Interview with Roger Bergmann

Austin, Texas on November 19, 2016 | Interviewer: Rebecca Scofield

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Rebecca Scofield: This is Rebecca Scofield, I'm here with Roger Bergmann, past IGRA president. It's November 19th and we are at the International Gay Rodeo Association Annual Convention 2016. And yeah, could you tell me a little about where you grew up?
[00:00:00]
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Roger Bergmann: I grew up in Northwest Montana, in Kalispell, Montana, near Glacier National Park. And, as a youth, my parents never went to the annual county fair, but I would ride my bicycle to the fair in August every year and leave it leaning against the fence and stay there all day for the four days. And there would be a rodeo on the weekends and I'd go in and watch the rodeos.
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RS: What did your parents do for a living?
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RB: My dad was a full time meat cutter, had his own meat shop inside of a small grocery store. And my mom worked as a secretary at various small businesses around town after I was about 6 years old.
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RS: Did you guys live in town?
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RB: We lived in town, only like a half a block from the downtown area of Kalispell, which when I was growing up it was about a town of 15,000 people. Now it's probably about 45,000.
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RS: Wow, did you stay in the area after high school or?
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RB: I was there until I was 21 and I had gone to the University of Montana, I graduated from college in 1971. The Vietnam War was still going on but I had applied for a conscientious objector’s status with the selective service and was granted that. I thought I would be drafted because at that time they were doing a lottery system for people being drafted and the ping pong balls…it's just like lotto, they had numbers on ping pong balls and my April 18th birthday came up as number ninety—so I knew I would likely be drafted. So instead of waiting for the draft to happen, there was a period where—it was very confusing, but the selective service law had lapsed but I knew it was going to be re-instituted by congress so I went ahead and volunteered for my alternate service, and ended up going to California for the alternate service for something called the California Ecology Core, which is now the California Conservation Corps.
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RS: Wow, so you were really coming up in the thick of it there.
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RB: Yeah, at the time I did not realize or accept the fact that I was gay or I could have gotten that for a deferment for the selective service. But, I did get deferred as a conscientious objector.
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RS: And were you involved in any relationships at the time?
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RB: Uh no, I didn't actually come out, even going into a gay bar until I was almost 31. And I ended up in a long distance relationship with someone when I was probably close to 40.
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RS: And where did you move to when you left Montana?
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RB: Well, I was yeah, when I left Montana for this alternate service it was in Bishop, California. Bishop was a small town of about 8,000 people and outside of it was this California Division of Forestry Center and it had previously been a minimum security prison camp for people to fight fire but in the early 70s, California courts were realizing minimum security prisons back onto the street so they had four of these camps that hold 80 people were empty so Governor Ronald Reagan and the state of California created the California Ecology Corps so they could fill up these centers to have bodies to fight wildfires and do public works projects when there weren't fires.
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RS: ... So during this career you're doing, were you starting to grapple with your sexuality at all? What was the sort of culture like?
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RB: Well, the Forest Service is a fairly conservative organization, especially when I first started. It was about 1977 that I became full time with the Forest Service rather than seasonal jobs. And at this point I still had not accepted my own sexuality, it was about 1981 that I finally went into my first gay bar. And I was nervous as could be when I was going in. It was a bar called the Eye Beam in San Francisco and I loved to dance, so I would always go out there, I wanted to be ready to dance at nine o’clock nobody goes out ‘til 10:30 but I'm there early. But as soon as I got into the bar and walked around there were a few pool tables and people playing pool and I felt totally comfortable and at ease and, felt that yes, it's not just a curiosity. I am gay.
[00:10:01]
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RS: And did being in that look, that community make that better for you? Make it…?
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RB: It made it better for me in my mind, but I was still closeted with my friends and family. But I quickly told my best friend who lived in Bishop and my sister about a year later and my parents about three years after I first went into the bar, I was about thirty four I guess when I told my parents.
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RS: And how did your family take the news?
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RB: My sister, no problem. My parents, really no problem. It stunned them, but there was no rejection. My father thought and verbalized, “Oh this is just a phase, a curiosity, it'll pass you'll get married someday.” And I said, “No, that's not going to happen.” But there were no problems. My mother discussed things about my relationships throughout the years, my father never really talked about it. I didn't push the subject with him but we had a very good relationship. I know he loved me, I was with him the last three months of his life, helping take care of him every day, and it was, I feel really fortunate with the family that I have.
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RS: So how did you first hear of a gay rodeo?
