Leading the Rodeo, In and Out of the Arena
Brian Helander, the president of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), will be participating in the Show Me State Rodeo in Kansas City. Helander won’t be bringing his horse, but he will compete in ground events such as chute dogging and break away roping. He lives in Santa Fe, N.M., and is also a member of the New Mexico Gay Rodeo Association, which holds its rodeo in Albuquerque.
Helander lives on a 12.5-acre ranch in Santa Fe with Donald Altman, his partner of 14 years, as well as seven horses and a dog.
“We have a 10-year old Labrador retriever that we treat like a child, named Jack, who travels to the rodeos with me and is pretty well-known on the circuit,” he said.
Helander said he goes back with the rodeo about 15 years and began his rodeo involvement with the Arizona Gay Rodeo Association. Like many others who compete in the rodeos, Helander said he didn’t grow up on a ranch with horses.
“I grew up on a farm, but it was a dairy farm,” he said.
He had never been involved with traditional rodeos or gay rodeos. “I just went to one. It looked like they were having a lot of fun. I was looking for some activity. Honestly, I just went. I started somewhere, with whatever … with goat dressing or chute dogging. I just started.”
Helander travels to other rodeos and acknowledges that at times it can get expensive.
“I do about 12 a year. It is [expensive>, but you know, I could be doing worse things with my money,” he said with a laugh. “Traveling and seeing your friends and competing and all of that. It’s a good thing to be doing.”
“I started with just me and goat dressing. Then it was a horse, and an F150, and then an F250, and F350 and then a F360 dually, then a little trailer, then a bigger trailer, then a ranch. The progression has been interesting for me.”
Helander is an emergency nurse and also teaches emergency nursing at the local community college. He acknowledges that traveling on the rodeo circuit is sometimes difficult for people with full-time jobs, but says it’s still possible for many.
“I’m currently self-employed, but I haven’t always been in the 14 years before I became self-employed. I took my vacation time and weekends and I worked it out,” he said. “When you want to do something, you work it out.”
He also owns an Internet-based business.
“We have an application that we serve out to hospitals that use the product, it’s a scheduling product. As long as I have my iPhone, I’m working, basically. I’ve been hauling horses to Canada and pulled over to the side of the road with my iPhone and taken a Helpdesk call and then gotten back on the road and moved on.”
“I’ve done pretty well on the rodeo circuit, for a number of reasons, I think part of which is commitment. I guess the thing I’m most proud of on the rodeo circuit is that I just basically won my fourth international championship belt buckle in chute dogging and steer wrestling.”
His background in nursing has been helpful at times at the rodeos.
“I haven’t had any major injuries really myself,” he said. “I’ve witnessed several injuries and been able to assist as an ER nurse on many, but I’ve been very lucky, knock on wood, that I haven’t suffered anything serious.”
When asked about the number of injuries he sees at some of the tougher competitions, he said, “I wouldn’t say there are a lot, but we’ve had serious injuries, including death, on the rodeo circuit.”
Helander said they take precautions around horses and steers for some of the more intense competitions, but there are also less risky events that one can participate in at the rodeo.
“We have three or four novice events, certainly. Steer riding is a novice event. Goat dressing, steer decorating. Calf roping on foot is a great novice event.”
He also said that there are lots of things people can do in the rodeo besides compete: scorekeeping, timing, judging, arena crew, chute crew, royalty. Helander said he’s often seen family members participate.
“Fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, brothers and sisters, we have those right now. … We’ve got gay children bringing their straight parents to do wild drag, goat dressing. It’s wonderful.”
“The gay parents and straight people that come to our rodeos often say they have much more fun at our rodeos because ‘we’re funner people.’ ”
Helander has been on the IGRA board for six years.
“Honestly, at the time I considered it, IGRA was sort of in a bit of a crisis. It was in a critical transition period from the previous president to something new. It was related to sort of the beginning of the end of some sponsorships that were important for the association, so it was sort of a critical time and I felt that I might have something that I might be able to offer.”
As president, Helander said, “I’m in my third two-year term that ends Dec. 31 this year.” After his term ends, he said, he’ll serve a year as past president. “And then I will continue to be involved with the association, because it’s a worthy organization to be involved in.”
Helander said that his involvement with IGRA involves at least 12 hours a week and that he feels good about his time serving on the board of IGRA.
“There are specific goals. We’ve actually been able to accomplish many of those goals. I think people would say maybe too much has changed. I’ve been a very active president, I think. We’ve done a lot of things with the association and with the structure of the association, and I think we’ve elevated it in certain ways. Others might disagree with me, but from my perspective, we have.”
