They're here. They're queer. And they can rope a steer. Gays and lesbians tame stereotypes on the rodeo circuit in Conyers.

On the first weekend in June, at the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers, the scent of manure mingles with smoke from a barbecue grill. The dusty arena resounds with the clop of hooves. The crowd -- a sea of bobbing Stetsons -- offers up plaudits, hoops and hollers. That is, when they aren't waving away flies.

It almost could be a traditional rodeo. Except for those two guys in the stands wearing shirts that read "cow fag."

Even the name -- Southern Spurs Rodeo 2001 -- offers no clue that this is an all-American event with a twist. Among husbands, wives and children, same-sex couples are cuddling in the stands. A gay-rights booth is squeezed between vendors selling animal figurines and T-shirts. And one of the top sponsors is Hoedown's, which everyone in the gay community knows is the country-western bar.

Only two of 13 events, Wild Drag and Goat Dressing, are peculiar to gay rodeo, and they're just a fun way to wind down the day. The rest of the day is pure roping, kicking and bucking. The broncos and bulls don't notice the difference between gay and straight.

Most riders at the 2001 Southern Spurs Rodeo, 30 miles east of Atlanta, regularly compete in gay rodeos across the country. The Conyers event is but one in an annual 17-rodeo circuit. Riders travel the circuit, not for the kitsch, but for the challenge.

Erin Leavey straps tassled chaps around her blue jeans. She fits a yellow mouthpiece over her braces and secures a black hockey mask over her wavy hair. Then she climbs onto the bronco that is cooped in the chute.

Leavey will wait there until intuition tells her it's time to ride.

Bareback Bronc Riding is the fourth event of the day, one of seven in which Leavey will compete. It's different from bull riding, where the rider cinches her legs around the animal. With broncos, a rider sits legs forward, as if in a sled. She props her feet atop the animal's shoulders and sits further back than she would on a bull.

When the gate into the arena opens and the horse jumps out, the rider hopes to keep a tight grip on the handhold. She must throw her legs back, toward the horse's rump, and assume a rider's position. She will be lucky to last the six seconds it takes to earn points.

Leavey, eyes closed, still in the chute, is taking deep breaths. Intuition speaks. She opens her eyes and nods. The gate opens.

The brown-speckled bronco gets the better of her. The horse bounds across the arena and throws her in 4.5 seconds. Leavey soars in the air longer than any of the other riders. She flicks her ankles back and forth, like a dancer, and lands gracefully, dropping and rolling and jumping up from the dirt. She strides across the arena to meet her friends and takes down her hair.

"Damn," she says. "I broke a nail."

The following day, Leavey will be one of the few riders -- male or female -- to last the six seconds on a bronco. Not that she fits the part.

"I'm by far not one of the professional, true cowgirls out there. I don't chew tobacco," she says. "I have long blond hair. I'm so not the butch type."

The 30-year-old Atlanta advertising executive grew up in Houston. When she was a little girl, her father used to take her to livestock shows and rodeos. But she didn't ride in a rodeo until she moved to Atlanta.

In 1997, she was part of a country-and-western dance team that performed at a gay rodeo party in Atlanta. Members of the group that throws the Atlanta-based rodeo, the Southeast Gay Rodeo Association, told Leavey that for $10, she could join them in bull-riding practice.

She said she had no gear to protect her teeth or head. They found her some. She said she'd never done it before. They said get on the bull.

"Will somebody tell me how to do this?" she asked.

Someone said hold tight and close your eyes. Nod whenever you're ready.

"All right."

She couldn't nod. She started to cry. She said she had to pee.

"Don't pee," someone warned her. "You'll piss him off."

She nodded.

The door opened. She fell off immediately.

"Wait a minute," she said when she got up. "I can do better than that."

She forked over another $10. The second time, she lasted four seconds. Less than a year later, Leavey started riding competitively.

Three years after that, rodeo officials named her Miss International Gay Rodeo 2001. Not only has she helped raise money through rodeos for local and worldwide charities, she's competed in more than 20 rodeos and has taken home ribbons and a few coveted silver buckles. Silver buckles are handed out for best performance in an event, as well as for best performance overall.



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