By Laura Latzko
Throughout the year, cowboys and cowgirls compete at local gay rodeos around the country. During the World Gay Rodeo Finals, the top competitors from around the country and from Canada go up against each other.
This year, the 33rd-annual World Gay Rodeo Finals will take place at WestWorld of Scottsdale during the weekend of Oct. 24 to 27.
The finals will be held in Scottsdale in 2019 and 2020. This is the first time since the late 1990s that the finals competition has taken place in Arizona.
The rodeo festivities will include a two-day rodeo, an opening party on Thursday night, an opening ceremony and royalty talent show on Friday night, vendor and family areas, grand entry ceremonies on Saturday and Sunday, and a dinner and awards ceremony on Sunday.
On Sunday, contestants and crowd members are encouraged to wear pink for Going Pink for Rodeo day, which focuses on breast cancer awareness while raising money for a local chapter of the American Cancer Society.
The finals are put on by the International Gay Rodeo Association, an inclusive rodeo organization that provides opportunities for LGBT and allied competitors to compete and give back to the community.
Organizations throughout the country, including the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association, are part of the larger IGRA organization.
A committee of around 18 people, representing different rodeo associations, helps to plan the finals. Five individuals, including Rick Nixon, are from the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association.
AGRA will have a booth in the vendor section, where visitors can learn more about the local rodeo association. Nixon said the finals rodeo will give further exposure to AGRA.
“It will only help to showcase Arizona’s own local rodeo association because they absolutely do wonderful work in the community,” Nixon said.
Nixon said the finals will also give visitors a chance to experience Arizona.
“There are people attending the rodeo from all over the world, not just the United States and Canada but people from Europe as well. This is a great opportunity to showcase our beautiful area and all that we have to offer,” Nixon said.
Rodeo associations are made up of people who compete in rodeos and those who serve in other ways, including royalty members.
On the Friday of finals weekend, contestants going for four IGRA titles will compete in categories such as western wear, interview, and talent categories. The winners will be announced on Saturday evening during a stepdown ceremony.
The contestants will represent different rodeos associations from around the country.
Different types of contributions help to make IGRA and local rodeo associations successful.
Each year, IGRA honors individuals for their rodeo careers or support of gay rodeo by making them grand marshals.
This year, the grand marshal honors will go to John Beck, a member of the Colorado Rodeo Association who won several All-Around titles and competed at both the World Gay Rodeo Finals and Gay Games.
IGRA will also recognize Mr. LongArm President Dere Newman and Ron “Daddy Ron” Wilcox of the Nu Towne Saloon as Honorary Grand Marshal and Community Hero, respectively.
They will be honored during the grand entry festivities, which also a riderless horse ceremony to commemorate those who have passed away.
While local rodeos have both rodeo events and entertainment, the main focus of the finals rodeo will be the competition.
Contestants will compete in different rough stock, speed and roping events. The finals will also have camp events such as goat dressing, wild drag race and steer decorating.
The top 20 men, women and teams in each event are invited to compete in the finals.
IGRA will award ribbons and buckles to the top contestants. The cowboy and cowgirl with the most overall points with win All-Around titles.
To qualify, contestants compete and earn points at gay rodeos, put on at different times of the year by members associations throughout the United States and in Canada.
Nixon said that the finals showcase serious gay rodeo competitors, who put in the work all year long.
“The contestants take rodeo very seriously…They are very proud of what they do, and they are good at it,” Nixon said.
The contestant pool consists of veterans who have gone to the finals multiple times to first-year contestants taking part in their first finals.
A handful of contestants will be representing Arizona.
Some of these individuals, including longtime competitor Greg Begay, have gone to finals for a number of years.
Begay, a member of the Navajo Nation, started in the gay rodeo circuit in 2009 and has gone to the finals every year but 2010.
This year, he was in the top five in different roping, speed and camp events.
Begay also takes part in World Series of Team Roping events and Indian rodeos.
At the gay rodeo finals, he has won All-Around Cowboy honors twice and taken home buckles for individual events.
He started riding and roping as a child and competed in junior rodeos. Growing up, he learned from his father, who still does team roping events.
Over the years, Begay has had to overcome injuries, including a broken leg and a torn ACL.
His drive to compete pushed him to come back from these injuries and get back to a high level of competition.
“I think it takes persistence and practice, and you definitely have to have a competitive heart,” Begay said.
Begay said competing in his home state comes with added pressures, but he is ready to show Arizona crowds his best.
“It’s special wherever I go because I’m there with my friends and my family, doing something that I love. It will be even more special in my heart, being home,” Begay said.
Along with veteran cowboys, newcomers such as Alexander Saites will be competing at the finals rodeo.
In this first year as a competitor, Saites has made it to the finals in steer riding, wild drag race, and goat dressing events.
Saites grew up attending rodeos and horse shows in a small town in Tennessee but never competed in rodeos. Joining AGRA gave him the chance.
During his first year, other competitors have been very supportive, giving him advice, watching his rides and loaning him equipment. He said although the rodeo circuit is competitive, it is welcoming and supportive of newcomers.
“Everybody wants to be the person who comes out on top, but they also want it to be a fair fight. They want you to do your best so that if they beat you, they feel like they won because they are the best. People are really supportive of each other and making sure that they’ve got everything they need to compete at the best level they can,” Saites said.
During IGRA rodeos, women have a chance to compete in the same events as men, including rough stock events such as chute dogging. RJ Mikels, an Arizona competitor in her second year, said this is one of the main reasons she was drawn to gay rodeos.
“With the chute dogging and steer riding, we are riding the exact same animals or wrestling the exact same animals as the men are. It’s a totally even playing ground,” Mikels said.
Mikels was the world champion in chute dogging last year during her first year competing. This year, she will compete in chute dogging, calf roping on foot, wild drag race and steer decorating in the finals.
Growing up in Michigan, Mikels’ family raised pigs, and her grandparents owned a farm.
Before starting to compete last year, she served as a timer and chute crew member for IGRA rodeos.
She and her wife, a certified scorekeeper, are both involved in gay rodeos and often travel to events together.
Spouses, significant others and family members are all part of the extended community within IGRA.
Mikels said the finals rodeo offers a chance to compete at a top level and see good friends before the end of the season.
This year, she will invite local coworkers and friends who have never seen her compete.
“It’s pretty exciting because they are going to get to see me do what I love instead of just seeing a video or hearing me talk about it,” Mikels said.
IGRA World Gay Rodeo Finals
October 24-27 at West World of Scottsdale, 16601 N. Pima Rd., Scottsdale. Admission is $10-$15 for single-day tickets Visit igra.com for information.