Two men emerge from the shadows of a horse barn. The taller of the two is wearing, among other things, Liza Minnelli-esque false eyelashes and earrings the size of door knobs. He’s got an auburn wig draped across his shoulder. He puts it on in a slow, dramatic manner, like he’s on stage at a cabaret.
“Ah, the pretty girls,” says Candy Pratt, International Gay Rodeo Association hall-of-famer.
She owns this animal-saturated ranch in bucolic Aubrey, Texas. A dozen or so cowboys have congregated to practice at the onsite arena. They’re prepping for A Texas Tradition, the annual gay rodeo held May 24 to 26 in neighboring Denton.
The auburn-haired cowboy goes by Alexis, although his real name is Philip Blakesley. He grew up in a tiny town called Callisburg (population 350) in North Texas, near the Oklahoma border. Growing up, he watched rodeo but never competed until about a year ago.
When asked if he’ll be practicing today, Alexis gives me a sly smile. “I’ll do whatever you want, sweetheart,” he says. “Whatever you want.” When I met him at the Texas Gay Rodeo Association (TGRA) meeting the previous weekend, he wore no wig and no makeup. He also had a full beard.
Bulls and steers
Alexis says he competes in roughstock, which means he wrangles bulls and steers. He doesn’t rope, he says, because he’s too old. “I’m 60,” he claims. In reality, Alexis is 40 and a traveling hospice nurse.
Alexis’ companion is younger and quieter. He has on a backwards baseball cap, and in his left ear, two pierced holes are connected by a long, straight piece of jewelry. Both men are wearing matching TGRA shirts with their names embroidered on the chest. The younger one’s says “Chicken Nugget.” His actual name is Anthony Lumpkins. By day, the 27-year-old works for Coca-Cola. “We make the bag-in-the-box syrup for the spouts,” he says.
The first word out of Chicken Nugget’s mouth as a baby was “airplane.” Aviation was the career path he wanted to take. He got his private pilot’s license after high school, but flying was unsustainably expensive as a day-to-day job.
The rodeo scene fell into his lap after he split from the person he thought was the love of his life. “When my ex and I broke up, I moved in with Boogie and his partner Tim,” he says. Boogie’s real name is Marcus Hood; he’s the TGRA president. They helped Lumpkins get back on his feet.
The Texas Gay Rodeo Association has been busting stereotypes with love (and a little bit of glitter) since 1983. In November 1984, the inaugural Texas Gay Rodeo went down in Houston. After that, chapters popped up one by one, and today there are five: Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, and San Antonio. TGRA is a member of the International Gay Rodeo Association, which is the overlord of all the gay rodeos.
Last year Chicken Nugget attended all 13 of the rodeos on the IGRA circuit. His sojourns took him to Minneapolis, Phoenix, and Santa Fe, among other places. But his favorite was Palm Springs. “They had something going on at every single moment the entire weekend,” he says. “Every night there was a show going on at one of the bars.”
For this weekend’s rodeo, contestants as young as 18 and as old as 70 compete in events like bull riding, calf roping, and barrel racing. There’s a royalty competition in which two lucky souls will be crowned drag queen and king. The very best of the crop will qualify to compete on the international circuit. One need not be gay to join, and it’s for a cause. Over its 34-year history, TGRA has donated more than $3 million to charity, mostly to nonprofits that help people with HIV and AIDS.
Like most tales for the ages, the story of how Chicken Nugget ended up with his rodeo name took place at a gay cowboy bar. A big group of men were sitting around a table having a boozin’, boot-scootin’ good old time. But Lumpkins was staring off into space in what seemed like a trance.
“I was distracted, not listening to them, and suddenly hear, ‘Chicken Nugget!’ really loud. And I turned my head and looked at them. And it just kind of clicked,” he says.
I ask Chicken Nugget and Alexis if they have any crazy stories from the rodeo. As if on cue, the horse in the stall next to us neighs. Perhaps in cheerful anticipation.