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RB: Well, after I had gone into my first bar in 1981, in San Francisco I saw a flyer on the wall for the National Reno Gay Rodeo which was the first gay rodeos that were held. They started in 1976, I believe it was, by a man named, Phil Ragsdale, in Reno, Nevada. And I went to the rodeo in August of 1981 shortly after I had gone into my first bar, because of the flyer that I had seen. So there were about 8,000 people in the stands. There was only one gay rodeo a year at that time and that was in Reno. A lot of people from San Francisco and Los Angeles would get up there for the rodeo. And I went, from 1981, I went every year until they closed. They had their last rodeo which I think was 1985, I believe. They started in ‘76 and they had nine rodeos before they ended up going into bankruptcy and not having another rodeo. But by that time, it was probably about 1983, I was at a parking lot country western dance there during the rodeo weekend and I heard a couple of people talking next to me and I didn't know who they were, and I didn't approach them but, one man had a very melodic voice, I mean it was a voice you could not mistake. And I found out later that it was Wayne Jakino who was a co-owner of Charlie's in Denver, Colorado, and he became one of the first rodeo announcers for the International Gay Rodeo Association. And he was also the founding president of the IGRA. And he had had a voice that was unmistakable and just really pleasant announcing voice. But I heard him talking about the group from Colorado and how they had to get more people to come out to Reno for the rodeo.
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RS: That's amazing. What would an average weekend at the Reno rodeo look like? What were you doing?
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RB: That I'm not going to talk about. [Laughter]. Those weekends were pretty wild. That was a just at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. I came out to my first bar in 1981, and it was shortly after that I picked up a San Francisco…I can't remember what the…The Bay Guardian, Baysomething…the gay newspaper up there, and they still didn't call it AIDS it was just this, “the gay disease” and some other kind of non-specific name. Nobody knew what was causing it or anything. But there were the dances, I would go to the country western dances at the local bars, they didn't have anything really at the rodeo grounds the first year. But then Joan Rivers was the grand marshal for one of the events, and they did have a big night time party at the Washoe County Fairgrounds after the rodeo with Joan Rivers there. And that was where the first concept for the Mister and Miss and Ms IGRA came from, but they only did a Miss competition at the National Reno Gay Rodeo. And they would raise money starting in 1976, they were raising it for muscular dystrophy mainly. And then later on they also raised money for the local senior community and the seniors would come out and help at the rodeo.
[00:14:50]
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RS: Now as it started to grow and become more of an association were you involved with that?
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RB: As I said, the Reno rodeo ended in about 1985 or probably ‘84 at that last rodeo I, the Sands Hotelin Reno was the host hotel and a gay group called Great Outdoors was hosting a dinner for just anybody that wanted to go on Friday night. So I went to the dinner and ended up at a table of eight sitting next to Al Bell and his partner Pat McGrath who were just getting ready to open up a country western dance bar in Long Beach, California and so I was visiting with them throughout this period of this dinner and I told them I was an avid country western dancer so I got to know them and started going to their bar shortly after it opened. And Al Bell was the founding president of the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association, GSGRA, and even though I lived about five hours from Long Beach, I didn't really go to their meetings but I got involved I became a founding member of the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association. And went to their first gay rodeo in March of 1985 and in September of 1985 was the first IGRA convention that was held in Denver, Colorado and the four founding groups, Colorado, Golden State—California—Arizona Gay Rodeo Association and New Mexico and also Oklahoma was there to be seated as the 5th group in September of 1985. I went to that convention only knowing Al Bell, really and I sat in the back of the room and wasn't even sure if I was allowed to be there. But nobody said anything about I couldn't be there and I met John King who was the president of Arizona Gay Rodeo Association at the time. And a number of people and kind of was brought into the fold. John King has been a good friend ever since. Al Bell has passed away a number of years ago. But so I was at that first convention and had a good time meeting people and seeing the organization of the International Gay Rodeo Association.
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RS: So how many people total were probably at that first convention?
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RB: Oh that first convention there were probably less than thirty maybe and most of them were probably from Denver. I mean there were a few people from each of the four founding associations and and Oklahoma which was the fifth that came in that same year.
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RS: Now do you like all forms of dance or country western most particularly?
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RB: I like all forms of dance but I mean when I was in the 6th or 7th grade, a lot of people went to our church and learned how to do the Fox Trot and the Waltz and the two step and then we all went to the school dance and did none of that.
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RS: Yep and so as the rodeo got underway with the association did they usually have dances along with them?
[00:20:08]
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RB: There were only four rodeos that first year, really. And dance was very popular, country western dance was extremely popular in the mid-80s to about 1997 there was a lot of country western dance, a lot of country western gay bars, and that's where we drew most of our spectators from so—and that was before there were a gay cruises and gay travel companies and a lot of other options, so the fact that the gay rodeo association had had come out and we were having four rodeos and then five rodeos and then six rodeos a year a lot of these dancers would plan on going to those rodeo events because each of them would have a good country western dance usually at the host hotel.
