Photographer Luke Gilford says his earliest memories are of rodeos. On family trips from their Colorado home to support his father, who competed and served as a rodeo judge, Gilford recalls the animals, the scenery, the people, and the outfits—snake leather boots, Stetson hats, and belt buckles.
“My dad’s belt buckles were so huge — bigger than my head,” Gilford told Hyperallergic. “And the people too. The big hair, the lipstick, the denim and all that pastel geography.” Then the family moved to California, away from the sport’s southwestern epicenter, and Gilford’s father broke his neck and back and ended his rodeo career. The son grew up in Los Angeles to become a successful photographer and director.
But at some point in his teens, Gilford had already begun to retire from rodeo, realizing how patriarchal and “inherently homophobic” it could be.
“Which is ironic because it’s kind of a drag performance — that traditional Drag of America,” Gilford said. “I really love the Southwest, part of me really missed it, but I also knew it wasn’t for me.”
In 2016, Gilford discovered the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), where cowboys can compete without restricting the expression of their queer identity. Established in the 1970s, these rodeos function much the same way as their traditional counterparts – there are Standard events such as Bull Riding, Calf Roping and Barrel Racing – with a few quirky additions: “Bull Decoration” (a team of two must tie a ribbon around a bull), “Wild Drag Racing” (a cowboy and cowgirl in drag must smack a handlebar across a finish line before he mounts and tries to ride him back) and Dress Goat (a two-person team has to dress a goat in a pair of underwear).
Gilford began traveling to IGRA rodeos in his free time and photographing the people there. These photographs (previously compiled into a 2020 book) are currently on view through August 28 at the SN37 Gallery in Manhattan’s Seaport District.
Gilford said that the discovery of the IGRA was a personal “revelation,” but he also acknowledged its broader significance, particularly in the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The nation is becoming more divided and that’s what draws me to this community,” Gilford said, adding that the queer rodeos reject pervasive distinctions between liberals and conservatives; urban and rural. With his photographs, he hopes to make people think about other ways of life, especially those of us who live in cosmopolitan centers like New York City.
“This is a really strong and beautiful community,” Gilford said of the Cowboys attending IGRA. “I think that’s something that’s really celebrated in cities — our chosen families and our tribes — and I think that’s something that people can relate to. I hope this is a reminder that these things can exist anywhere.”
“I want these portraits to really be a testament to something beyond this place, to a way of life that isn’t just about image,” Gilford continued, adding that NYC isn’t just obsessed with image, it’s also standardized forms of the beauty glorified. And Gilford is all too familiar with these standards, having photographed the likes of Bella Hadid and Christina Aguilera and worked on campaigns for brands like Maybelline and Valentino.
Like the prominent subjects in his other work, the cowboys in Gilford’s photographs are poised and confident, almost celebrity-like in their own right.
“It feels like this is a community that deserves the treatment, to be photographed on film and printed in the darkroom and have their portraits enlarged at this size,” he said. “Typically only rich, wealthy, and powerful people get this treatment, and I really wanted to extend that to this world as well.”
Luke pointed to three photographs grouped as personal favorites upstairs in the gallery. On the left is a figure with a laceration in his denim shirt; in the center another subject drapes his arm in plaster over his shoulder; and on the right another stands tall and proud, holding his arm in a sling. All three men pictured had been injured in rodeo events.
“This notion of rugged individualism and conventional masculinity that’s so prevalent in cowboy mythology — it shows that there are queer people, and queer people who are so resilient,” Gilford said. “These people may not fit the traditional image of a cowboy, but they have a silver and gold champion belt buckle.”
But the image of the queer cowboy is not new and has become increasingly popular in recent years. Lil Nas X became a megastar after his song “Old Town Road” hit No. 1 on Billboard, only to be dropped from the Billboard Country chart, sparking a controversial debate about what music — and most importantly whose music — as “country,” though the traditionally white genre has been increasingly influenced by the historically black genres of hip-hop and rap over the past decade. And while Lil Nas X has climbed the ladder of stardom, Orville Peck has become an indie darling with his identity-hiding fringed mask and roaring classic country voice.
“I think there’s something inherently campy about Western culture that pop music likes to play with, but I find it’s often very hollow,” Gilford said. “This is a way of life that exists beyond the picture or the frame. That’s what I want to address here: There is real truth here and these are real lives, these are real people out there in rural America living as queer cowboys and ranchers. Sometimes these are brutal landscapes and brutal places.”
One of those people is Lee Knight, who grew up in California before moving to Colorado and becoming a rodeo competitor. “I’m living my dream as a cowboy,” Knight said hyperallergic. The IGRA provided Knight with an entry point into the sport, and the association’s close-knit community helped them learn to ride bulls. Aside from his internal culture, Knight also sees the union changing perceptions of who a cowboy can be.
“You have all these westerns, you have portraits, but you don’t see people like me,” they said. “However, it’s people like me who have been around for a long time. Being a gay cowboy is nothing new.” Knight also discussed how black cowboys have also been erased from Western lore, although many were black to begin with.
“I think the American cowboy is such an iconic and mythologized character,” Gilford said. “I hope this offers a more modern and nuanced version of that. I think it’s about time the classic American cowboy was updated as people of color, trans people, non-gendered people — that’s where America is going and in some ways always has been.”
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s upcoming sale”LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture & History’, featuring works and material by Tom of Finland, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol and many more, will take place on August 18, 2022.