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Las Vegas throws arms around gay rodeo

Leave it to Las Vegas to give a warm welcome to gay rodeo cowboys and cowgirls, treating them as if they’re equal to, or more fun than, traditional rodeos.

And that is why Vegas is awesome and vibrant.

The World Gay Rodeo Finals run Thursday through Sunday at South Point, the event’s first Vegas stand, after four years of doing up Fort Worth, Texas.

Rodeo director Robert Thurtell says Vegas “is where we need to be,” and the proof is in an explosion of room reservations.

“It’s more than tripled what we had anticipated. It’s a phenomenal problem to have. The hotel has been so gracious,” Thurtell said. “It’s unreal.”

The gay rodeo started long ago as a place for men and women to feel comfortable, says Janie Van Santen, a previous rodeo director who competes in chute dogging (like steer wrestling).

“Thirty years ago, it was difficult to be gay in a rural setting. Rural settings have typically been very redneck,” Van Santen said. “We all hid our identities so we could continue on and feel safe in life. So when gay rodeo started, you could walk around holding your girlfriend’s hand.”

Nowadays, both straight and gay people compete in gay rodeo. And champs like David Renier compete in both gay rodeos and traditional rodeos.

“I competed in straight rodeo since I was little, so my transition was a lot different than most people,” Renier said. “My family, we rodeoed probably before I knew I was gay.

“It’s still a good ol’ boy sport, for sure, but,” Renier said, “one of my best friends who used to do the gay rodeo — he made it to the NFR (National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas). But he wasn’t openly gay, either, until later.”

Traditional rodeos still don’t let women compete in most events, only in barrel racing.

“In our rodeo,” Van Santen said, “women can bull ride, women can wrestle steers. It’s a lot of fun. It allows us to try everything, be ourselves, and be safe.”

It’s hard out there for a cowboy and a cowgirl. Thurtell competed for two decades until he busted all the tendons and muscles in a shoulder ball socket.

Renier keeps competing with a finger he broke “a couple of rodeos” ago.

The gay rodeo will crown a royal court, a Miss International Gay Rodeo Association (a man in drag), Mr. IGRA (a man dressed as a man), Ms. IGRA (a woman dressed as a woman), and MsTeR IGRA (a woman outfitted as a man).

And in one of the “camp events,” a cowboy or cowgirl in drag helps traffic a steer around.

“It’s hilarious,” Van Santen said. “And because this is Finals, the drag queen outfits are going to be phenomenal.”

But cowboys and cowgirls take this rodeo very seriously (Southpointcasino.com; $20 day tickets, Saturday and Sunday).

“Most people expect what they see at Gay Pride, where they go toward the flamboyant,” said Renier, who competes in 10 events, including camp. “We have fun, but a lot of us, we have to do well to keep ourselves on the road, and our horses on the road.”

All money raised for the rodeo, meanwhile, goes to rotating charity partners.

“We’re totally volunteer-driven, we have no paid employees,” Van Santen said. “We all do it out of the goodness of our heart, and for fun.”

Doug Elfman can be reached at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman. Follow him: @VegasAnonymous

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