Photographer Luke Gilford says his earliest memories are of rodeos. On family trips from their home in Colorado to support her 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 people too. The big hair, the lipstick, the denim and all those pastel geographies. Then the family moved to California, away from the sport’s Southwestern epicenter, and Gilford’s father broke his neck and back, ending his rodeo career. The son grew up to be a successful photographer and director in Los Angeles.
But at some point in his youth, Gilford had already begun to walk away from rodeo, realizing how patriarchal and “intrinsically homophobic” it could be.
“Which is ironic because it’s such a drag performance—that traditional American drag,” Gilford said. “I really love the South West, I really missed a part of me, 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 the expression of their queer identity. Started in the 1970s, these rodeos operate 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 must tie a ribbon on a steer), “wild drag racing” (a cowboy and a cow -girl in drag must get a steer across a finish line before riding it and trying to remount it), and “goat dressing” (a two-person team must put a pair of underwear on a goat).
Gilford began going to IGRA rodeos in his spare time and photographing the people there. These photographs (previously compiled into a 2020 book) are currently on display at SN37 Gallery in Manhattan’s Seaport District through August 28.
Gilford said the discovery of the IGRA was a personal “revelation”, but he also acknowledged its wider significance, particularly in the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The nation is increasingly divided, and that’s what draws me to this community,” Gilford said, adding that queer rodeos reject the 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 reside in cosmopolitan centers like New York.
“It’s a really strong and beautiful community,” Gilford said of the cowboys who participate in IGRA. “I think it’s something that’s really celebrated in cities – our chosen families and our tribes – and I think it’s something that people can relate to. I hope it’s a reminder that these things can exist anywhere.
“I want these portraits to really be proof of something beyond this place, of a way of life that isn’t just about image,” Gilford continued, adding that in addition to being obsessed with image, NYC exalts standardized forms of beauty. And Gilford knows those standards all too well, having photographed the likes of Bella Hadid and Christina Aguilera and worked on campaigns for brands like Maybelline and Valentino.
Much like the famous subjects featured in his other work, the cowboys in Gilford’s photographs are poised and confident, almost appearing like celebrities themselves.
“It looks like it’s a community that deserves this treatment, to be photographed on film and printed in the darkroom and their portraits enlarged in this size,” he said. “Usually only rich, wealthy, powerful people get this treatment, and I really wanted to extend that to this world as well.”
Luke has designated three photographs grouped at the top level of the gallery as personal favorites. On the left, a figure stands with a gash in his denim shirt; in the center, a different subject places his arm, in plaster, on his shoulder; and to the right, another stands tall and proud, holding his arm in a sling. The three men pictured had been injured in rodeo events.
“This notion of rugged individualism and conventional masculinity that dominates in cowboy mythology — it shows 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 glittering silver and gold belt buckle.”
But the image of the queer cowboy is not new, and in recent years it has become increasingly popular. Lil Nas X became a megastar after his song “Old Town Road” reached No. 1 on Billboard, before being dropped from Billboard’s country chart, sparking a controversial debate about music – and especially whose music — is considered “country,” despite the fact that the traditionally white genre has become increasingly influenced by the historically black genres of hip-hop and rap over the past decade. And as Lil Nas X climbed the echelons of fame, Orville Peck, with his fringed mask concealing his identity and bellowing classic country voice, has become an independent darling.
“I think there’s something inherently camp about western culture that I think pop music likes to play with, but I find it’s often very hollow,” Gilford said. “It’s a way of life that exists beyond the image or beyond the frame. That’s what I’m trying to address here: there’s real truth here and these are real lives, these are real people out there in rural America who live like queer cowboys and who raise ranches. These are sometimes brutal landscapes and brutal places.
One such person is Lee Knight, who grew up in California before moving to Colorado and becoming a rodeo competitor. “I’m living my cowboy dream,” Knight said Hyperallergic. The IGRA provided Knight with an entry point into the sport, and the association’s tight-knit community helped them learn to ride bulls. Besides its internal culture, Knight also sees the association changing the perception of who a cowboy can be.
“You have all these Western films, you have portraits, but you don’t see people like me,” they said. “However, it is people like me who have been there for a long time. Being a gay cowboy is nothing new. Knight also spoke about how black cowboys were also erased from Western lore, even though many were black from the start.
“I think the American cowboy is such an iconic and mythologized figure,” Gilford said. “I hope it offers a more modern and nuanced take on that. I think it’s time for the classic American cowboy to be updated as people of color, transgender people, gender non-conforming people – this is where America is going and in a way always has been.
This article, part of a series focusing on LGBTQ+ artists and art movements, is supported by Swann Auction Galleries.
Swann’s Next Sale »LGBTQ+ Art, Material Culture and Historyfeaturing art and material from Tom of Finland, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Oscar Wilde, Andy Warhol and more will take place on August 18, 2022.