Reno Gay Rodeo
(c) Dennis McBride, 2009
In 1975, Phil Ragsdale, who was Emperor I of the Silver Dollar Court in Reno, conceived of a gay rodeo as a fundraising effort for the Court.
Ragsdale approached the Washoe County Fairgrounds manager and the earliest date the facility was available was October 2, 1976. In the months prior to that date, Ragsdale tried renting livestock for the rodeo from Reno area farmers and ranchers, but when he admitted the event was being sponsored by the Reno gay community, every farmer and rancher he approached—nearly three dozen of them—refused to rent their animals. On Friday, October 1, 1976, with the rodeo scheduled the next day, Ragsdale still had no livestock. Determined to buy cows and calves himself for the event, Phil drove 60 miles to Fallon only to discover the weekly livestock auction was held on Wednesdays. The auction managers referred Ragsdale to a local rancher who provided the animals and Ragsdale drove back to Reno at 10 o'clock the night before the rodeo was scheduled. Early the next morning, the first Reno Gay Rodeo opened with five cows, ten calves, and one Shetland pony. Even though only 150 people attended, the rodeo drew attention from gay communities throughout the West.
The event became known as the National Reno Gay Rodeo, sponsored by the Comstock Gay Rodeo Association, and over the next several years drew larger and larger crowds and raised tens of thousands of dollars for such charities as the Muscular Dystrophy Foundation, Nevada Services to the Blind, and the Veterans Administration hospital in Reno. Inspired by what was happening in ordinarily conservative Nevada, gay rodeo associations were founded in Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, California, Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wyoming. In 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association [IGRA] was founded, and the phenomenon of gay rodeo became a rich part of gay culture in the U. S.
As popularity of the National Reno Gay Rodeo increased, so did conservative backlash in the state. As early as 1980, Christian protestors marched against the parade outside the fairground fence on Wells Avenue. In 1981, Nevada’s Mormon lieutenant governor, Myron Leavitt, complained that, "They're inviting 7000 queers to come to the northern part of the state for a rodeo. … They call them queers because they've got a screw loose. I'm strongly opposed to queers using public property. ... It's illegal, unnatural and abnormal behavior. ... I think they're sick." Daniel Hansen, founder of Nevada’s homophobic Independent American Party, in two letters to the editor, wrote, “The termites of civilization have brazenly oozed out of their closet to proclaim that they have a right to maim, molest and embarrass society ... Homosexuality, like all parasites, survives by preying upon the healthy. If left unchecked, like cancer, it will destroy the body politic. History is our witness." And, “license and social irresponsibility cause venereal disease, divorce, highway deaths, mental disorders, and the destruction of civilization and nations.” 
The controversy that year reached such a pitch, that the Reno Evening Gazette ran positive three-part feature on Reno's gay community.
Based on a decision by the Chief Deputy DA of Washoe County that to deny the Gay Rodeo Association access to the fairgrounds would violate the group's rights of equal protection under the First Amendment, the Republican Washoe County Commissioner Belie Williams failed to have the rodeo’s contract for the Washoe County Fairgrounds canceled, and the event went on as planned. (http://www.tucsongaymuseum.org/ObserverArchives/1981/07/JUL%2017.pdf) The rodeo that year drew 10,000 people; in 1982, when comedienne Joan Rivers served as grand marshal, more than 20,000 attended, despite ongoing anti-gay protests.
By 1983, however, the AIDS epidemic had come to Nevada, which provided a potent new weapon for the Independent American Party, its newly formed anti-gay Pro-Family Christian Coalition, the Patriots to Normalize Reno, and various other Christian and politically conservative hangers-on. The fight from these groups in 1983 was far more vicious. The Patriots, for instance, referred to gay people as "perverted, poop-packing punks," and warned that "If you are frightened by the threat of nuclear war, consider the future of mankind based on a queer society!” The Pro-Family Christian Coalition circulated petitions to ban the rodeo, and collected nearly 7,500 signatures. The Rev. Walter Alexander of the First Baptist Church in nearby Sun Valley said of gay people that, "I think we should do what the Bible says and cut their throats." Rev. Paul Towner of St. Paul's Episcopal Church said, "I don't think they should be discriminated against more than anybody else." The Nevada Trial Lawyers Association hosted a public debate on the issue at the University of Nevada, Reno on July 25 where more than 450 people jammed the Pine Auditorium to hear the Pro-Family Christian Coalition debate the ACLU. When the Washoe County Commission met the next morning to consider the rodeo, more than 100 people attended and an armed sheriff's deputy stood guard at the door. The Commission admitted it couldn’t do anything to stop the rodeo, and the event went on as planned—but the attendance was greatly diminished from previous years: just 12,000, when rodeo organizers had predicted 55,000. Anonymous telephone calls to Reno’s three main television stations warned that snipers were poised to shoot rodeo-goers.
