Nevada gay rodeo grows in popularity

by Zamna Avila

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday September 3, 2009

Darren Wernette didn't become a cowboy in his hometown in the Lone Star State. He instead put on his hat and boots in Sin City.

"I just kind of stumbled onto it," Wernette, 47, said. "I was in a gay Western bar in Vegas and some member of (the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association) invited me to join the group. I'm actually a Texas boy at hear but never really got into the Western stuff."

What attracted Wernette the most to the group was what he described as its camaraderie and the charity. Proceeds form the events they promote are donated to the Nevada AIDS Project, Aide for AIDS of Nevada and Reach Out, an organization dedicated to help children living with AIDS, and other organizations.

"I really didn't have anything going on in my spare time and I felt the need to make myself useful in my community," Wernette, a flight attendant, said.

Five years later, Wernette is now Mr. NGRA 2009 and quite active with the group.

"I've had a blast," Wernette said. "I've travelled all over the country ... I've become a part of the family; it's a big family with great people all with the desire to do good in the community."

Wernette also is the entertainment coordinator for NGRA's 13th Annual BigHorn Rodeo, a cultural festival with Western-style entertainment, dancing, dining, educational and artistic experiences that will run from Sept. 18-20. The rodeo also include traditional events in rough stock that include bareback bronc and bull riding, speed, roping, comical events and other activities. The BigHorn Rodeo is one of the largest rodeos on the gay circuit with more than 115 contestants participating in more than 800 performances. This year's beneficiary is Focus Nevada, which helps people living with HIV/AIDS with, among other things, providing meals, assistance and advocacy.

About 1,500 people show up to the event each year. Contestants from all over the United States and Canada come to the event, although most of them are from the Midwest. There are some straight contestants, and there usually is an equitable amount of men and women who participates.

"In a lot of cases gay people are still considered out of the loop when it comes to rodeo," Shaun Sewell, director of the BigHorn Rodeo said. "People don't recognize that gay people can do rodeo. We provide that kind of opening to them."

He added most of the rodeo is almost identical to others around the country. There are, however, three district contests that aren't commonplace in other rodeos. These include steer decorating, in which people compete to tie a ribbon an a steer's tail; Wild drag, in which a man, a woman and a person in drag team up to grab a steer, the person in wearing drag clothing rides the steer, while the two other people pull the steer across a line; and goat dressing, in which a competitor puts a pair of jockey short the hind legs of a steer.

Wernette plans to participate in the popular goat dressing contest, which also will be open to any member of the public who wants to participate. He said he usually doesn't win a ribbon but he has a good time trying.

"People don't recognize that gay people can do rodeo. We provide that kind of opening to them."

"I have a bad back so I can't do a whole lot of stuff," Wernette said. "Goat dressing is an easy and fun event to and I'm still participating in the rodeo ... I don't think the goat like it as much as the people do but..."

Wernette added he and other organizers try to make BigHorn a family friendly event where children and their parents are welcomed and have a good time.

"You see it all, but mostly everybody is just has fun," he said. "People come to the Rodeo because it is something different to do ... We, as gay folk, are just the same as everybody else. We do something a little different to raise money and have people get together."

Because the rodeo is open to everyone, organizers contend it also has served as way to create cohesion between gays and straights.

This year, for example, the Western Heritage and Education, Inc., a non-LGBT affiliated group which also produces rodeos and Western heritage events of its own, has partnered with NGRA to co-produce the barrel race.

"We've crossed the hands friendship is what it boils down to; we think," Buttons Warburton of the WHE said. "To me, people are people, regardless of creed, race or whatever may be ... If you have to look at people through a different set of glasses that doesn't make you a very good person."

In the end, the aim is the same: to enrich the Western way of life.

"Rodeo is a follow through form the early charros in Mexico and Spain," Warburton, secretary for the barrel race," said. "You have to appreciate the tradition and lifestyle. This is where the there no boundaries; rodeo is rodeo."

Warburton said this event and the partnership with between the organizations should serve as an example for other groups.

"I would hope it would open more doors to be equally accepted in the community and world," she said. "Everybody regardless of your walk of life can work together.

Log onto www.ngra.com/cms_bighorn/index.html or www.westernheritageeducation.com for more information.