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‘The time is now’: LGBTQ+ advocates seek representation at Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

Attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo used to be overwhelming and uncomfortable for Eric Hulsey as a queer young man in his early 20s who grew up in Tomball and was occasionally bullied in high school.  

“A lot of those people were the people you would typically see at the rodeo,” he said. “It’s not the rodeo’s fault that I drew the correlation, … but it’s something that was always in my mind that if I go there, I can’t be my true self. I can’t be as comfortable as I would be.”

Now at 38, he’s no longer in that place. But he still knows it’s a reality for some queer Houstonians who may feel apprehensive attending one of the country’s largest livestock exhibitions and rodeo. 

“It can be a little intimidating if you’re trans or if you are overtly queer,” Hulsey said. “It’s something that you would feel you need to censor about yourself.” 

That’s why he’s reintroducing Out at the Rodeo, a family-friendly event that provides a safe space for LGBTQ+ Houstonians to authentically be themselves and enjoy everything that the rodeo has to offer. Although Out at the Rodeo launched in 2016, it went on a seven-year hiatus due to funding challenges.

Out at the Rodeo is an unofficial group and independent of the Houston rodeo, but it’s the only organized LGBTQ+ presence at the three-week event. This year’s event falls on March 9, and it’ll convene in the Champion Wine Garden selling merchandise, such as themed bandanas and T-shirts. 

“When you just look at the state of politics and queer issues being attacked, it just makes more sense to have positive influence within the city centers that we have and to celebrate the diversity that we have,” Hulsey said. 

Every year, the rodeo aims to celebrate the diversity of Houston through its nine Special Days, which spotlights communities such as “Sensory Friendly Day,” “Black Heritage Day” and “Go Tejano Day,” among many others. But it has yet to designate a Special Day, launch a committee or allocate any programming for the LGBTQ+ community, despite internal and external conversations advocating for representation.

In a prepared statement shared with the Landing, Chris Boleman, HLSR president and CEO, emphasized that every ethnicity and group of individuals, including those within the LGBTQ+ community, should feel welcome on any day throughout the rodeo. He pointed to its roots that define the “essence” of the rodeo.

“Our original Special Days, such as Black Heritage Day and Go Tejano Day, are deeply rooted in celebrating Western Heritage and paying homage to the original cowboys who shaped our cultural landscape. These events serve as a tribute to the rich history and traditions that define our unique identity,” he said in a statement.

But Special Days are not exclusive, Boleman said, and everyone can attend on any day.

“In one of the most diverse cities in the country, we pride ourselves on being an all-inclusive event,” Boleman said.

‘Basically have to play cowboy’

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was founded in 1932 based on four pillars: agriculture, education, entertainment and western heritage. 

“It doesn’t include anything about our community,” said longtime rodeo volunteer Lola Owens.

 “People that run and make decisions at (the) rodeo are elected businessmen … so I think it’s a conflict that will always be there.” 

Owens is among several LGBTQ+ committee members who have longed for some form of representation, she said, but have often felt voiceless. 

“You basically have to play cowboy for 21 days and keep your mouth shut because it’s not completely accepted,” said Owens, who is also a drag performer and has been transitioning for the last three years. 

That’s what excites her about Out at the Rodeo. 

Out at the Rodeo previously held fundraising events like line-dancing lessons at Discovery Green and a fashion show sponsored by Houston western apparel store Pinto Ranch. It has partnered with nonprofits such as AIDS Foundation Houston to run the event, Hulsey said. Previous events have attracted more than 100 Houstonians, but it eventually fizzled out as it struggled to secure sponsorships after Hurricane Harvey struck. 

“We wanted to make an event that was queer and Houston that would celebrate the uniqueness that you would only have here in Houston,” Hulsey said. “And what’s more unique than the rodeo?”

Ever since Hulsey started promoting the return of Out at the Rodeo on social media last summer, he’s been inundated with messages and comments from excited Houstonians. Many shared that they have never been to the rodeo because they never felt safe going alone without a community backing them, but now they’re ready to experience it for the first time with their families and friends.

“People are really eager for something like this to exist,” Hulsey said. “Over the summer when I first posted the event, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, finally I can go to the rodeo.’ And I’m like, you could always go but I’m glad that this is creating that opportunity for you to get excited to go with the community.” 

Out at the Rodeo takes inspiration from Gay Days at Disney World, a grassroots queer event that began in 1991 as a single-day visit to the Magic Kingdom in Orlando with roughly 3,000 local LGTBQ+ community activists, and has evolved into a weeklong vacation celebration that attracts more than 150,000 revelers from across the nation. It also pours an estimated $100 million-plus into the local economy.

