Queens and Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo

Written by Catherine Morpeth

“Queens and Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo” follows a complete ten-month season of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), chronicling the cowboys and cowgirls’ battles in the arena as they fight to get to the October finals in Texas. Chronicling both their athletic feats in the arena as well as their personal lives, the documentary explores the experiences of LGBT cowboys and cowgirls seeking a safe place to be “out” in the rural West. The film highlights small-town North America’s attitude towards the LGBT community, whilst simultaneously breaking down the false assumption that tradition and tolerance are mutually exclusive.

The movie first premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival this year. Having taken home the festival’s audience award, first-time documentary director Matt Livadary and producer Erin Krozek are off to a successful start.

“For a festival with over a hundred films, including Oscar nominated films, for a gay film to win the audience award speaks volumes about what audiences are open to now,” Krozek told 429Magazine. “It speaks volumes about what people feel is worth celebrating and worth being moved by so that was really cool for us to see. It was a surprise.”

With their families and “about thirty or so IGRA members who’d flown out from all over the place to see the premiere…drag queens and cowboys” alike to support them, the filmmakers had an overwhelming reception.

“We didn’t have our own red carpet so they bought their own red carpet. They were literally rolling it out in front of the theater,” Livadary recalled. “It was wild. We’d spent so much time in editorial and sound mix, getting everything finished and then we were just suddenly in front of our own theatre with our own premiere, with all these friends and family that headed out there for the show. It was just magical.”

“It was like full rodeo,” Krozek added, laughing. “Our rodeo queen was there with this sequined blue gown and everyone was just strutting down the red carpet and security were worried we were all going to hurt ourselves.”

Livadary first came up with the idea to create the gay rodeo-themed documentary whilst working in development at a production company in Hollywood. Needing a show idea for the company, he explained, “I’ve actually had a rodeo fascination since I was a little kid. My dad had taken me to a rodeo in Wyoming when I was three years old, and being from Los Angeles, that was hugely influential to me. This love of rodeo and the fascination with the cowboys stuck with me.” So when it came to choosing a TV show topic, “the only idea I had, which wasn’t really an idea at the time, was setting something in the world of rodeo.”

Livadary quickly headed out to research traditional rodeos, visiting small pockets of America “where they don’t really have football arenas but their high schools have rodeo arenas.”

“It’s a different world and you kind of see how homogenous it is. I was made fun of for driving a Toyota, which is a non-American car. I was really enjoying the Rodeos but I was always made to feel like an outsider. So I’d never heard of the gay rodeo but I heard about it on that trip,” he told 429Magazine. “When I heard about it a light bulb just went off in my head. I could look at why there was a need for gay rodeo, so I immediately decided to leave my job and do a full documentary instead of a scripted television show. I kind of just dove in.”

Explaining what he was hoping the documentary would become, he added, “I thought that rodeo is so synonymous with America: what’s happening with America, the expansion of America, all its different inclusions of multiple people and I really wanted it to play to a wide audience. I wanted to make a film that was primarily about gay people but that was not a gay film or a straight film but one that can actually transcend. So that was the underlying goal for me.”

It didn’t take long for Krozek to get on board, helping turn Livadary’s unique vision into a fully-fledged documentary. “We met in LA, having grown up in the agency system, and Matt did a short film that I just tagged along for on a couple of days. We had such a good time doing it that when he was making the film…he just turned to me and he said, ‘Let’s do this.’ After that, we never looked back and we never questioned it. It’s been a rock and roll ride the whole time.

“I myself have a gay father. I grew up in LA so I didn’t grow up in rural Texas but I still know what it’s like to be the ‘other.’ I know what it’s like to have people reject my family because we’re different. And I also know that pride of what it means to have somebody you love take ownership of who they are no matter what the consequences are,” she said, explaining her personal reasons for becoming involved with Livadary’s film. “And so when Matt was telling me about this film and needed help, let’s be honest, I was basically begging him to [let me] participate. Because not only is Matt so talented and passionate in what he wants to do, but I also just couldn’t pass up the chance to be a part of the story, and to do what I could to bring this film to being. It’s been really fulfilling.”

Livadary followed the IGRA for an entire rodeo season, forming strong relationships with many of its five thousand members. Wade and Char, two of the documentary’s main focuses, helped the filmmakers portray an intimate insight into the passion and athleticism of the gay rodeo. Having spent months with Livadary, introducing him to various competitors throughout the competition, Wade “sort of wrote the ending to the movie.”

“He was first just a liaison to help me meet other people that could be interesting…but in the end I just kept talking to him and I found his story really compelling. So we spent a lot of time together,” Livadary said.

Char also fell into the story for a variety of reasons. At first, she was a necessary teacher to help Livadary learn how to ride bulls. “For a hot minute I was actually going to compete in the rodeo,” he laughed. “I was going to ride bulls and Char was my instructor. We would affectionately call her the ‘Bubba Gump’ of bull riding because she just knows every fact about it. So she took me under her wing and tried to teach me. Unfortunately I didn’t really take to it very well.”

