Queens & Cowboys

A documentary I watched recently:

“Queens & Cowboys: A Straight [that is, ‘full, complete’] Year on the Gay Rodeo” chronicles a complete season of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). (site link)

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cover: Wade Earp on horseback

Something of a follow-up to my 6/20/12 posting “Gay cowboys” (about IGRA). More from the movie site:

Roping and riding across North America, the IGRA’s courageous cowboys and cowgirls brave challenges both in and out of the arena on their quest to qualify for the World Finals at the end of the season. Along the way, they’ll bust every stereotype in the book.

This award-winning film tells the story of five members of the International Gay Rodeo Association [Wade Earp, Char Duran, Ty Teigen, Travis Gardner, Chris Sherman]. From Wade Earp, a descendant of cowboy legend Wyatt Earp and one of the best competitors on the circuit; to Char Duran, a female bull rider who’s never won a buckle but seems determined to die trying; “QUEENS & COWBOYS” weaves the stories of its protagonists over the course of an entire … year.

The Hollywood Reporter says “delivers a compelling portrait of this little-known subculture” and Variety writes “Matt Livadary’s crowd-pleasing debut feature deserves a look by programmers beyond gay fests.”

An unprecedented look at the strength it takes to be gay in the rural west, this film explores the many struggles threatening the IGRA and the LGBTQ community at large, how far society has come on the subject of LGBTQ equality, and how far we still have to go.

Yes, there are drag queens and lots of playful outrageousness, but the big deal is that these men and women love rodeo, deeply, and gay rodeo provides them with a place to do their thing.

Not all the IGRA participants are gay. Some straight men (who compete on other rodeo circuits as well) simply like the competition in the IGRA events. Straight women who want to rodeo — yes, the noun has been verbed — have very few other places where they are allowed to compete, but they’re welcomed in IGRA events.

Now on a more personal note: I’ve had two friends in gay rodeo. Here’s Terry Bartlett checking his boots before his bull ride in the World Gay Rodeo Finals in 2009:

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My other gay rodeo friend was Rob Bernardo, remembered in this moving reminiscence by Jess Anderson on his site (reproduced here in full):

Rob Bernardo [1952 – 1992]: I started to post to the LGB discussion group soc.motss in the summer of 1986 and almost immediately found myself in exchanges with Rob. Although he was working for PacBell as a programmer, he had gone to Cornell and studied linguistics at Berkeley.

He was uncommonly careful in what he said, which was a fairly strong contrast with my style. Most of the time I can express my thoughts quite fluently. For one thing, writing is easy for me and I’m quite used to writing almost exactly as I speak, when the purpose is informal. To judge by Rob’s speech, which was very halting and (perhaps overly) concerned with finding exactly the right word, he was not fluent in that way. Furthermore, he was far more than I a believer in adhering to a plausible cause/effect model. For him, things had a reason, if only one could express it clearly.

On that background it might be surprising we became friends at all. Indeed we did find ourselves in fairly extended disagreements now and then, but somehow we both seemed motivated to resolve differences or at least to depersonalize them and not fuss over them afterwards. We achieved great intimacy in our communications in part, I’m sure, because we felt very relaxed and comfortable about sharing our real feelings and our misgivings and perceived weaknesses. For example, I didn’t know much about his specialities, nor he about mine, and we had also had very different histories in our sexual and romantic relationships. I can’t exactly be sure why, but evidently we each wanted the other to know and understand.

The Usenet postings were soon dwarfed by the extent of our email exchanges, at least one and sometimes two or three a day. Once started, that dialog continued right up to his sudden hospitalization and quite unexpected death from pneumocystis pneumonia in August, 1992.

Born and raised on Long Island, Rob’s childhood was beset, apparently, by never being able to please his father, or so he thought. He cried a lot as a child, he told me, and the main reason was fear, fear of anything and everything. From what I could gather from his accounts, he was an uncommonly insecure child. Much later, according to a mutual friend who interviewed Rob in some capacity [that would be me, interviewing Rob at a Linguistic Society meeting, when he applied for a psycholinguistics position at Ohio State], it seemed this fear was one underlying cause of his extremely halting speech, which was on the reported occasion so hampered as to silence him completely [he was completely unable to speak during the brief slot allotted to him; that same day, another applicant burst into tears during his interview; after that, I refused to do brief interviews of this sort]. It must have been horribly painful for him. [It was indeed, as he explained to me some years later, after we’d become friends through soc.motss. A footnote: Rob himself believed that his  sexuality was not a contributing factor in this episode. Both of the interviewers were openly gay men; Rob knew that, and believed we were on his side. But he was still seized up by fear.]

So in some sense Rob’s life as an adult was always under the shadow of grave misgivings about himself. Admittedly it’s armchair pyschology, but perhaps it was one reason why Rob left New York after Cornell and headed to Berkeley for graduate school, to make as clean a break as he could from his own past. By the time I got to know him his immersion in things western was fully developed. He had just bought a very nice ranch house in Concord, in ultra-conservative Contra Costa county east of San Francisco. It was a horse property, and he had a delightful small mare named Oriana Spadix. Oriana was to Rob much more than just an animal or a pet; she was truly his friend. There is a really wonderful photo (one day I’ll get it scanned) of the two of them together, and they both look very happy. Having a horse fit very conveniently with his keen interest in gay rodeo as well.