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RS: And why do you think country western was so popular at that time?
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RB: I honestly don't know how it happened. I mean, I grew up in Montana and I hated country western music. When I was living in Bishop, California, it was a five hour drive to get to Los Angeles but I went down there in…you know I came out in the spring of ‘81, Valentine's Day weekend was my first time in a gay bar. In June, I went to the gay pride event in Los Angeles, and I heard some people talking about this place that they'd gone to the night before and they talked for thirty minutes about how much fun it was and everything and before they told the name of the bar and that it was a country western bar and so I went there that night. It was called the New Town Saloon on Santa Monica Boulevard. And it had swinging doors just like a saloon, but I stood outside for a minute looking in at everybody dancing and then I went in after I had saw how much everybody is smiling and having a great time, so I went in and a I saw this guy I'm 6 foot 2 and this guy was about 6 foot 5. And he was leading people in a good dance and so I asked if he would teach me how to dance. First I complimented him on how good he was so that he would feel obligated to dance with me. But he took me around and showed me how to do the two step and I fell in love with it right away it was everybody was having so much fun. And probably just a few weeks after that weekend I had to go back to Pasadena for a week of training for the Forest Service and every night I drove over to West Hollywood and learned more about how to dance, learned how to lead instead of just follow.
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RS: And you said you started to have a long distance relationship?
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RB: Yes, that was with somebody from Seattle. At that time we had a Northwest Gay Rodeo Association, it doesn't exist any longer but I had actually gone I had an older friend who traveled a lot he had an extra discount ticket to fly up to anywhere, so we flew up to Seattle for the weekend. We had heard about this great country western bar in Seattle called the Timberland, which had been they were in an old lodge building of some sort that had this beautiful wooden floor and all four sides of it were these chairs for the officers of this moose lodge or whatever, elks club, or whatever it had been it was it was a beautiful old building with this huge dance floor and we went up there for the weekend and my first night there I saw this blonde, blue-eyed boy dancing the line dance and beautiful smile and having a great time. So I asked him to dance and we danced the rest of the night and the rest of the weekend and every rodeo I would go to by this time I was a rodeo judge, but so I would be going to all the rodeos and he would travel to the rodeos and meet me and then I would fly up to Seattle for a weekend or he would fly to Los Angeles for a weekend. But he had a good job with Boeing, and didn't want to quit and leave and I had a good job a with Forest Service and didn't want to quit that or transfer so it was a long distance relationship for a few years until he passed away from AIDS.
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RS: And what year did you meet him in?
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RB: Uh, that was probably about 1992.
[00:25:00]
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RS: And so, you were getting more and more involved?
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RB: Yes, we skipped the part where ‘85 I went to my first Los Angles rodeo and I did travel to all of the rodeos as a dancer and spectator that year of 1985. In 1986, I went to the rodeo and there was a sign on the door as I walked in saying that they were looking for people that wanted to judge the gay rodeos, well when I was growing up in Montana, and even in to high school, I would go to the local rodeo and I would try to guess what the scores were going to be. You know, I didn't know anything about how the judging took place but I would see what the judges were doing and then I would watch the ride and see how close I could get to how they were scoring. So I kind of enjoyed the watching rodeo and thought I could become a good judge, so I volunteered and spent that weekend in Los Angeles with Casey Jackson from Colorado, who had experience in rodeo long before IGRA started. And she had been a bull rider and a rodeo competitor and she was the training coordinator for the rodeo judges. So I sat with her through that weekend and also then went to the Denver rodeo and the Oklahoma rodeo that year and after three rodeos with my prior experience as well, they felt that I was ready to judge rodeo so I got certified as a judge—the second person to be certified as a judge for the gay rodeo association after the Oklahoma rodeo and I judged my first rodeo in November of 1986 in Dallas. The first year that we had the wild drag race. Which was a disaster, we thought it was going to be a great easy event and as soon as the gates opened, we all started blowing our whistles and stopped the event. And everybody got together to talk about how we could fix this and make it work.
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RS: Do you know what the inspiration for the event was?