“I got a nose bleed at finals in Albuquerque last year,” Alexis says. “Ended up walking through the gangland at 3 a.m. back to the hotel.” Uber, as it turns out, is a scarce commodity where they were competing in the far outskirts of town. “I walked seven miles that night. In booty shorts and a tank top.”
“With the makeup still on your face,” Chicken Nugget adds.
This year he and Alexis are running for Mr. and Miss TGRA, respectively—it’s the Miss America of the gay rodeo world. The selection process is intense. Contestants go before a panel of judges, where they’re quizzed on the history of TGRA and the rodeo rulebook.
The pageant part of the event is one of the things that set the Gay Rodeo apart from the regular rodeo. Candidates vie for the title of Mr., Miss, Ms., or MsTer TGRA. Once crowned, titleholders are the official faces and ambassadors of TGRA for a calendar year.
For this weekend’s rodeo, contestants as young as 18 and as old as 70 compete in events like bull riding, calf roping, and barrel racing.
There’s also a western wear and evening wear competition. For the talent section, contestants can choose between horsemanship or entertainment. Alexis and Chicken Nugget have both decided to go the entertainment route.
Dressing a goat
Chicken Nugget competes in wild drag, steer decorating, tow roping—and goat dressing. We’re going to need some ‘splaining on this one.
There are two partners on each team. One is holding a pair of whitey tighties. The other one is in charge of wrangling the goat. There is a start sign and a finish sign.
“You’ve got a goat attached to cinder blocks. That way the goat can get away and then it’s attached to a leash and harness,” Chicken Nugget explains. “The judge blows the whistle. The person who doesn’t have the whitey tighties picks up the hind legs. The other person then puts them on the goat, all the way up over the tail.”
TGRA recently updated its bylaws on goat dressing. Before, the weight limit for goats was capped at 75 lbs. Now, goats up to 100 lbs. are free to compete. How one gauges the interest level of a goat is a trade secret.
“That’s one of the events that kind of sets us apart from the normal rodeos and makes us the gay rodeo,” Chicken Nugget says.
He takes out his phone and shows me a video of himself trying to finagle a pair of underwear on a goat named Fat Granny. She’s not having any of it. “I had to move on from her,” he said. They had different goals. “She likes to run slow,” Alexis says.
“She just does it for the fun of it,” Chicken Nugget says of the domesticated animal. “I’m more competitive. I wanted the buckle. And I was working for it real bad.”
They didn’t bring a goat today, but Alexis says they can always borrow one from the neighbors.
No straw hats after Labor Day
In addition to her hall-of-famer status, 58-year-old Candy Pratt is also the president of the International Gay Rodeo Association. Today she’s wearing a t-shirt that says, “I kissed a horse and I liked it.”
Candy competes in poles and barrels, but she grew up spending summers with her grandparents’ cutting horses. They trained bird dogs and used horses to go with the dogs.
“I absolutely had this passion for horses,” she says. When she was in third grade her father—who was a semi-pro golf player—bought Candy her first pony. “That’s how it started, with the whole family.”
The first time she competed she was 10. She did so well that her dad decided to buy her a better horse.
Candy and her partner Rue, also an IGRA hall-of-famer, live here full time. They’ve been together 26 years.
The informal practice session is winding down. Barrels have been run, poles have been bent, and now Heineken has joined the party. Boogie is discussing the seasonal etiquette of straw cowboy hats versus felt ones. The following goes on the record: “You wear a straw from Easter up to Labor Day, and then you quit wearing straw after Labor Day and you wear the felt. It’s just the time of the season.”
“Do you get a fine if you wear the wrong hat out of season?” I ask.
“Don’t give him any ideas,” Alexis says.
If you go
A Texas Tradition Rodeo will be held on Friday, May 24 through Sunday, May 26 at Denton County Fairgrounds in Denton, Texas. Tickets cost $10 at the gate. Children under 12 will be admitted free.