The 1984 rodeo was a disaster. The gay community was exhausted from fighting the AIDS epidemic as well as the religious and political backlash. In addition, the Democratic convention in San Francisco and the Olympic games in Los Angeles, both held at the same time as the National Reno Gay Rodeo, stifled attendance. The Comstock Gay Rodeo Association left Nevada State Fair, Inc. an unpaid bill of $7,530. Unable to reach Phil Ragsdale or any of the rodeo organizers, Nevada State Fair, Inc. gave away the rodeo association's reservation dates and planned no further business with them.
Southern Nevada Gay Rodeo Association
While there was no gay rodeo in Reno in 1985, 1986, or 1987, the IGRA and its many state counterparts held events all over the country: what had died in Reno was flourishing elsewhere. In 1987 the Comstock Gay Rodeo Association reconstituted itself as the Silver State Gay Rodeo Association [SSGRA], took a seat in the IGRA, and planned the 1988 International Finals Rodeo for Reno on October 21-23. The effort to bring the rodeo back into Reno, however, failed, when the Lawlor Events Center at the University of Nevada, Reno reneged on its contract with the SSGRA, and the rodeo organization was unable to find a friendly venue anywhere else in the region. When the SSGRA tried to rent a private arena in Fallon owned by David Lantry, the Churchill County Commission, in a meeting packed with hysterical locals--many of whom carried guns—denied Lantry’s request for a liquor license and Churchill County District Attorney Kevin Pasquale issued an injunction to stop the rodeo. Litigation against the university and the Churchill County Commission was unsuccessful.
Driven out of northern Nevada by ignorance and bigotry the Reno Gay Rodeo died. But in January 1992 a group of rodeo fans in Las Vegas established the Southern Nevada Gay Rodeo Association, which incorporated on June 19, 1992 as the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association [NGRA] and adopted the Backstreet Saloon--Charlie's, at the time of this writing--as its home bar. The NGRA joined the IGRA and on June 18, 1994 sponsored a "mini-rodeo," the Gymkhana '94, at Horseman's Park behind Sam's Town Hotel Casino in Las Vegas. While this wasn't an IGRA-sanctioned event, it served to christen the NGRA and to prove that southern Nevada might be a more hospitable home for Nevada gay rodeos than Reno turned out to be. That was true only somewhat: when the Imperial Palace Hotel, where the NGRA had booked 50 rooms for the 1994 Gymkhana participants, found out that NGRA stood for Nevada Gay Rodeo Association, those 50 rooms were no longer available. The rodeo had to book rooms then at the Maxim Hotel and Casino. Aside from that unfortunate bump, the NGRA indeed found a more welcoming home in Las Vegas, and two years later, on June 15-16, 1996, the NGRA held its first Big Horn Rodeo. The Big Horn Rodeo has since become one of the southern Nevada gay community's premier annual events, and one of the most well attended rodeos on the IGRA circuit. It wasn't until 2004 that the gay rodeo returned to Reno under the sponsorship of the High Sierra Rodeo Association, and in 2006, hosted the IGRA Rodeo Finals.
- Ragsdale died of AIDS on June 1, 1992 [Reno Gazette-Journal (June 4, 1992), 2B].
- Nevada State Journal (August 26, 1977), 5; (August 19, 1977), 10; August 21, 1977), 40; (August 5, 1979), 38; (August 4, 1980), 12; Vegas Gay Times (July 1978), 2; (August 1979) insert; (September 1979), 4; Reno Magazine (August 1979), 32-33; Great Falls (MT) Tribune (August 6, 1979), 13; [Nevada]Action (September 1980), 26; Reno Evening Gazette (August 1, 1982), 1B, 3B; Nevada Gay Rodeo Association Gymkhana '94 progam (insert in Las Vegas Bugle [June 1994]);http://www.igra.com/igrahist.html.
- Nevada State Journal (August 4, 1980), 12; (March 10, 1981), 16; Reno Evening-Gazette (August 4, 1980), 13; (March 10, 1981), 15; (March 11, 1981), 1, 5; (March 21, 1981), 21; (March 23, 1981), 4; (April 13, 1981), 4; [Las Vegas] Valley Times (Mach 13, 1981), 2A; (March 17, 1981), A2; (March 25, 198), A9;Las Vegas Review-Journal (March 15, 1981), 3F; (March 25, 1981), 1A; Nevadans for Human Rights press release, March 25, 1981 (author’s collection); Vegas Gay Times (April 1981), 1; (May 1981), 1, 2, 4; Carson City Nevada Appeal (March 26, 1981), A8; Las Vegas Sun (March 25, 1981), 1; (March 26, 1981), 1-2, 3; (March 27, 1981), 3; Eddie Anderson, interview by Dennis McBride, October 11-14, 2000, author’s transcript.
- Nevada State Journal/Reno Evening Gazette (April 12, 1981), 1E, 3E, 4E; Reno Evening Gazette (April 13, 1981), 16-17; (April 14, 1981), 6-7.