He might also have felt some insecurity because of his height, which was 5’4″. As is the cowboy custom, he was seldom without a hat on his head and boots on his feet, a hat with a tall crown and boots with fairly high heels. It wouldn’t have done any good to try to convince him people would probably pay relatively little attention to his physical stature, in view of his intelligence, his dark-haired good looks and his startlingly deep blue eyes. The blue eyes, he told me, had something to do with his Sefardic Jewish background, Bernardo being a transmogrification of ben Nardo. I’m hardly expert in such matters, but apparently blond hair and blue eyes were not uncommon among Sephardic Jews, compared to Ashkenzi in central and eastern Europe. For all his insecurities, he had a good sense of humor about his height, and referred to people my size (6’2″) as victims of monsterism. He was, withal, sensitive to the word “short.” With reason, after all: all other things being equal, a short person is at a real disadvantage in this society.

In the spring of 1988 we decided we should meet. He proposed that in view of the near-coincidence of Oriana’s birthday with mine in mid-May, I should come to California and he would throw a big party for the horse and me. He had (with considerable anxiety, tooth-gnashing and expense) had his kitchen completely remodelled and he wanted to show it off, and the party would also meet that objective. He was reasonably social, and there were quite a few fellow motssers in the Bay Area. So it was all arranged as he wished and in due course I was there. We had aready exchanged photos, so we had no difficulty recognizing each other at the airport.

As you might expect of a not very big guy, Rob had a honkin’ huge Ford pickup truck, but fitted out with a CD player and velour upholstery. We barreled along the freeway to his place, which I found entirely comfortable. The property sloped down toward the back, and just a few miles away stood the impressive peak of Mt. Diablo, which is the highest point in the immediate Bay area (3800′, if I remember correctly).

The party was a huge success. It was a great treat to meet so many — 30 or 40 — of the people I’d been exchanging views with for nearly two years, plus other friends of Rob’s. I stayed about a week after the party. Rob had to go to work and was concerned that I would be bored with no vehicle and stuck in this out-of-the way place. I assured him I had no requirement at all for city-style excitements and would be perfectly content to drink coffee, listen to records, write in my journal, get online and read Usenet and my email, and so forth. As it turned out I read quite a bit, sitting on the back stoop and gazing up at Mt. Diablo.

We went into the city a couple times on that first visit. Rob loved the Rawhide bar, which a little to my surprise I found very agreeable. People were genuinely friendly, displaying relatively little of what we’ve come to call attitude. Rob loved two-stepping and had several friends among the bar’s regulars. We also made a trip to the top of Mt. Diablo — there’s a road that goes right up there. Quite a nice vista out over the Central Valley. That reminds of me what I saw as the main disadvantage of Concord. I was back at Rob’s a couple months later when the first-ever soc.motss con took place in San Francisco. In Concord it was hot, by my standards.

At about the time Rob got tested and found out he was HIV-positive, he also quit his job with PacBell and took some contract work that didn’t prove very satisfactory. I came to San Francisco for a convention devoted to NeXT computers in 1992 and again stayed with Rob, little suspecting that he didn’t have long to live. He wasn’t in a very good state psychologically. His T-cell counts were dropping and the fears always in the background for him had begun to well up powerfully and more or less unpredictably. He was terribly frustrated, basically, blocked in so many personal and professional ways, and afraid for his future health picture. One morning while we were eating our eggs he fell completely apart, crying really hard. I felt so sad, because there wasn’t much I could do to help, other than just hold him and try to be soothing.

A couple months later, he thought he had the flu, but it wasn’t getting better, and finally he went to the hospital. They diagnosed it as pneumocystis carnii infection and started him on a treatment regimen. After about two weeks, he wasn’t getting better, and his potassium levels started to rise. Nothing they could do brought that under control. He slipped into a coma, friends and family gathered (I was very distressed that I couldn’t get free at the time), and the end came in the form of cardiac arrest from the high potassium. It was a pretty awful blow, especially since it happened only 10 weeks after my mother died.

I don’t suppose it does much good to think that with the treatments available now, he probably would have survived. One doesn’t know, and besides what good does that do now? I miss him terribly. He was such a good friend.

Jacques and I were among the many at the party. For us, it was a respite from sitting with my Stanford colleague Dwight Bolinger as he was dying, and also sitting with my father as he was dying. Rob looked drawn and gaunt but was obviously happy among his friends. And then very soon after, he too was suddenly, shockingly, dead.

Cue Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”, which you can view here (in a 1979 live performance).

2 Responses to “Queens & Cowboys”

  1. [BLOG] Some Tuesday links | A Bit More Detail Says:

    […] Zwicky reflects on the gay cowboy […]

  2. Terry Bartlett Says:

    I know all of the people in the documentary, as you might guess. They’re all great folks. Including David Reinier, who was a very good sport about being portrayed as the “bad guy” in the film. He’s actually a nice guy, as most people in IGRA are. It’s one of the things I really thank Rob for, as he was the one who introduced me to IGRA.

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