Interview with Tommy Channel

Denver, Colorado on November 11, 2019 | Interviewer: Renae Campbell

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Renae Campbell: This is Renae Campbell and we are doing an interview at the International Gay Rodeo Association Convention in Denver, Colorado. It’s November 11, 2019—nope—November 22nd. [laughs….]. And I am here with Tommy Channel, and we are going to talk a little bit about your experience with IGRA.
Tommy Channel: Okay.
RC: And so, I usually like to start by asking where you were born.
TC: I was born in a little town called Cushing, Texas. About three hours east of Dallas.
RC: Nice. And did you grow up there, or…?
TC: Born and raised. Nacogdoches County.
RC: And what was it like growing up there?
TC: I was born a coal miner's daughter… no. [laughs] I was born and raised on a farm with my mom and dad. Grandparents lived right next door and they were vegetable farmers, raised cattle and pigs. That's how I grew up.
RC: You grew up around animals then, it sounds like?
TC: Yeah, I did. And I had a good childhood. I had a good childhood. We didn't go hungry. We didn't have a lot of money, but we had what we needed to live.
RC: And did you have brothers and sisters?
TC: I had two older sisters—two older sisters, we're very close. I enjoy being with my sisters when I do go home.
RC: So, does your family still live mostly all in Texas?
TC: They all live in Texas.
RC: Okay.
TC: And I have a little farmhouse there on two acres that I was raised in. When my parents passed away, I inherited the homestead and my partner and I frequently visit there.
RC: Nice. So, you have some fond memories of your childhood, it sounds like.
TC: Very fond memories, yes.
RC: And did you go to high school there?
TC: High school in Cushing, Texas. And then attended a little business college in Nacogdoches called Massey Business college back in the day.
RC: Okay. And then, what did you do after college?
TC: After college, well, after that business college, my first real job that I call an extended job was for an export company, actually. They're in Nacogdoches. We exported to Saudi Arabia—to the oilfields in Saudi Arabia back in the mid- ‘70s.
RC: Okay. And growing up, did you go to many rodeos? Was that part of your upbringing?
TC: We did. That was—that was a pretty good—pretty much the pastime back out in the country in east Texas. A lot of rodeoing, country rodeos, yes.
RC: And were you involved in them?
TC: I was not at the time, no.
RC: Okay. How did you find out about IGRA?
TC: Well, after—after working for a few years there in Nacogdoches for that export company, I met some friends who introduced me to Houston, Texas, and discovered where I needed to be. And who I needed to be, finally.
RC: So, was that kind of during that period that you came out, or was it before then?
TC: No. That that was the period where I came out, where I discovered who I was—who I am.
RC: And was that a—what was that experience like for you?
TC: It was.... It was like a weight lifted off your shoulders. When you finally know who you are, and you don't have to pretend to be somebody that you're not to try and satisfy a religion or a family expectation. It's a huge relief to finally know who you are.
RC: And did you have a very supportive community there, with you at that time?
TC: My family is very supportive. In the day—in those late ‘70s, by this time—mid- to late ‘70s—it wasn't something you talked about. Families know; mothers know. I think mothers know from adolescence. It's just—I think it's an instinct.
RC: So, then, it was your friends there in Houston that introduced you to IGRA events?
TC: Correct. My first IGRA event was in Houston, Texas. In, um, ‘80…. Wow, can't remember. ‘80 something—the early ‘80s. And I didn't know anybody at the event. I just heard about it. Maybe I saw a poster or something at a bar or read about it, maybe somewhere that I had been. I don't remember how I heard about it. But I went, and I didn't know anyone. I didn't know a soul. But I was so intrigued, watching these events that were so—some of them—foreign.
TC: Some of them were just rodeo events like, you know, bronc riding, bull riding, and roping—those kind of things. But they did something so unusual that I had never seen before, like a drag race, and the goat dressing, and wild drag. Those events were foreign. Something I'd never seen before. And to these people, it was—they were having fun. They were really fun. And guess what? I wanted, I wanted to be a part of it. [laughs] So, I did what I needed to do, and met some people, and said, “How do I—how do I do this?” And that's what we did.
RC: So then did you go—uh, what was the next one that you went to? Did you immediately start attending?
TC: The next—the next event was in Denver, Colorado. The next gay rodeo was in Denver, Colorado. And, um, that's when I fell in love with Denver.
RC: And did you participate in that one? Or did you just, um…?
