Denver Hosts Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo, Longest-Running Gay Rodeo | Westword
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Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo, Longest-Running Gay Rodeo, Rides Back Into Denver

"It’s so surreal to have been from Colorado, have made so much of the book here, and now be back to open the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association."
"Please come support our gay little rodeo, so we gain traction for global love for all," says Brendan Sullivan, president of Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo.
"Please come support our gay little rodeo, so we gain traction for global love for all," says Brendan Sullivan, president of Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo. Courtesy of RHColo_General
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In 1983, a group of Denver friends made history by creating the first Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo, breaking new ground for the LGBTQIA+ community. Although this was not the first gay rodeo — that honor belongs to Reno, Nevada, which introduced the concept in 1976 — the state has hosted a rodeo every year since, making the Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo the longest-running event of its type.

Today, the Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo is a beloved tradition, attracting participants and spectators from all over the country. Set for July 12-14 at the National Western Complex, the event offers everything from bull riding to drag performances. This year, it will also feature a sneak preview of National Anthem, a film celebrating the Western spirit.

Denver's involvement with gay rodeo began around 1981, when John King established Charlie's Denver, a gay country dance bar run by Wayne Jakino. The Colorado Gay Rodeo Association was founded soon after to improve the image of LGBTQIA+ individuals and other marginalized groups in rodeo sports while also promoting the country lifestyle; members attended the Reno rodeo in 1982. The next year, the CGRA  held the first Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo in the Mile High City; it's been running it ever since.

When the Reno rodeo collapsed in 1984, Jakino collaborated with groups from Texas, California and Arizona to form the International Gay Rodeo Association to help ensure the sport's survival; he became the founding president of the IGRA the next year. But while the CGRA has always been able to host a rodeo, not all other associations have been as fortunate, and gay rodeo often went under the radar...even in states that hosted such events.

"I had always loved the rodeo, but as I grew older, I sort of felt a bit pushed away from the mainstream rodeo because of who I am," says Luke Gilford, an Evergreen native whose first memories are of going to a traditional rodeo with his father. "As I grew older, I didn’t really feel comfortable there. But in 2016, I discovered the IGRA, the International Gay Rodeo Association, and was immediately warmly welcomed by them, which helped me fall back in love with rodeo culture."
click to enlarge two people and horse in canyon
"I was attempting to translate the visual style that I developed with my photography book into a cinematic format," says Luke Gilford.
Photo Credit Luke Gilford Courtesy of LD Entertainment
Although Gilford grew up in the rodeo community, he was unaware of gay rodeos until he moved to California and met some queer cowboys at an event outside of San Francisco. A photographer, Gilford began documenting the community. In 2020, he published National Anthem, a photography monograph featuring a hundred portraits taken of members of the queer rodeo community in southwestern Colorado.

"There was such a connection I had with each of the subjects through documenting them over the years, hearing their stories, and also hearing my story reflected back," Gilford shares. "It felt like a universal story of connection, but also heartbreak and loss. I knew there was more to the story, so I began writing a film script. I was attempting to translate the visual style that I developed with my photography book into a cinematic format."

He sold the script to LD Entertainment in 2021 and shot the film the next year in New Mexico. "One of the biggest challenges was that our spring shoot was during New Mexico's windy season," Gilford says. "That meant there was often a 50 mph wind. There was also a catastrophic fire, which spread quickly due to the wind. So there were a lot of nature-related production issues. We also filmed in seventeen days, which added to the intensity."
click to enlarge cowboys on fence
An early screening of National Anthem at the Sie FilmCenter on July 12 will kick off the Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo.
Photo Credit Luke Gilford Courtesy of LD Entertainment
Despite these obstacles, the film that Gilford wrote and directed, starring Charlie Plummer and Eve Lindley, debuted to critical acclaim at SXSW in 2023. This strong showing led Variance Films to acquire National Anthem, which will be released in theaters on July 19. But first, Gilford will be at a screening of the film at the Sie FilmCenter at 3 p.m. on Friday, July 12, which will kick off the Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo.

"It’s so surreal to have been from Colorado, have made so much of the book here, and now be back to open the Colorado Gay Rodeo Association," Gilford says. "I have a lot of family who are still out there who are going to be there, and it's incredibly meaningful and moving to be there with my family. It feels right and very exciting; I can't wait to be there."

That evening, country music sensation Dixon Dallas will perform at the National Western Complex. On Saturday and Sunday, rodeos will begin at 10 a.m.; they will include traditional rodeo events like bull riding as well as activities geared toward the gay community.

These events not only provide thrills, but foster a sense of belonging and celebration. In the group's June newsletter, Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo president Brendan Sullivan says he's excited "to observe the joyous faces of all attendees, as well as their unwavering support and love, not only for the rodeo but for the pride of all of us in the LGBTQIA+ community.

"I deeply appreciate everything, and I sincerely hope that you recognize the significance of Western sport and our ability to contribute to our community, which still requires substantial assistance," Sullivan continues. "Although our community is thriving with acceptance, the world still doesn’t always embrace and cherish us for who we are. Our journey is far from over. So please come support our gay little rodeo, so we gain traction for global love for all."

Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo, Friday, July 12, through Sunday, July 14, National Western Complex, 4655 Humboldt Street. Learn more at cgrarodeo.com.
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