Although the association in name is international, Helander said that Canada is the primary place from which other participants are involved. To compete with Europe, he said, “Logistically it would be difficult. We have an interest and we have participants from other European countries but we’re not able to really operationalize a rodeo in Europe.”
“We have two associations in Canada -- the Alberta Rockies Association and the Central Canada Gay Rodeo Association, very important parts of our rodeo circuit. We go there and participate in their rodeo and we just did a great rodeo school in Alberta, Canada. We get along well together.”
“I think at the time when it [IGRA"> was formed, which was pretty much well over 30 years now, the idea was that it was the gay rodeo association for the international community, being Canada, the U.S., Mexico and certainly the European countries also, if they were so interested.”
Helander said that they don’t compete in Mexico either. “We have participants that come from Mexico, obviously, but we have not put on a rodeo there. ”IGRA will have its annual convention, which usually draws 300 or more people, in November in Reno, Nev., the home of the High Sierra Gay Rodeo Association.
“It’s very much a working meeting, but keep in mind that’s one of the changes that we made over the years is that we now have our international royalty competition in conjunction with our national convention. There are a lot more fun things to do, partying and attending the royalty competition at our annual convention. So we try to add the business and elevate it with the royalty competition also.”
“We can’t forget about the October World Gay Rodeo finals,” he said. “IGRA puts on the World Gay Rodeo finals each year at the end of the season, where we invite the top 20 competitors, male and female, to compete.” Participants are invited based on their competition throughout the year. We have a two-level competition where we have the weekend competition at the World Gay Rodeo finals and we have the year-end competition for the cumulative points throughout the entire season.” It will be held in Laughlin, Nev., Oct. 20-23.
“It will be a big party, concerts. There will be a rodeo, but there is going to be so much more to do around the rodeo, including boating and water-skiing on the Colorado River. It’s going to be a blast.”
Helander said that they would like to see more women participating in the rodeos.
“Our women population is holding steady or declining slightly. Our board approximates the demographic of our organization. Our women are about 30 percent and our men are about 70 percent.”
Helander said that they would like to see more young people join rodeo organizations, too.
“I think it’s a natural progression in a certain way. If you really think about it, the Pride events when you’re coming out and you’re young and in your 20s, you go to the Pride events to say ‘Here I am, I’m queer and get over it,’ right?” When you think about the Western lifestyle and the rodeo, many people in their young years leave that because of what they might have experienced in the country, cowboy world of their homes. And they come back to it later on when they are older and realize that there is the gay rodeo association out there and they’re coming home, they’re not leaving home.”
“I think really it’s going to take every individual in the local association to encourage and invite and bring a younger person along with them. There’s no silver bullet coming from on high, sort of, from the IGRA level that is suddenly going to attract all the 20-year-olds to the rodeo. I need to bring the youngest person I know, which I’m doing frankly. I’m bringing to San Diego rodeo a 30-year-old. OK, I don’t know anybody in their 20s, but I’m bringing the youngest person I know who’s interested in riding a horse. I’m going to let him use my horse in the rodeo. He used to show horses when he was young, but he hasn’t done it in years and would like to do it again, and we’ve been practicing on my horse. He’s going to come to San Diego and compete.”
Another issue that IGRA and local rodeos have been working on is animal abuse, something they take very seriously, according to Helander.
“We have a number of things that we deal with related to animal issues. We actually just updated our animal statement, it’s out on the Internet. … Our position really is this: We use stock animals in rodeo, absolutely. But we don’t abuse animals. We don’t condone abuse.”
For example, Helander said, they don’t do tie-down roping and have specific rules on spurs that are tailored to the event and to the animal.
“Contestants can be disqualified for not following the recommendations,” he said. “We actually have a whole committee and committee chair devoted to animal advocacy and reviewing our rules on an annual basis to make sure we are using animals and not abusing animals. And there is a huge difference.”
Helander spoke of chute dogging as an example of one event where they hope to make a change.
“We’re going to make a modification to one of our rules about chute dogging to give the favor back to the animal in certain circumstances. The IGRA is actually a role model for animal issues. I was recently interviewed on BBC Canada related to the animal issues at the Calgary Stampede. Their consultant mentioned the rules and the animal approach that the IGRA takes as being a role model for other state rodeos.”
“IGRA is a good organization with a good mission. Come and join us,” Helander said.