Tender Portraits of America’s Queer Rodeo

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National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo Luke Gilford
National Anthem: America’s Queer RodeoPhotography by Luke Gilford

Photographer Luke Gilford opens up about National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo, a new book which celebrates and documents the International Gay Rodeo Association

Growing up in the mountains of Evergreen, Colorado, photographer Luke Gilford inherited his love of the rodeo from his father, who built their home and filled it with memorabilia from his years as a rodeo champion and later a judge, including snakeskin boots, Stetson hats, and giant silver and gold champion belt buckles.

“Our family’s stories are visual but they were also communicated in the body – in this case through my father’s injuries and his scars. Our stories are a way for us to make sense of our past and to create our future, too,” says Gilford, who will throw his hat in the ring with the December 1 publication of National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo (Damiani), a collection of portraits made at the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), the organising body for the LGBTQ cowboy and cowgirl communities in North America.

Gilford first discovered IGRA in 2016 while attending a Pride event in San Francisco and came upon a booth of queer people wearing cowboy hats, playing Dolly Parton songs, and greeting the crowd. In an instant, Gilford knew he was home. The next weekend, he attended his first queer rodeo in New Mexico and began making a series of tender portraits celebrating and documenting the IGRA in all its glory. Here, Gilford shares his celebration of the space where queer country folk cultivate a powerful sense of community, creativity, and pride.

“Going to the queer rodeo for the first time was pure joy. I remember feeling this electric charge of belonging and acceptance – a shared sense of survival that is radiated and reflected back at one another. The arenas where the queer rodeos take place are where the mainstream rodeos exist as well. There is a subversion of power, even if it’s only for a weekend, to be co-opting this space and making it our own. To be returning to this site where it was not safe to gaze at one another – where the gaze must be diverted – and now suddenly it can be held, and celebrated and documented.

“I think the most profound impression from growing up around the rodeo was coming to understand the body as inherently fragile, and the ultimate witness to care and love. At the rodeo there is always a subtext of danger and violence, contrasted by so much beauty on the surface. The rodeo is a spectacle, oozing with displays of power and vulnerability. It’s a celebration of that constant struggle between the two. And above all, it is a sensory experience. Pastel sunsets with couples line dancing in unison below; the sounds and smells of animals; hairspray and flirtations and desires; barbeque and beer; sweat and blood and leather. In many ways it is the West’s traditional form of drag performance.

While it feels like our country is becoming increasingly polarised, the queer rodeo embraces all sides of the American cultural spectrum. One of my close friends in the rodeo community is a Black, gender-nonconforming bull rider. They said to me simply, ‘If I show up, I’m a cowboy.’ And they’re accepted as such, with no questions asked. This series is my way of holding up each person with dignity and respect, and showing a beauty, strength, glamour, or tenderness that they may not have seen before.”

National Anthem: America’s Queer Rodeo by Luke Gilford is published by Damiani, out December 2020.