It was due to Char’s knowledge and passion for the Rodeo that she became a prominent part of the “Queens and Cowboys” story. “While she was teaching me I fell in love with her enthusiasm and her passion and I was just so impressed and gob-smacked at how many injuries she sustained doing what she loves. So she just became a natural part of the story.”

Krozek added that it was also important to feature a female on the circuit, feeling that Char portrayed “the spirit of the rodeo.”

“She gets up; she breaks herself at every turn. She’s constantly hurting herself and she’s constantly falling down, but she loves it. It is her passion in life and no matter what happens she’s going to keep getting up and back on that bull and I think that that’s inspiring to us in rodeo and outside [of it]. So we definitely wanted to highlight that.”

Livadary and Krozek spent almost a year converting around eight hundred hours of film into the ninety-minute documentary that became the final cut of “Queens and Cowboys.” They applied to a variety of film festivals, and were shocked and hugely thrilled to find out they had gotten into many of them, including the Sonoma International Film Festival.

“I don’t think ‘excited’ is even close,” Krozek said about screening at the festival. “I mean, Sonoma is not only one of the most beautiful, amazing places ever but also Matt and I are born-and-bred Californians so this is like playing to a home audience. The festival has been so gracious, supportive and excited to have us. So it feels like a community already and we’re not even there yet.”

Livadary was quick to show his excitement too, adding, “they have been from the get go. They’ve been so excited about us and it’s completely mutual. I love Sonoma and that entire square where the films are happening is so picturesque and beautiful.”

The festival is even hosting a Queens and Cowboys party on Saturday evening, April 5, following the 3:30 pm screening. “I think it’s going to be really good. We hear that they’re one of the best festivals for the events that they plan,” Livadary said. “The fact that they were kind enough to want to throw us a party after our screening was just so overwhelmingly awesome. So we’re going to enjoy every moment of it.

“And we’re definitely going to drink some wine. I think it would be sacrilege to go to Sonoma and not do wine tasting, just like it would be sacrilege to go to Texas and not see a Rodeo.”

Livadary and Krozek both see the documentary as an honest portrayal of the gay rodeo, that also happens to do the job of breaking down negative stereotypes associated with the LGBT community. Rural areas of North America often fall into homophobic mindsets, fuelled by a lack of exposure to the realities of the LGBT community, so “Queens and Cowboys” draws on the complexities of being LGBT in the rural West, turning the IGRA into many people’s safe haven.

Krozek explained, “I think that what is so cool is that the film is breaking down stereotypes but not in an instant, grabby kind of way. You’re going into a world that is legitimately hardcore. It is legitimately masculine and iconic and American. And you’re letting these people speak for themselves. We’re not preaching to anyone. That was such a nice thing about this movie. All Matt had to do was walk in and let them tell their stories and the rest of the job was done. We can talk about progress and we can talk about equality and we can talk about things like tradition and iconic American stories and manliness and they all go together. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

In contrast, in LA being gay is “so naturalized… It’s in every media outlet, every TV show, it’s totally accepted everywhere…when you actually travel to the rural country and see how many gays there are in the rural West who are not accepted and don’t have a place to go, it’s pretty shocking to find out,” Livadary said, pointing out the importance of the IGRA’s existence.

“So the gay rodeo, while fun and dazzling and hilarious in some ways and dangerous, it really does serve a need for the gays in the rural West to have a place they can go and be themselves and be out and be accepted, which for a lot of people in smaller places is a huge deal. There’s actually a strong need for a lot of the members to have a place to be.”

After multiple members of the IGRA told him they did not want to be filmed because they were not out in their community and feared losing their jobs if people found out, Livadary realized how important it was for him to “try to honor the stories, keep it authentic and not go over the top.

“There is obviously outspoken homophobia, and there is some in the film as well but I think that a lot of it is that there’s not even a conversation happening with people who are not on the front lines talking about equality and fighting for it actively. Everyone else is left to fend for themselves and there’s not a whole lot of dialogue happening.”

Livadary said, “if the film gets to a gay kid out there in rural middle-of-nowhere Texas and he finds a place that he can belong then we’ve succeeded, so it’s not really about the awards. It’s about [connecting] with the audience, whether they’re straight or gay or anywhere in between.”

“Queens and Cowboys: A Straight Year On The Gay Rodeo” will be playing at the Sonoma Film Festival, which is held in Sonoma, California from April 2-6.

Following the screening of the film on Saturday, April 5, Dot429 andOut in the Vineyard are hosting a Queens and Cowboys party.

The Sonoma Film Festival is a five-day event featuring over ninety films, including independent features, documentaries, world cinema, shorts and a showcase of Spanish language films, as well as sporting fine wines and world-class cuisine. 2014 marks the Festival’s seventeenth year.