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A few years after moving to D.C. from his native Northern California, Jason Hays let his family in on a secret. He’d kept news of a big lifestyle change from his parents, though everybody in his new social circle back east was well aware of it. Now was the time to come clean.

Hays is…gay, but his parents already knew that. That wasn’t his secret.

He’d taken up bull riding. Uh-oh. Look out. The folks, who never considered that their baby would grow up to be a cowboy, told him they wanted to be supportive, but they couldn’t deny their concern.

“It was tough to tell them about the bulls,” laughs Hays, president of the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association (ASGRA), a D.C.-based group.

It’s hard to say which goes against stereotype more: a gay cowboy or a D.C. cowboy. Well, Hays, like his ASGRA peers, bucks ’em both. The group was founded in 1991 by four gay cowboys living in D.C. and now boasts around 160 chaps-wearin’, rope-throwin’, steer-rasslin’, bronc-ridin’ pokes on its membership rolls. That makes ASGRA the biggest conglomeration of city slickers in the International Gay Rodeo Association, which itself claims to be the biggest rodeo organization of any kind in the world. The annual ASGRA rodeo, held locally during the first week in October, is among the biggest gay rodeos anywhere.

Hays, 26, fancied horseback riding as a youngster, but had no idea just how much cowboy he had in him when he first came to Washington to attend American University. He stayed here following graduation, took a job with a nonprofit association, and initially signed on with ASGRA only for social reasons. With the encouragement of the older members, Hays began acting on his latent tendencies in an effort to find himself. Soon enough, he found himself atop a bull.

This weekend, the Professional Bull Riders (PBR), a touring outfit headed up by legendary macho man Tuff Hedeman, comes to the USAirways Arena for what has become an annual two-day stop. A sizable ASGRA faction will be in the grandstands in Landover, and they’ll be admiring more than buns and buckles. These guys know what it’s like to come out of the chute with their lives on the line. So before cracking a joke that ASGRA’s urban cowboys ride a little lighter in the saddle than their pro counterparts, maybe you should climb aboard Bam Bam, the mechanical bull out at the group’s practice farm in Clinton. Stay on six seconds without being bucked off (ASGRA’s amateur riders go two seconds less than PBR’s pros), and you’re ready for a crack at a starter animal: a steer. That’s like a bull, absent a few hundred pounds and a pair of testicles. Pass the steer test, then you’re ready to hop on the real, ungelded deal: three-quarters of a ton, or more, of live beef, wrapped in untanned leather. And mean as hell.

Now who’s a sissy?

“The testosterone makes all the difference,” says Hays. “Steers just want to get you off them; bulls want to throw you off and then kill you.” Hays can recite a laundry list of injuries he attributes to bullish behavior: broken nose, broken ankle, broken ribs, broken arm, not to mention the stretched and torn ligaments in various joints. Annandale resident Cindy Brendle, the lone female bull rider in ASGRA, thinks the suffering is worth it. “I don’t think you can get this rush anywhere except maybe skydiving,”says Brendle, who, like Hays, discovered bull riding after joining ASGRA for social reasons.

ASGRA’s annual gathering isn’t all about bulls. Other traditional “rough stock” competitions such as bronco riding and steer roping, and less dangerous equine activities like barrel riding, can also be found on the program, just like at any other rodeo.

But there are several events that separate the gay men and women from the PBR boys. Like the Goat Dressing competition, in which contestants have to put a pair of underpants on a running goat. And the wildly popular Wild Drag, in which three-person teams—normally consisting of one man, one woman, and one man dressed like a woman—attempt to commandeer a steer long enough for the last individual to jump on and ride him across a finish line.

And then there are the beauty contests, where talents other than wrangling come into play. Patrick Nelson of Columbia, who signed on with ASGRA to further his two-step dancing skills, is the reigning Mr. ASGRA, one of three “royalty” titles bestowed each year—Ms. ASGRA, a lesbian crown, and Miss ASGRA, for a drag queen, are the others. Nelson, a technical writer for the International Monetary Fund, won the 1999 title and accompanying silky sash at the last ASGRA rodeo—not so much for his facility with barnyard animals, but because he gave a particularly emotional reading of country singer Colin Raye’s sappy “I Can Still Feel You.” At the yearly soiree, two-stepping and line dancing abilities are surely noticed. The competition on the dance floor can be as heated as that in the bull ring; ASGRA goes out of its way to put the camp in campfire.

The rest of the rodeo world may well be a macho bastion, but ASGRA members say homophobic displays from straight cowboys or spectators have never been a problem. In fact, the only protests and rancor at its rodeos come from the animal-rights crowd, which is just as much a thorn to the nongay rodeo folks. Hays and other ASGRA officials say they’ve tried their best to work with the protesters, but they have yet to convince them that cruelty not only isn’t tolerated at an ASGRA rodeo, but is bad for business.

“Everybody thinks we tie a rope around a bull’s testicles to get him to act up,” says Hays. “That’s the biggest myth in rodeo. The rope is around his stomach, nowhere near his testicles, and he goes crazy just because he wants to get you off him. That shows how much ignorance there is in the animal-rights community about rodeo. And our animals are all kept in great condition, because if they’re not in shape, they don’t perform, and everybody loses. Believe me, we want to work with these groups, to show them that we take very good care of the animals. We really do. I think that’s something the mainstream rodeos have taken from us, the way we try to work with the animal-rights groups.”

Don’t look for PBR to steal much else from the ASGRA program. Brendle, who just paid $20 for an autographed, life-sized cutout of Hedeman that she intends to display in her home and at ASGRA functions, will be in the stands in Landover this weekend. She hopes to pick up a few tricks of the trade by watching the pros. But she won’t have her feelings hurt if the visiting bull riders don’t try to rustle ideas like the Wild Drag or Goat Dressing away from her group.

“I know we definitely aren’t a traditional rodeo group. Traditional cowboys, like the Marlboro Man, would probably think it’s silly to try to put underwear on a goat,” she says. “Then again, maybe the Marlboro Man is gay.”

—Dave McKenna