Cowboy Life

Eiteljorg Museum Assistant Curator Johanna Blume says, “The gay rodeo circuit gave [LGBTQ+ men and women from rural backgrounds] a place where they could embrace and celebrate their full identities.”

The Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis has a collection that is so admired that it has packaged one of its exhibitions and is traveling it out West – among other places, to the Monterey Museum of Art.

Blake Little: Photographs from the Gay Rodeo were taken between 1988 and 1992. It is about camaraderie, bucking broncos, rodeo clowns, cowboy gear and fashion. But it’s also about the gay community, at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis, seeking support from each other.

Little became part of the gay rodeo, competing in bull riding, and he photographed the scene from within. Those photographs capture the intersection of masculinity and queerness, and reclaim some of the mythos of rodeo and ranching, while reminding viewers that LGBTQ+ people, not feeling safe and welcome in mainstream rodeo, had to create their own separate spaces.

Stuart Chase, MMA’s executive director, shepherds the show into Monterey in time to coincide with the California Rodeo Salinas, as well as the museum’s 60th anniversary year.

“The images are terrific,” Chase writes by email. “Black/white and in all respects documentary in nature, portraiture, and by a Californian. The images read simply as ‘cowboy.’”

He’s right. They don’t present as particularly “gay.” They are Americana portraits of a kind of old-school grit that seems to belong to another time, another life.

“It does bring attention to the diversity within the rodeo circuit and American culture,” Chase says. And it serves as a reminder of people’s longing to belong to something bigger than themselves.

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