“While we aren’t official now, it’s all about building that presentation and building up that buying power for someone like the rodeo to actually acknowledge it,” Hulsey said. 

2016 report by the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce found that in 2015, the combined buying power of America’s LGBTQ+ community was estimated to be $917 billion, according to Witeck Communications.

“In the fourth-largest city in the country and the most diverse city in the country, making sure that the LGBTQ+ community is at the table, it’s not only a must, but it’s smart. It’s smart for our city, our region, our economy,” said Tammi Wallace, the co-founder and president and CEO of the Greater Houston LGBTQ+ Chamber.

What will it take to get representation?

Owens grew up attending the Rodeo and has enjoyed being part of it ever since she started volunteering in 2011. For more than a decade, she’s competed in various barbecue cook-off teams, and has volunteered and occupied leadership roles on a number of committees from horspitality to transportation, which is also where she met her wife of 11 years. 

She represents a large percentage of rodeo volunteers within the LGBTQ+ community, she said, who would love to see themselves represented within an organization they’ve poured so much into. 

“I think it’s more of an attitude of fair is fair, and we want to be seen too,” Owens said.

She and other committee members have been working to develop a Pride committee at the rodeo. She said the collective recently consulted the Texas Gay Rodeo Association for support, a nonprofit organization that launched in 1983 and raises money to support various causes. Armed with the Texas Gay Rodeo’s example and buy-in from Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo committee members, Owens hopes the rodeo will formalize an event that represents the LGBTQ+ community soon.

“It’s time for a voice,” she said. 

While it wouldn’t require much to mobilize supporters to launch a Pride committee, she said, the harder part is getting the rodeo’s executive committee to approve it, which she said has typically been more conservative in its views. 

But it’s not for a lack of trying. Owens said she has run it past some officials and instead of answers, she was met with questions.

“I’ve spoken to enough people where they have said, ‘Well, why do you need representation?’” she said.

“I’m like, ‘Well, why not?’ I think everybody else has representation. You’ve got all these special days to recognize any culture subgroup, ethnicity, first responder, military, you’ve got all these days, and I think the current community wants to say well, what about us?”

But rodeo officials say forming an official committee is a meticulous process that extends beyond addressing specific needs. It includes “logistical considerations,” Boleman said, from allocating extra parking, badges, standing-room only in the stadium among other limited resources. 

“Establishing a committee is a strategic decision that involves not only identifying individuals willing to participate but also ensuring a collective consensus that the committee is essential in fulfilling a specific need or addressing a void not adequately met by staff or existing committees,” Boleman said. “The creation of a committee signifies a commitment to innovation and adaptability, requiring unanimous agreement to enhance the overall effectiveness and impact of HLSR’s initiatives.”

Forming a committee also requires fundraising that would allow it to be self-sustaining without relying on financial support from HLSR, Boleman added. All Special Day committees were launched through volunteer donations or sponsors.

But advocates think it’s worth exploring.

‘LGBTQ+ inclusion is a journey’

Late last year, Hulsey met with the director of programming and events of the Greater Houston LGBTQ+ Chamber of Commerce to discuss collaboration on the Out at the Rodeo event and on getting a day of representation at the rodeo, something the chamber has been working on behind the scenes for years. The chamber sat with rodeo representatives in November for a preliminary conversation to map out what a Special Day and LGBTQ+ representation could look like. 

HLSR didn’t show immediate interest, Wallace said, with rodeo officials repeating that the event was for everyone. However, HLSR asked for recommendations of LGBTQ+ artists to perform on The Junction Stage, which is located outside at the east end of NRG Park. One of their suggestions, Daniel Mata, was selected, Wallace said.

Boleman said that since they met with the chamber so late in the year, they “agreed to continue conversations in the spring for 2025 and beyond.”

“As we continue to evolve and adapt, we remain open to dialogue and engagement with all communities, keeping in mind the roots that define the essence of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo,” he said in a statement. 

Aside from the rodeo, the chamber is having similar conversations with a number of organizations and businesses across the region as part of its mission, which focuses on innovating programs, strategic partnerships and advancing policies that foster economic inclusion and equality.

“There’s so many seats and spaces that our community is not in when it comes to Houston,” Wallace said. “And that’s just the way it’s always been. But that’s not the way it should be going forward.”

She looks forward to continuing conversations with the Rodeo. 

“LGBTQ+ inclusion is a journey,” Wallace said. “And we often say it starts with one step.”

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Source : The Landing

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