Ride 'em Cowgirl
The Secret City on

The 17th annual L.A. Rodeo is just like any other tough, rough stock competition--except for the drag queens.

     The crowd in the bleachers is chanting her name, "Debbie, Debbie, Debbie." A couple hundred feet away, the motionless woman with hair the color of light at the end of a tunnel is being carried off on a stretcher. Moments ago, she was thrown from the 2,000 plus-pound bull she was attempting to ride. A few hours earlier, she had wrestled a steer to the ground and lasted a few seconds aboard a bronco--riding bareback.
     Debbie's nickname is Psycho Woman, and she's a competitor in the 17th annual L.A. Rodeo, held the last weekend in April at the Hansen Dam Equestrian Center in Lakeview Terrace. This is the Southland stop on the International Gay Rodeo Association circuit, which bills itself as the largest amateur rodeo organization in the nation.
     Much of the rodeo is similar to those put on by the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association. There are horse races, calf roping competitions and the requisite bull, steer and bronco events. Country music blares. Folks are line dancing. There are plenty of pick-up trucks and horse trailers--and lots of kicked-up dust.
     But this is not your father's rodeo--unless, that is, you had two fathers.
     In Goat Dressing, two contestants jam a pair of men's undershorts onto a farm animal. Steer Decorating is a real-life version of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, only with a hair ribbon and one angry, castrated bull. The Wild Drag Race features a man, a woman and a person wearing the clothing of the opposite sex trying to corral then mount and ride a steer.
     For all the camp, there's real poignancy, too. In a formal ceremony, a riderless horse is led around the ring. The horse wears a bib with the retired number "1" on it. Cowboy boots rest, sans wearer, in the stirrups. "Honoring the memories of the members of the rodeo taken from us," the ring announcer says, not needing to mention what took them, "we love you, we miss you and we know you ride with us today."

* * *

     Sherry Le and Devon Deming-Le are sitting under a tree, catching some shade. It's the afternoon before the rodeo weekend, and they've been exercising their horses while, as volunteer executives with the L.A. Rodeo, checking up on the facility.
     The pair lives on a five-acre property on the outskirts of L.A. County. They have three pigmy goats, an ornery sheep, two cats and six dogs, and they've constructed a riding arena with lights where they can work out their two horses, Have Tux and Skeeter.
     Tux is a 16-hand 1-inch-tall (one hand equals 4 inches) retired racehorse with a white coat and an energetic demeanor even during down time. In his temporary stall at the Hansen Dam center, Tux bops his head up and down like a kid listening to dope hip-hop. Deming-Le rides him. She's been riding horses since the age of 5. Skeeter is a steady 16-year-old sorrel-colored Morgan. Le rides him. He makes a better first horse for Le than Tux.
     "I went to a couple of rodeos as a spectator," Le says. "I watched and thought, 'this is the coolest thing in the world. I want to do it.'"
     What she wanted to do was ride bulls, but she got talked out of that. Instead, she rode steers for about a year and a half. "Couple of concussions, a lot of bruises," she says, "and I said, 'Oh, I think it's time for me to stop that event.' And I started getting into the other events."
     Deming-Le chimes in: "She's crazy. She used to get a concussion every rodeo and she wouldn't remember even riding or what had happened, so she finally gave it up.
     "I haven't ever really been badly injured at a rodeo," Deming-Le adds. "The horse events aren't that dangerous. She does chute-dogging (steer wrestling.) That's a dangerous event. I mean, that's like a 700-pound animal that she's face-to-face with and she gets all beat up." Deming-Le laughs. "I don't do that event."

* * *

     Doug Graf is a rodeo clown. Not the bull-fighting clown, which requires special training, but a clown just the same. His face is painted white with colorful highlights. His long denim shorts have a slit, revealing the bright pink bicycle pants Graf says are his clown trademark. Bandanas dangle from his waist. He has on a blue camouflage hat that the arena announcer makes fun of and the clown uses his cordless microphone to talk back. This is his fifth rodeo as a clown. He used to ride bulls before he made the switch three years ago.
     "I broke a few things and screwed up a few things," Graf says, in what's getting to be a familiar refrain. "So I thought, let's just give this a whirl. We don't have a whole lot of clowns on the gay rodeo circuit. We've lost some really good clowns that will always be with us. So it was just a thing that I figured I could do and I wanted to get into, and now I'm doing it."
     It's a touching comment, especially coming from a guy who soon will take a super-soaker water gun and run around squirting the group that sang, badly, the national anthem.
     Graf's hardly the sole character on the grounds. Near the stables is a woman who had to have her spleen removed after an injury here last year. She says her spleen wasn't in good condition anyway, and she's better off without it. On his way to the main entertainment stage is a square-dance troupe member who sews his own drag costumes and says line dancing is just a fad. Perched on a fence, a handful of shirtless, muscular men look like pages from a beefcake calendar. In a concession booth, the kid responsible for serving lemonade waits patiently while most people order grilled sausages with onions. Over by the $5 mechanical bull ride, a stream of suckers thinks they can hang on forever. In the bleachers, a girl wears a button that reads: "I Love My Gay Uncle."
     And somewhere out there, back in the arena, there are even a few really talented rodeo participants. Deming-Le says some competitors have ridden on the pro circuit. She also says that the mainstream country western lifestyle isn't known for being particularly tolerant.
     "Those ideals say we're wrong, we shouldn't exist and 'don't talk to our children,'" Deming-Le says. "It's hard to deal with that on a regular basis."
     On a much happier note, we revisit Debbie, that bull rider thrown so hard from her perch. While being taken from the arena, she gives a little left-handed wave to the crowd. Debbie will be fine. Tomorrow, Psycho Woman will ride again.