TC: Not in the first one, no. But it was probably the next one or so. I ran right out and bought myself a horse—yeah. And my little horse’s name was Sassafras. Nicknamed Sassy, after myself, of course. And we did barrels, poles, flags—the horse events. And we, we just blended right in.
RC: So, did you do more events than that, or are those primarily…?
TC: Those were the primary. The camp events, and the wild drag, and the goat dressing, and […] steer decorating, now, I did those as well. Yeah, I did. I never rode a bull, never rode a bronc—no.
RC: Did you have a favorite of those events?
TC: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely! My horse and I, our favorite event was flag race for sure. We loved running flags.
RC: And did you…?
TC: A couple buckles? Yeah.
RC: Yeah? How did you know what I was gonna ask? [laughs]
TC: [laughs] Huh? Yeah. I sport a couple of buckles in that event.
RC: Nice. And then have you been pretty consistently involved since that time?
TC: I have been very involved since then. I have been president of the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association four terms, and I've been a rodeo director for CGRA, the Colorado group, I believe, three times. I've been rodeo director for the International Finals Rodeo twice—two different times. And just last year was my—I think it was my fourth term as president here, which ended in September of this year. And I have been a Mr. IGRA in 1997—I think. I think that's the year. [laughs] And that was a huge accomplishment, something to be proud of, I'm proud of. To be recognized by your peers is always a good thing. And, um….
RC: So, it sounds like you've done the rodeo events, you've also been part of royalty, and you've been part of the administration so to speak.
TC: Currently—I am currently—the administrative assistant. I'm the only paid employee of the International Association. And so, I'm very involved currently. Still in the in the International Association and with CGRA. I helped produce this weekend's event here: Convention.
RC: Congratulations on pulling that off.
TC: I think it's going very well. Thank you.
RC: Yeah. So, when you came out to that first rodeo in Denver, was that when you decided to move out here or…?
TC: I had already moved.
RC: Oh, you had already moved. Okay.
TC: I had already moved here when I attended that rodeo.
RC: And in all the different roles that you have served, do you think that there are—do you think that you've seen a good cross-section of…?
TC: Oh, absolutely. Going from a contestant to administration and production of the event that I love so much, it's a huge spectrum to cross. And I've enjoyed every minute of it; every event that I participate in, I love.
RC: Nice. So, what do you think makes IGRA different from, say, the rodeos that you participated in—or saw—as a kid?
TC: Hmm. Well, for one thing, we—the interaction from association to association, state to state, becomes a family affair—a huge social event. And it's exciting to see friends and people that you consider family at this point, you know, a few times a year. Just like you—just like I go home to see my blood family. These people are my family. I love them dearly and appreciate their contributions, you know, to our society. We have doctors, lawyers, nurses, practitioners, veterinarians in our group, schoolteachers, you name it. Sexuality has no boundaries. And it's, it's a beautiful family.
RC: Nice. Um…Yeah. That's a lovely statement.
TC: Well, thank you. It was not rehearsed.
RC: It just came out that way. Yeah. So, have you ever been at one of the events where there were—it sounds like you've been on a lot of them—where they were protesting?
TC: Absolutely. Absolutely. In the early years, in the early ‘80s, perhaps even in the early ‘90s, we experienced quite a bit of protesting. Not only—they weren't so much protesting “gay,” they were protesting “rodeo.” And what they considered animal abuse. Many signs that come to my memory first off would be, let’s see… I remember seeing this in California, particularly, that would say “Gay yes. Rodeo no.” Comes to mind as one of the proliferate, or more…. that’s what I remember.
RC: So, you would see that outside of the rodeos as you were going in?
TC: They would be at the entrances in the street—at the street entrances to the property, yeah. They were never allowed on the property. I mean, it's free speech, but, uh, yeah.
RC: And does that happen much anymore?
TC: No. We don't see that anymore. You know, freedom of sexuality, thank goodness, has become easier and more accepting today. In the last probably 20 years, you know, thank goodness.
RC: Yes. Are there any other changes that you've kind of noticed over the period of time that you've been involved?
TC: Well, early—in the early years, up through then, up through the ‘90s, you know, rodeo, country and western was at its height, in my opinion. We have seen a decrease in our spectator crowds and in participation—sadly. What we sometimes refer to as the Garth Brooks days—thank goodness he’s back [laughs]—but there was a period of time where it was—it was cool to be country. You know, there's a song…
RC: [laughs] To that effect?
TC: [laughs] “I was country when country wasn't cool.” And so, anyway, so, yeah. Things have changed. Social media has changed our way of life drastically. You, you used to have a social outlet, that was the bars, that we don't have to experience anymore. You pick up your phone and get a date.