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RB: John Beck from Colorado who has been competing since the very first gay rodeo in in Colorado, in fact I believe he also competed at one of the Reno National Gay Rodeos before this formation of the IGRA. And the first Colorado rodeo was before the formation of IGRA as well. He, he can say it better and hopefully you'll have a chance to interview with John too, but he just says I had a dream. And it was more like a nightmare. The wild drag event is usually just a steer with a twenty-five foot rope on a halter. A woman is holding onto the rope ten feet from the gate, as the gate opens she holds that rope and the other two people—a man or a woman in a in a drag outfit wearing a wig and some type of a dress—and a man are standing about forty feet away, they run up to help move this animal across a line seventy feet from the gate I believe it is, and then the drag has to get on and ride the steer back across the line. The way the rule was first written was as soon as the gate opened they were supposed to go out towards this line but stop the steer and get on it and ride it across the line away from the cutes but when that first gates opened those steers took off and were all at the other end of the arena before anybody had a chance to get on it. So that's when we revised the rule that it instead of having to get on before they cross the line they had to take the animal across the line and then bring it back.
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RS: It's good trial and error. So did you ever compete yourself in any events?
[00:29:27]
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RB: I did actually. That first year that I was getting trained as a judge I had not competed yet in in Los Angeles or Denver, but when I went to the Oklahoma rodeo which was the 3rd rodeo where I was getting trained as a judge, I also competed in chute-dogging for the first time. And I had never really seen it so I thought well I'll just watch people go out and then I'll learn it. Well, the first day I was the first person to go out, so I didn't get to see anybody else do it. I dogged the steer in about nine and a half seconds the first day. And then I watched people and the second day I got it in about four and a half seconds. I never did win any buckles, I won a few ribbons. I did some other events, I did—our first we did wild cow riding at first for a few years before we changed it to wild steer riding. The wild cows were more difficult to ride because at that time we also had wild cow milking. So we were using the same cows and they would jump around in the chutes because they weren't with their calf, that's because they still had milk—so they were pretty wild in the chutes. And so we didn't keep that event very long before we went to steer riding. But I never made a successful steer riding. I just…I rode horizontal a lot. I always hit the ground.
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RS: Did you ever get injured?
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RB: I spent a night in the hospital after a hard fall in Los Angeles. I collapsed my lung.
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RS: Yeah, that's scary. That's scary. But no real interest in in sort of being a bronc rider or roper?
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RB: I love to dance and I didn't want to screw up my dancing. My grandfather danced until he was in his late eighties.
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RS: And how did you get involved with the leadership after becoming a judge?
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RB: Well, I started judging in 1986 and in the spring of 1993 I got a phone call from Wayne Jakino, the founding president of IGRA, and said that he had been talking with some of the other people: Les Campbell was the 2nd president, some of the vice presidents, trustees, etc. And they had…as a judge I had been going to all of the rodeos and at that time, with only four and five and then six rodeos a year, they were having a board of directors meeting before on Friday before each of the rodeos. And I would get in on Friday so I would go and attend the meetings so I was aware of what was happening already and I knew all of the people that were on the board. But they called and thought that I should run for president and I said, “Well, you caught me totally off guard. But I'll think about it.” So I thought about it for a couple of weeks and called back and said that I would. And when the word got out that I was going to run for president nobody else did. And I was voted in by acclamation since nobody else was running against me. And I ran a second year and then the man that I was dating in the long distance relationship passed away in 1994, and I had planned on not running so that I could spend time with him. But when he passed away I decided I would run for a third term. So that I would keep busy over the next year, and so I ran. I was president from 1993 through 1995.
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RS: Did it help to stay busy?
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RB: It did. It kept me busy. It kept me involved with people so that helped get through the grieving period.
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RB: Was the community helpful?
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RB: Yes, yes.
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RS: What were some of the challenges you had when you were president?
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RB: Well, rodeo was growing rapidly. I became president at a time when country music was still on the rise and in 1993 interest in rodeo had grown tremendously. Every year that I was president we brought in two or three member associations. I can't remember now what all they were but every year we were seating new groups and I think our total, the total membership, nobody is a member for the International Gay Rodeo Association you are a member for the association the state association that are affiliated with IGRA, but through all of those associations there were somewhere between 6,500 and 7,000 members across the United States and Canada. The ARGRA, Alberta Rockies Gay Rodeo Association was one of the groups that came in while I was president. So there was always, there was a lot of growth happening and we still didn't really have cell phones and email was not very popular at that time in ‘93, ‘94, ‘95. I was getting written letters, I was making a lot of telephone calls, but it had to be on a hard line, not a cell phone. So I guess those were the challenges.
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RS: And so, as you said this was a time of rapid growth, were you as president going to a lot of these events yourself?
[00:35:29]
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RB: Well, as I, as a rodeo judge and…
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RS: So you're still judging while being president?
