Photographer Luke Gilford says his earliest memories are of rodeos. In family trips from their home in Colorado to support his father, who competed and served as a rodeo judge, Gilford remembers the animals, the landscapes, the people, and the outfits — snakeskin 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 of those pastel geographies.” Then the family moved to California, away from the Southwestern epicenter of the sport, and Gilford’s father broke his neck and back, ending his rodeo career. The son grew up to become a successful photographer and director in Los Angeles.
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But at some point in his youth, Gilford had already started to pull away from the rodeo, realizing how patriarchal and “inherently homophobic” it could be.
“Which is ironic because it is such a kind of drag performance — this traditional drag of America,” said Gilford. “I really love the Southwest, part of me really missed it, but I also knew it wasn’t really for me.”
In 2016, Gilford discovered the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), where cowboys can compete without restricting expressions of their queer identity. Started in the 1970s, these rodeos function almost exactly like their traditional counterparts — there are standard events such as bull riding, calf roping, and barrel racing — with a few quirky additions: “steer decorating” (a team of two has to tie a ribbon onto a steer), “wild drag racing” (a cowboy and cowgirl in drag have to get a steer across a finish line before mounting it and attempting to ride it back), and “goat dressing” (a two-person team has to get a pair of underwear onto a goat).
Gilford began traveling to IGRA rodeos in his spare time and photographing the people there. These photographs (previously compiled into a 2020 book) are currently on view at the SN37 Gallery in Manhattan’s Seaport District through August 28.
Gilford said that finding the IGRA was a personal “revelation,” but he also recognized its wider importance, especially in the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The nation is becoming more and more divided, and that’s what’s drawing 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 reflect on other ways of life, especially those of us who reside in cosmopolitan centers like New York City.
“This is a really strong and beautiful community,” Gilford said of the cowboys who compete in the IGRA. “I think this is something that is 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 evidence of something beyond this place, of a way of life that isn’t just about image,” Gilford continued, adding that in addition to being image-obsessed, NYC exalts standardized forms of beauty. And Gilford is all too familiar with these standards, having photographed figures such as Bella Hadid and Christina Aguilera and worked on campaigns for brands including Maybelline and Valentino.
Just like the celebrity subjects featured in his other work, the cowboys in Gilford’s photographs are poised and confident, almost appearing as celebrities themselves.
“It feels like this is a community that deserves that treatment, to be photographed on film and printed in the dark room and their portraits blown up in this size,” he said. “Usually only rich, wealthy, powerful people get that treatment, and I really wanted to extend that to this world, too.”
Luke pointed to three photographs grouped together on the gallery’s upper level as personal favorites. On the left, a figure stands with a gash in his denim shirt; in the center, a different subject places their arm, in a cast, over their 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 dominates in cowboy mythology — these show that there are also queer people, and queer people who are so resilient,” Gilford said. “These people may not conform to the traditional image of a cowboy, but they have a shimmering silver and gold champion belt buckle.”
But the image of the queer cowboy is not new, and in the last few years, it has become increasingly popular. Lil Nas X became a megastar after his song “Old Town Road” hit the Billboard #1 spot, only to be removed from the Billboard country chart, sparking a contentious debate over what music — and more importantly whose music — is considered “country,” despite the fact that the traditionally White genre has grown increasingly influenced by the historically Black genres of hip-hop and rap over the last decade or so. And as Lil Nas X ascended the ladder of fame, Orville Peck, with his identity-hiding fringed mask and bellowing classical country voice, has grown into an indie darling.
“I think there is something inherently camp about Western culture that I think pop music loves to play with, but I find that it often is very hollow,” Gilford said. “This is a way of life that exists beyond image or beyond the frame. That’s what I’m trying to touch on here: There’s real truth here and these are real lives, these are real people out there in rural America living as queer cowboys and ranching. These are brutal landscapes and brutal places sometimes.”
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 told Hyperallergic. The IGRA provided Knight an entry point into the sport, and the association’s tight-knit community helped them learn how to ride bulls. Besides its internal culture, Knight also sees the association as changing the perception of who can be a cowboy.
“You’ve got all these Western films, you’ve got 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 not a new thing.” Knight also talked about the fact that Black cowboys have also been erased from Western lore, even though, from the beginning, many were Black.
“I think the American cowboy is such an iconic and mythologized figure,” Gilford said. “I hope that this will offer up a more modern and nuanced version of that. I think it’s time that the classic American cowboy be updated as people of color, trans people, gender nonconforming people — that’s where America’s going and in a way has always been.”
This article, part of a series focused on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
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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.