LAS VEGAS — Chris Tobin leans on a fence and ices his face after riding a bull and a steer minutes apart. A pad on his helmet somehow smacked his face, leaving him with a black eye, one of the many injuries rodeo competitors are used to.
Now, wearing a rainbow-colored tutu, wig, tank top and cowboy boots, he waits his turn to try to direct or drag a steer across a finish line with two teammates as part of a competition known as wild drag racing, a staple of this yearly event at a Las Vegas equestrian facility.
Wild drag racing isn't a traditional rodeo event, but this isn't an average amateur rodeo. It's a stop on the International Gay Rodeo Association circuit.
"It's my passion," said Tobin, a Denver resident who marked his 10th rodeo event of the year in Sin City. "In no way was I raised as a cowboy. I'm actually from New York City, but I was introduced to it three years ago. I've found something that I like, and I'm going to keep going with it."
Last month's event in Las Vegas drew more than 200 spectators and 73 participants from across the U.S. The circuit's finals are taking place this weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Circuit rodeos feature a variety of traditional events, including bull riding, bareback bronc riding, calf roping and barrel racing. But they also include a number of "camp" events that distinguish the circuit: goat dressing, in which two contestants try to slip a pair of white briefs on a goat; steer decorating, which requires two participants to tie a ribbon on a steer's tail; and the fan-favorite wild drag racing.
Men and women can participate in all events as long as they are 18 or older.
"If a female wants to ride a bull, she can ride a bull. If a man wants to ride a horse, he can ride a horse," said Brenda Alday, Las Vegas rodeo organizer. "Gay rodeos don't separate by gender. If you enjoy it, you should be able to do it."
Formed in 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association hosts several events across the U.S. raising money for charities. The group's early days were rough, with some facilities turning it down once they learned the rodeo was for gay cowboys. This year's calendar included stops in Phoenix; Little Rock, Arkansas; Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and San Francisco.
Individuals can participate regardless of their sexual orientation, but the circuit allows cowboys and cowgirls in the LGBTQ community in particular to feel comfortable doing something they love.
"Most people don't associate gay people with the country western lifestyle," said Jason Dyer, a Las Vegas Strip casino dealer who helps the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association with fundraising efforts. "From what I've heard from the contestants, they have been looked down upon, chastised and bullied. This is a safe haven."