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RB: I was judging while president. I was one of the main judges for a while. There were three of us: Chuck Barackman, myself, and Mark Friedann. Neither of them, none of us are judging anymore but one time we were called the three musketeers cause we seemed to be the three judges that were being picked for most of the rodeos. There were not a lot of judges at that time. We were, I was involved in also training new judges so we could build up the pool of judges. But I judged rodeos for a total of sixteen, a little over sixteen years. And I was judging while I was president so, I could get to all of those rodeos because I was usually judging the rodeos.
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RS: Wow, and I mean this is really you know the ‘80s, early ‘90s with the AIDS epedemic. How did that effect the feeling of rodeos and gay culture?
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RB: At that time the main focus, I mean IGRA and our member associations tried to be involved in raising funds for different charitable organizations. And in the early years, 1985 through probably about 19… maybe all the way to 2000, the main focus of all of the groups was to raise money for different AIDS organizations. Now we’ve branched out and more it's breast cancer, we do things for equine organizations, children’s organizations, we've branched out into a lot of areas not just related to assisting people in the gay community but also other areas.
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RS: That's amazing. Were they still pretty big parties or as they grew were they getting more focused on rodeo?
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RB: Well, the rodeo was always the main focus of the weekend and most of the rodeos in the beginning also had some kind of a dance venue at the rodeo grounds, but they would always have a Friday and Saturday night party with big dancing especially on the West coast: Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Phoenix, and Denver, and Albuquerque. Not so much in the eastern area, they would have parties at the local country bars. There were some, even Texas and Oklahoma I remember having big dance parties at the very beginning but those faded away a little bit. Washington, D.C. had a couple of big parties at the Post Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C. Different areas—as the as the dancing became less popular, it was not the main source of our spectators, they had to draw more spectators from their local area than plan on the dancers coming in from around the country. Because other things were happening: gay cruises, gay softball, gay basketball, I don't think there’s gay basketball but there's something or other, soccer, rugby, there's all sorts of things that are taking people from the gay rodeo events that that were so popular at the very beginning.
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RS: And how…what was the interaction between the rodeos and the communities that were being hosted in did you experience any homophobia?
[00:45:00]
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RB: Yes. Not so much in the larger cities but I remember the first time that we held a rodeo and I don't remember the name of the city I think it was Enumclaw, Washington. It was about sixty miles south of Seattle when the Northwest Rodeo Association held their first rodeo. The word had gotten out in the community that there was going to be a gay rodeo and when we went over there the morning for the first rodeo there were mostly high school kids and maybe a few people in their 20s holding up signs picketing the gay rodeo and having a lot of anti-gay slurs which I'm not even going to bother to mention.
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RS: And as you work with the communities do you people gay or straight express surprise over the gay rodeo at all?
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RB: Well, even to this day there's people in the gay community that are surprised to hear about it. I mean, a lot of people now find us on the internet, they type in gay, and just find out what’s out there and that's how they stumble upon gay rodeo, and so that may be how there's an event in their area or one that they want to travel to. And within the last ten years there's quite a few straight people that now compete in our rodeos because we are open to anybody that wants to compete and there's a number of people that are very good, especially in horse contestants, that come to our rodeos to compete and they've been very supportive of our membership. Recently, one of the first contestants for the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association, Richard Armstrong, was discovered to have a brain tumor, and he had had surgery, he just actually passed away three days ago. But about a month ago we had a fundraising effort in Nevada, in Las Vegas, and it was the majority of people there were straight people that had known him through the roping and riding equestrian groups, thousands of dollars were raised to help him with his medical bills.
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RS: Let's see, so would you consider yourself a cowboy?
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RB: No. [Laughter] Even though I did work on a cattle ranch after I graduated from high school, the summers I did work on a cattle ranch. And mostly the first year just dealing with getting in the hay for the winter season but the following three years I did work with his livestock. Grooming them, brushing them, washing them, and showing them on cattle shows. After I graduated from college and was able to work with them longer into the fall, I did actually go with him to the San Francisco Cow Palace for the Grand National Rodeo that’s held there in October. That year they had a special show for Polled Herefords, which is what he raised. So my picture is actually hanging on the wall in the Cow Palace Center in San Francisco. But it's way up high and it’s this picture of the entire rodeo arena with about a hundred animals being led in by people and I'm leading four animals, four bulls, into the arena for this spectacular show that they did for the rodeo.
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RS: But you wouldn't consider yourself a cowboy?
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RB: Not compared to these people that can ride a horse really well. Even as a judge I was able to ride a horse but I'm not a…I don't consider myself a really good equestrian person.
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RS: Do you still dance?
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RB: I still dance, as much as I can. At sixty-seven I've got some problems with my feet but I still dance up a storm when I can.
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