- Reno Evening Gazette (March 31, 1981), 13; (June 9, 1981), 1-2; (August 1, 1981), 1A; (August 2, 1981), 1A, 4A; (August 3, 1981), 12; (July 28, 1982), 1A, 12A; (August 1, 1982), 1B, 3B;(August 2, 1982), 1C; Reno Gazette-Journal (July 31, 1982), 1A, 10A; Las Vegas Review-Journal (April 1, 1981), 11A; (June 10, 1981), 10B; (June 24, 1981), 2C; (August 2, 1981), 7F; (July 29, 1982), 6B; Nevada State Journal (June 9, 1981), 1, 12; (July 26, 1981), 1A, 9A; Las Vegas Sun (August 6, 1981), 45; (July 29, 1982), 38; Rolling Stone (September 17, 1982), 108; letter, Griswold to Washoe County Board of Commissioners, June 8, 1981 (University of Nevada, Las Vegas Lied Library, Special Collections Department, hereafter noted as UNLS, MS 2005-08: Reno Gay Rodeo); Reno Gay Rodeo Association press release, through Commerce Lab marketing, July 1982 (UNLS MS 2005-08: Reno Gay Rodeo).
- Reno Evening Gazette (July 25, 1983), 1A, 10A, 1C; Nevada State Journal (July 18, 1983), 1A, 12A; (July 19, 1983), 1A, 12A; (July 21, 1983), 1A, 20A; (July 22, 1983), 1A, 14A; (July 23, 1983), 1A, 10A; (July 25, 1983), 1A, 10A, 1D; (July 26, 1983), 1A, 12A; (July 27, 1983), 1C, 14C; (August 4, 1983), 15A;Reno Gazette-Journal (July 24, 1983), 1A, 21A, 1D, 2D; (July 25, 1983), 1A, 10A; Advocate (August 4, 1983), 32, 61; (September 15, 1983), 9; (September 29, 1983), 28-29, 75; Las Vegas Review-Journal(July 20, 1983), 3B; (July 27, 1983), 35; (July 29, 1983), 22; (August 6, 1983), 3B; (August 8, 1983), 8B;Las Vegas Sun (July 23, 1983), 28; (July 26, 1983), 34; (July 28, 1983), 17; (August 17, 1983), 33; Nevada Gay Rodeo Association Gymkhana '94 program (insert in Las Vegas Bugle [June 1994]).
- Las Vegas Sun (June 15, 1984), 2F; Desert Gaze (July 1984), 5; Reno Gazette-Journal (July 19, 1984), 2C; (July 20, 1984), 1C; (July 22, 1984), 1C; (July 23, 1984), 1B; (November 7, 1984), 1C; (November 19, 1984), 1B, 4B; (August 1, 1985), 1C; Las Vegas Review-Journal (November 6, 1984), 2B;Gay Life (July 1985), 4;
- Nevada Gay Rodeo Association Gymkhana '94 program (insert in Las Vegas Bugle [June 1984]); rental agreements between SSGRA and Lawlor Events Center, October 28, 1987 and April 18, 1988 (UNLS MS 2005-08: Reno Gay Rodeo); Bohemian Bugle (September 1988), 1; (October 1988 special edition), 1-2; (October 1988,) 1, 17, 19; Reno Gazette-Journal (September 3, 1988), 1C; (September 7, 1988), 1C; (September 16, 1988), 2C; (September 17, 1988), 2C; (September 20, 1988), 1C; (September 21, 1988), 1C; (September 22, 1988), 1C-2C; (September 25, 1988), 2C; (October 1, 1988), 1C; (October 7, 1988), 1C-2C; (October 17, 1988), 1C-2C; (October 20, 1988), 1C, 16C; (October 21, 1988), 1C; (October 22, 1988), 1A, 10A; (October 23, 1988), 1A, 18A; (October 26, 1988), 17A; (October 30, 1988), 3C;Lahontan Valley News (October 7, 1988), 1; (October 18, 1988), 1, 8; (October 20, 1988), 1-2; (October 21, 1988), 1; (October 22, 1988), 1; (October 25, 1988), 1, 8; Las Vegas Review-Journal (December 21, 1988), 8B; Advocate (May 23, 1989,) 8-10; Washoe County Second Judicial Court Case nos. CV88-5141 and CV88-5151 (1988 [UNLS MS 2005-08: Reno Gay Rodeo]); Churchill County vs David L. Lantry, et. al., case no. 18487, Third Judicial Court of the State of Nevada (October 20, 1988 [UNLS MS 2005-08: Reno Gay Rodeo]); Nevada Supreme Court Case no. 19458 (1988 [UNLS MS 2005-08: Reno Gay Rodeo]); Anderson interview; http://www.igra.com/igrahist.html
- Las Vegas Bugle (March 1992), 20; (July 1992), 9; (December 1992), 18; (June/July 1993), 25; (July/August 1993), 26; (January 1994), 19; (March 1994), 43, 45; May 1994), 51, 57, 61, 65; (June 1994), 4, 19, 55-56; (April/May 1996), 43; (May/June 1996), 33; (June/July 1996), 4; Bighorn Rodeo '96 program (author’s collection); Out Las Vegas Bugle (January 3, 2003), 30; Out Las Vegas (April 2004), 13; Sierra Voice (December 16, 2004), 1-2; Nevada Gay Rodeo Association Gymkhana '94 program (insert in Las Vegas Bugle [June 1994]).