Luke Gilford was at a Pride event in northern California in 2016 when he was drawn to a stand by the sound of Dolly Parton singing 9 to 5. What he found there would change his life. Members of the local chapter of the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association were promoting what they do, and how they live. Gilford looked on in astonishment. “I grew up around this world,” he says. “I had no idea this existed. I really didn’t think it was real.”
A sought-after film-maker and photographer, to whom Barbara Kruger is a mentor and Pamela Anderson and Jane Fonda muses, Gilford cuts a striking figure. A New York Times profile that same year recounted how you could often catch a glimpse of him downtown, in a hand-me-down cowboy hat, football-style shoulder pads over his bare torso.
The headwear belonged to his father, a rodeo champion and subsequent judge in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Gilford was born in Colorado, and grew up watching his dad ride in snakeskin boots, a giant silver buckle gleaming at his waist. He gradually realised that he didn’t fit into this world, though. “The mainstream rodeo world is, you know, obviously, very homophobic and conservative. There’s so much machismo. It’s racist.”
So this chance encounter with a bunch of people who’d managed to do what seemed impossible to him was as exciting as it was discombobulating. “We all know what a rodeo is,” he says, “and we all know what queer is. We don’t think of them going together.” He set about exploring how they might.
The result is National Anthem, Gilford’s first photographic monograph – and, to his mind, a timely musing on the state of America. “We’re taught in school to recite the national anthem every morning. It has this aura of promise. But as we grow older, we realise this promise is kind of a myth. What I think is really beautiful, and so inspiring, about the queer rodeo community is that it brings back that aura of promise. It embraces both ends of the American cultural spectrum: people living on the land, but who are also queer.
“To begin with, it was very personal, a way to reconnect with a side of myself I had suppressed. But I started the project around the time Trump was elected. So it has felt really urgent to work on a wider scale beyond that personal level, to focus on what we all should be talking about and working towards.”
The first gay rodeo happened in the mid-1970s, as one of the more creative fundraisers by the Imperial Court System. This pioneering LGBT non-profit, now the second-largest in the US, uses charitable fundraising to build ties with communities. It is still run entirely by volunteers, on whom fanciful titles are bestowed. In 1975, Phil Ragsdale, then Emperor I of Reno, threw a benefit for a senior citizens Thanksgiving dinner. More than 100 people took part in this gay rodeo, as well as five cows, 10 calves, one pig and a Shetland pony. A King, a Queen and a Miss Dusty Spurs (the drag queen category) were crowned, and history was made.
Today, the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) has 15 member groups across the US, with one more in the Canadian Rockies. After meeting the Californian chapter, Gilford began saving up, planning to hit the circuit. “I was living in New York at the time. So I would fly to the south-west, rent a truck then travel around – to New Mexico, Utah, Colorado.”
The project is mostly portraiture, often close-up, with some shots against the backdrop of those fabled big skies and endless expanses. And Gilford was no outsider looking in: he clearly saw himself in the people he met. “We’re all from places that are still hostile to queerness.”
Gay cowboys have long been fetishised but this was completely authentic. It’s a real community. These are real lovers.
There is a lot of skin: shirtless torsos, a man shot from behind wearing little more than tasselled green chaps, a naked couple on a horse. But it isn’t erotica. In one particularly tender shot, a man in jeans and blue plaid rests his hand on his partner’s back, underneath the latter’s pale checkered shirt. “How often do you see something like that?” says Gilford. “Gay cowboys have long been fetishised in pornography, as in art, but this was completely authentic. It’s a real community. These are real lovers.”
Creating the pictures was a way for him to listen to people’s stories, to see their scars, to discover their beauty and contentment. “Usually when we hear about rural queerness it’s in a negative way,” he says. “It’s like something bad has happened – it’s the Matthew Shepard story. We don’t have examples, really, in pop culture of people who are queer and living real lives and living their best life.”
This certainly seems to apply to Priscilla Toya Bouvier – AKA Paul Vigil, AKA Miss IGRA 2019, AKA queer rodeo royalty – who frowns at the camera with thick, black lashes in a peach button down and turquoise beads, diamante crown catching the light of a low sun, sash festooned with as many buttons and badges as a piece of fabric can be. In another shot, an older white couple’s kiss is hidden by matching straw-coloured Stetsons. Bull-rider Lee, formerly known as Breana, holds up a bandaged right arm against a black sports bra, pale dirt and an even paler sky stretching out in the distance.
Lee is one of several portraits of people of colour, whose presence defies the commonly held misconception that rodeo – and by extension rural America – is exclusively white. It brings to mind the Compton Cowboys and other Black horsemen and women who rode through Houston and Oakland in a recent Black Lives Matter protest. Gilford points out that the queer rodeo is welcoming to anyone on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum and beyond. “If you are black or brown or Asian and you do not feel safe in the mainstream rodeo spaces, you’re welcome at the queer rodeo, even if you’re not queer.”
He prizes this openness and doesn’t find it particularly common. “I’ve never totally identified with urban queer culture, which is about celebrating this escape, perhaps, from rural places. It’s about partying, consumerism, capitalism.” The queer rodeo world struck a different chord. “It is so much more about a connection to the land, to animals, to community.”
Gilford is best known for music videos and fashion spreads featuring glitzy showbiz high fliers: Lizzo, David Lynch, Christina Aguilera, as well as Fonda and Anderson. He doesn’t see this new work as a departure, though, given how full of spectacle and heightened emotion rodeo is. But he does think queer rodeo has a different energy to its straight counterpart. “Mainstream rodeo is so much more about danger and violence,” he says. “Here, it’s still a celebration, but one of love and care. Because these are people who have survived a certain kind of trauma and are now here to re-enact this traditional western performance, which is also a form of drag.”
The book opens with a quote by Black writer and trans rights activist Janet Mock about family as community, “a space where you don’t have to shrink yourself”. A couple of pages later, Gilford riffs on this notion, saying that “one of the great powers of the queer rodeo is its ability to disrupt America’s tribal dichotomies that cannot contain who we really are – liberal versus conservative, urban versus rural, ‘coastal elite’ versus ‘middle America’”.
National Anthem has also helped him to accept who he really is, a queer child of rural south-west America, a fact that lends his project greater poignancy. It’s a homecoming of sorts, a return to the land, a metaphor, a dream. “It’s the future,” he says, “the America we all dream of, being able to be whatever we want to be.”
• National Anthem is published on 1 October by Damiani.
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