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Film Review: 'Queens & Cowboys: A Straight Year on the Gay Rodeo'

LiteratureDiscriminationJohn Beck

More than the lighthearted color survey implied by its title, "Queens & Cowboys" charts one long season on the gay rodeo circuit, building rooting interest in specific protagonists as they try to win one coveted prize buckle. Winner of the top documentary prize at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, Matt Livadary's crowd-pleasing debut feature deserves a look by programmers beyond gay fests, though its commercial life will probably be limited to niche home-format exposure.

Being unwelcome on the traditional, macho rodeo circuit -- as brief input from some regulars there makes abundantly clear -- but seeking a sense of community as well as a place to show off their hard-won skills, gay rodeo enthusiasts formed the Intl. Gay Rodeo Assn. in 1985. But in recent years the org's numbers have shrunk, with chapters closing, costs skyrocketing and little fresh blood invigorating an aging membership. (This surely reflects the general decline in rural populations and financially viable small farming/ranching lifestyles.)

Nevertheless, IGRA remains an irreplaceable part of many people's lives, specifically those of gay men and women who adamantly prefer country life, even with its frequent social isolation and discrimination. That's certainly the case with the two principals here. Wade Earp (distantly related to Wild West legend Wyatt) travels thousands of miles every year from his one-man Texas ranch to points as distant as Fort Lauderdale, Detroit and Calgary, competing in a full range of rodeo heats with or without his trusty 20-year-old steed, Digit.

Char Duran, from Colorado, has a regular day job to support her own rodeo habit. (Women are much more welcome to compete at IGRA events than they are at most "straight" rodeos.) She's tried her hand at bullriding for 14 years, acquiring a long resume of injuries but no buckle, and is determined to win just one before she ages out of the running.

Likewise in his 40s, Earp has won plenty of buckles, but never the top All-Around Cowboy prize, which has gone with exasperating predictability, year after year, to San Diego golden boy David Renier. Tall, handsome and cocky, Renier is painted here in such unsympathetic terms that his appearances might as well be scored to "You're So Vain."

Earp and Duran represent IGRA bedrock -- unpretentious, well-liked, blue-collar folk to whom the rodeos mean everything. Others met more briefly include veteran John Beck, who recalls horrific pervasive homophobia back in the day, and ebullient 20-year-old Chris Sherman, whose own formative experience of bullying proves such things haven't changed much in many rural communities. The film also drops in on an IGRA annual convention, plus several fundraisers for Ty Teigen, a beloved rodeo staple stricken with ovarian cancer.

Larger cultural context is provided by amusingly chosen archival clips of rodeo history, as well as an excerpt from notorious 1961 classroom gay-scare film "Boys Beware." Attesting to lingering homophobia, occasional faces are obscured here, notably those of rodeo hands who do behind-the-scenes work for pay, and tell the camera they'd be blacklisted elsewhere if it became known that they work gay events.

Assembly is nothing fancy, but the pic is nicely paced and tech contributions are solid enough.

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