RC: So, do you think that a lot of word of mouth for IGRA came from different bars?
TC: Absolutely, absolutely. Personal interaction was a big… oh, what’s the word? Medium, I guess. You know, that's—a lot of people heard about it from you talking about it in a bar or club atmosphere. And we don't see that anymore. Where we used to go into a bar here in town, in Denver, there’d be a sea of cowboy hats—doesn't happen anymore, sadly. And I miss those days. ‘Course I'm 64 years old now. I was 34 back then.
RC: Do you ever wear your cowboy hat anymore?
TC: Oh, yeah. Still do. Still do. Love my hats.
RC: [laughs] So, do you consider—would you say that you dress in sort of a Western way?
TC: Every day.
RC: Every day?
TC: Every day. Right here. [points to boots] Yeah, every day. I wear my boots every day. I don't wear a hat every day because it might not work—it would be in the way. But, yeah.
RC: And what do you do now—for work?
TC: I'm an antique dealer. Yes. So, I'm pushing, and pulling, and moving furniture almost every day.
RC: Yeah. I can see how a cowboy hat might not work.
TC: Yeah. It gets hot.
RC: And then you've also said that you're currently the, um, …?
TC: The administrative assistant for IGRA, yes. And that's a very focused job on IGRA. So, I handle all of the insurance needs, anything that the president needs from me, you know, um, to assist with. Whatever they may need, you know, me to do as far as, mostly insurance. I make sure that all of our events are properly insured, and our stock contractors are all properly insured.
RC: How much time do you say that you—would you say that you—dedicate towards that a year?
TC: It varies. It varies. The summer months are busier when there’s more rodeos than in the spring. You know, our finals are in the fall. It's very busy. So, it just varies from month to month.
RC: And you've been doing that for a while, have you not?
TC: I've been doing—I've been administrative assistant for almost, I think, about 15 years. Yeah.
RC: Nice. And do you plan to keep doing it?
TC: As long as they let me!
RC: Okay. Do you have a favorite part about that position?
TC: Uh, well, a responsibility under that is merchandising. I handled the branding—merchandising brand—that you saw downstairs for the association. I love merchandising. So, that's probably my favorite. Yeah.
RC: Huh. And would you say that you have ever had, or have, a mentor in IGRA? Or are you someone's mentor? Is that something that’s been important to you?
TC: Humm. I hope. I guess everybody would hope that you have a positive effect on somebody out there. I hope. I hope somebody is looking up to me. I really don't know if I can call a name, but I would hope so. Do I have a mentor? Hmm… yeah, probably so. Sadly, he's passed away.
RC: I’m sorry.
TC: His name was Wayne Jakino. Have you heard that name before?
RC: I have heard that name before, yes.
TC: He was a very special person that was instrumental in starting this organization back in the early ‘80s. If I had to look up to somebody, it would probably have been him. I didn't know him personally. Sounds like other people have mentioned him as well?
RC: Yeah, well, I've heard his name from Patrick a number of times too.
TC: Well, there you go. Okay, good.
RC: Yep. It's too bad we can't interview him.
TC: It would be an awesome interview. And there probably is some recording somewhere.
RC: Maybe they'll find that someday in an archive.
TC: I'm pretty sure there is. I'm sure there is. Let's see if we can't get that for you.
RC: Yeah, that would be great. So, do you have some favorite aspects of IGRA?
TC: Favorite aspect? Uh….
RC: You know, like… I think you talked about the difference between IGRA rodeos and other ones. But, you know, is there something that keeps bringing you back into the fold with it? That keeps you so heavily involved?
TC: Well, I think, I think there’s a very simple answer to that: It's my family. And I just—I would not be complete without this group of people. That's what keeps me around. I love the events. I love, you know, World Gay Rodeo Finals in the fall every year is a special event that I'm very fond of, and I take very personal interest in. And I have been involved with the production of that event for, oh, probably, going on 15 years.
RC: So, do you always make that event every year?
TC: Every year. Every year, yeah. Because I'm usually in some portion of production. Even if it is just providing the branded merchandise. I get involved with buckle designs often. For several years I have handled buckle designs. This past year, worked very, very closely with another team member and handed it off to her because I was so busy. She does a fantastic job—so maybe I mentored her now that I think about it. So, yeah, that's always a, uh, that's always an enjoyable task for me as well. Because I love design and things like that.
RC: I've seen a number of those buckles on the website and….
TC: Some of those were probably my work.
