National Anthem: Luke Gilford documents America’s queer rodeo subculture

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Gilford’s latest exhibition captures the love and resilience of a community that provides a safe space from the white patriarchal norms of the mainstream rodeo

Luke Gilford spent his childhood in the rodeo. His father was a champion and judge in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and they would travel all over southwest America for competitions. But as he got older, Gilford began to recognise the misogyny and racism that was rife in these spaces, and as a queer person, he never felt like he belonged.

In 2016, he discovered the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA). It was “like uncovering a shining beacon of hope,” he says. Founded in 1985, the organisation provides a space for all competitors – regardless of sexual and gender identity – to compete without discrimination.

On show until 28 August at New York’s SN37 Gallery, Gilford’s latest show National Anthem presents over five years of documentation of LGBTQ+ cowboy and cowgirl communities in North America. Warm and tender, the huge portraits hang proudly across two floors of the gallery, refusing the neglect and dismissal that many of Gilford participants may have experienced. 

Here, Gilford tells us about his connection to the rodeo, and why this community is so important to him. 

How much was rodeo culture a part of your life growing up?  

My earliest memory is actually at the rodeo with my father. I was born in Colorado, and my dad was a champion, and later a judge, in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. 

I vividly remember his giant silver belt buckle, his snakeskin boots, and the majestic horses in golden light, illuminating his rides. There’s an indelible magnetism to the rodeo – it brings the mythological side of America out into the open air. 

We would travel all over the Southwest for my father’s rodeos –  the pastel geographies, sounds and smells of animals, hairspray, denim and dirt are very much a part of my memories growing up.

© Luke Gilford.
© Luke Gilford.

Traditionally, the rodeo seems like a very masculine space – would you agree with that? From your experience do people face discrimination if they don’t fit into that mould? 

As I grew older I became aware of just how misogynistic and racist the mainstream rodeo can be. Rural America, as an ideal, is by and large a patriarchal, Christian, and white domain – still hostile to anything that is not that. 

Nature and rural life – which is not inherently exclusive, but open –can get caught up in that fixated identity. The mainstream rodeo still upholds a lot of those outdated and dangerous ideals. As I discovered my own queer identity, I naturally drifted away from that world. 

© Luke Gilford.

When and how did you discover the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA)? What did this discovery mean to you personally? 

In 2016 I was at an event outside of San Francisco and met some queer cowboys. They told me about an entire subculture within the rodeo circuit, known as the IGRA. 

Discovering the IGRA felt like uncovering a shining beacon of hope. The IGRA gives the LGBTQ+ community a unique opportunity to connect with other queer people, including BIPOC who are typically unwelcome in the almost exclusively Caucasian mainstream rodeo circuit. The queer rodeo is a safe space for anyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, including allies and supporters.

 

What five words would you use to describe what you wanted to depict about this community?

Resilience, Warmth, Empathy, Dignity, and Love.

National Anthem by Luke Gilford is on display at SN37 Gallery until 28 August 2022.

Marigold Warner

Online Editor

Marigold Warner joined the British Journal Photography in April 2018, and currently holds the position of Online Editor. She studied English Literature and History of Art at the University of Leeds, followed by an MA in Magazine Journalism from City, University of London. Her work has been published by titles including the Telegraph Magazine, Huck, Gal-dem, Disegno, and the Architects Journal.