to the ones during Stampede. Roughly 1,200 people, for example, showed up at the so-called Tornado nightclub Saturday evening, drinking, dancing, riding a mechanical bull, and sitting around two camp fires. The music festival and nightly party generate money to keep the dwindling rodeo afloat and draw in folks – gay and straight – who take a pass on the rodeo.

The Tornado is calmer and feels safer than its Stampede counterparts like Nashville North or the Wildhorse Saloon. In Strathmore, baggies of condoms and lubricant were free for the taking at the drink-ticket table. You don't have to wait for porta-potties. No need to wear elbow pads when trying to order a Bud Light Lime, which you shouldn't order anyway, but no one will judge you at the Tornado.

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Some of the events at the Strathmore gay rodeo mirror mainstream rodeo events. Others are modified and a few are unique to gay rodeo. Sunday's lone bullrider, dressed in chaps with red tassels, rode for 5.66 seconds, coming up short. (Bullriding is modified at the gay rodeo: Participants need to hang on for six seconds, rather than eight, like their mainstream counterparts, to post a qualifying ride. Modified, but hardly easier). Chute dogging is a modified version of steer wrestling, with participants starting in the chute with the horned animal – and on foot, rather than on a horse adjacent to the chute.

In goat dressing, one of the camp events, teams of two race to put tighty-whities on a goat. Some cowboys and gals wear cleats in their quest to take home the championship buckle The rodeo wraps with wild drag, where teams of three scare, drag, or coax a steer on a rope across a line 70 feet away from the chute. There, a team member, costumed up, jumps on the steer and rides it back over the line. Judges disqualified one team Sunday because no one was wearing a wig.

Rob Somers, an authentic cowboy who dressed as a nun during the wild drag event, says the sentiments in Alberta toward the event have changed over the past two decades.

"In a word: acceptance," said Mr. Somers, ARGRA's past president and perennial goat-dressing champ. "Society has changed."

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