RC: They're lovely!
TC: Not that I made them, but just—with the buckle manufacture and design.
RC: So, you don't have to answer this if you don't want to but, like a family, do you ever have frustrations with any parts of IGRA?
TC: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Yeah, just like with any family. Family is family. And you don't always agree but, when you love someone, and you care about someone, you agree to disagree. And that's what you have to do to maintain. And, well, that means a lot when you can do that. That's when you know you have a friend.
RC: Are there any directions you would like to see IGRA take in the future?
TC: Well, sure. We need to, we need to grow our organization. But I would like to see some more public exposure. I don't have an answer to how. But that that would be, probably, at the top of my list. To expose a younger generation to our world called gay rodeo. Because there are many, many young people—and what I call young people is 30 and younger, probably—that are looking for something to call home. And looking for a family. We could be that family.
RC: So, do you find less younger people involved?
TC: Unfortunately, yes. Our group is growing old. You're talking to one of them. [laughs] We would love to see a younger generation. Someone's got to take over for us. Someone has to keep our organization alive. And that's the only way we're going to survive.
RC: Yeah, makes sense. Sure does. And you mentioned earlier—just to kind of jump back—some of the camp events. Is that something that you approve of? Enjoy being part of at the rodeo?
TC: Oh, absolutely. They're fun to watch. And I participated when I was younger. And they are fun events. But they're—they can be dangerous as well. They can be just as dangerous as they are fun. The crowd seems to love the wild drag race, probably the most of the three camp events, because it can get wild and crazy.
RC: As the name would suggest.
TC: As the name would suggest.
RC: Do you have a favorite rodeo that you've been to, since you've been to so many? Or are there several that kind of...?
TC: Well, okay. That's a great question. And I have a great answer. We produced a gay rodeo for Gay Games in Cleveland, Ohio. Well, Gay Games was in Cleveland, Ohio. The rodeo we produce was in Akron during Gay Games…. What year? What year was it? Oh, my goodness…. We're gonna have to find that out.
RC: K.
TC: It was a few years ago, maybe four or five years ago. It was a life changing experience to produce an event that was attended—not so much contestant-wise, but spectator-wise—to have the stands filled. Filled with countries, delegations from other, you know, from parts of the world. It was a life changing experience to be part of the opening ceremonies of an Olympic event. It really, it really was an incredible time.
RC: Do you think that helped grow your membership at all? Is that…?
TC: I'm not sure that it did. We hoped. But the base of spectator there was, was a worldwide base. So I'm not—I don't know if it did. But it certainly exposed us. We, uh, we showed the world, at that point, who we were. And many of them had never heard of us. So that was the intention, really.
RC: So, I noticed that the name “International” has been in the acronym since the beginning. Do you know anything about how that came to be?
TC: Canada. It's the United States and Canada. Canada put the “I” in IGRA. We're very proud of our Canadian friends to the north.
RC: And then, I guess, sort of to the flip side, do you have a rodeo that you felt like… just didn't go right or… that you were less pleased with?
TC: Well, there was but, unfortunately, I was not in attendance to a finals rodeo that was in Reno—Reno, Nevada, I believe it was—that had to be canceled because of protests, that we talked about earlier. There was a big protest and the grounds where the event was to be held ordered us off of the property. The event was not held. That's probably the biggest disappointment. Like I said, I wasn't in attendance there, but I was involved during the time. I just wasn't at that event.
RC: And you knew many of the people who were there?
TC: Right, right. I can't remember what year that was.
RC: We can look that up, too.
TC: We'll have to look it up.
RC: Okay. Is there anything else you want to tell me about your experience in IGRA or anything else?
TC: I don't know, I think I've said a lot. But, you know, I guess I would stress the family orientation of our group. How we, as large as we are, we're a small organization. And our representation is special to each of us. With each other, it truly is a family.
RC: And was that something you felt immediately?
TC: Immediately, immediately. That first event that I went to in Houston, Texas, in the ‘80s, I knew I was home. I knew I was home. Even though, like I said before, I didn't know anybody. I knew I found it. I knew I had found where I needed to be.
RC: That’s lovely. So, the last question I always ask folks is, um, if you consider yourself a cow person—a cowboy or a cowgirl? And if so or not, why?
TC: I'm cowboy-ish. [laughs] Because I currently don't have a horse, even though I like to dress cowboy. I like to wear a hat, my boots, and… I still like to put myself in that category.
RC: Excellent. Okay, well, thank you very much for your time today. I know it's busy here.