"Shit," he said quietly. "Those are the ones who give us names."
Later, realizing the insult to gay culture's time-honored tradition of campy behavior, he backpedals. "How can I put this without stepping on anyone's toes?" he wonders. "Uh, well, I'm not into the more feminine-acting type. For me, it seems like a show, an act in some way."
For Shorty, being an authentic cowboy is about more than whether the boots and the belt match the hat. It's about strutting your low-hanging brass.
That's why he's running for Mr. Missouri Gay Rodeo Association. He wants to make sure the next state representative for this little-known clique of homosexual cowboys will know how to handle a rope.
He's out to prove something as he approaches a cattle chute, one of six metal-barred hoosegows beneath an American-flag-draped grandstand at the Wyandotte County Fairgrounds. It's a cut-rate venue with concrete-hard clay that, until a week ago, was littered with shrapnel from a demolition derby. Beyond the bleachers are trailers, camp sites and booths stocked with sexually evocative wares: leather collars, chaps and T-shirts with slogans like "If you can rope me, you can ride me!" A full bar has been pouring to sunburned men and women since midmorning.
Shorty, whose real name is Nelson Mueller, stands a wiry 6 feet 6 inches tall. He sports a horseshoe mustache and a golden belt buckle that reads "Bodacious."
Clad in a protective vest, he lowers himself into a chute that holds a spotted steer with a set of horns that look like sharpened handlebars. He surveys the animal's weaponry, estimating each prong at 10 inches, maybe longer.
"Of course, I'm not a size man."
He's a chute dogger a term for steer wrestlers. When the gates open, he'll try to drag the steer into the arena, then pile-drive it to the ground. Putting the moves on something this big doesn't always go as planned. At a rodeo in Oklahoma earlier this year, he was trampled and suffered a deep bruise on his right biceps. In Denver, the animal reared up and kicked him. Yesterday, he drew a "butt boy," a steer that ducked its head but kept its ass in the air until Shorty finally kicked it. That took about eight seconds forever in this sport in which the object is to get 'em laid as fast as you can.
Now it's a Sunday in early September, the last day of competition at the Show Me State Rodeo. And because final scores are tabulated by combining both day's times, he'll need to finish fast in three seconds or less to stay in contention for the first-place silver belt buckle.
When Shorty joined the Missouri Gay Rodeo Association in July 2003, it was obvious that the organization had some holes to fill. This year he was appointed group historian and assumed scrapbooking duty. Then he decided to do something relatively unprecedented: actually compete in rodeo events.
The organizers of the gay rodeo circuit standardized their rules back in 1982 so that gay cowboys could compete on almost the same level as their straight counterparts. There are traditional roping events in which contestants stand still or ride horses to lasso moving steers, or two-rider teams rope steers by their heads and haunches. There are traditional speed events, such as barrel racing, flag racing and pole bending. And there are traditional rough-stock events: steer, bronc and bull riding, all pure machismo.
But gay rodeo also involves camp events, which is where things get queer. There's steer decorating, a partner event in which one cowboy ties a ribbon to a steer's tail while another removes a rope from its horns. There's the wild drag race, a threesome event requiring a man and a woman to drag a steer into the arena and someone dressed in drag to mount it and ride across a dirt finish line. And there's goat dressing, in which partners chase down a tethered goat to pull a pair of jockey-style underwear onto it.
Last January, before his first rodeo, in Phoenix, Shorty enrolled in a one-day rodeo school hoping to learn two powerhouse events: chute dogging and steer riding. After he witnessed a woman break her arm getting thrown, he thought about his limited health insurance and chickened out of riding steers.
Pinning rough stock remained an interest, though.
He struck out on the circuit after Phoenix, hitting competitions in Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Albuquerque, New Mexico; Wichita, Kansas; Denver; and Chicago.
Now, at the Wyandotte County Fairgrounds, he watches four opponents get bucked off or disqualified immediately. The steers are bolting fast and pissed, sometimes dragging would-be desperados with them. That's the kind of rough ride Shorty likes. "I like to get down there, grab and go. I like to get in and get the hell out."
In the chute, he maneuvers the steer into a broad headlock, reaching a gloved hand around its skull, gripping its chin and inserting his fingers into its mouth. He places his other hand on the horn in front of him, like it's a steering wheel.
At the buzzer, his gate swings open and man and animal rush out dragging each other like chained inmates in a jailbreak. Shorty leans down on the steer's outside horn and twists its head skyward. The motions come fast but time moves slowly. The ride lasts one ... two ... three long seconds before he body-slams the animal to the turf.
Shorty's story is similar to those of many MGRA members reared in the small towns surrounding Kansas City.
He dreamed of growing up to be a John Wayne type; he just never figured he'd want to ride into the sunset with another cowboy.
Born in Sweet Springs, Missouri, he was one of five brothers who all turned out to be truckers. The other boys dressed in relaxed jeans and listened to hard rock, but Shorty embraced his hick heritage, fancying tight jeans and flannel. As a kid, his emotions rebelled. He found other men attractive.
"You didn't know who was or who wasn't. Actually everybody wasn't," he says of gay people in his hometown, about halfway between Kansas City and Columbia on Interstate 70. So he stayed in the closet. "I mean way back beneath the dirty clothes."
As a boy, he distracted himself with horses, learning to ride at the nearby rodeo grounds. He knew breeds like most gearheads know what's under their hoods. He worked long hours on local farms, feeding cows, castrating hogs and breaking ponies, until he found a chore he liked well enough to start calling it a career driving cross-state for a feed company. He fathered a child when he was 18 but didn't marry the mother throughout his twenties, Shorty's real love was a horse named Babe. When she died, it nearly broke his heart. At 33, he married another woman, but that lasted less than a year.
By the time Shorty was 40, he realized he was lonely as hell. He'd bought himself his sixth horse, a new foal, but that didn't satisfy him, so he set out for the gay clubs in Columbia and Kansas City, moseying awkwardly among the dolled-up boys under disco lights.
Three years ago, he discovered Sidekicks, a Western-themed gay bar near 40th Street and Main, and decided to trade country living for midtown's more progressive pace. He took a part-time gig DJing at the bar and eventually secured a day job driving trucks for an Olathe glass company. Sidekicks is the Missouri Gay Rodeo Association's local watering hole, which is how Shorty eventually heard about the group.
As a spectator at his first gay rodeo in 2003, he immediately noticed the paradox: When cowboys who like cowboys move to the city to express themselves, most have to leave their horses behind.
And there's no place in the city to practice roping or riding, so when the rodeo comes to town, most first-time contestants gravitate toward the camp events.
"You don't have to have a horse, and you don't have to learn how to rope," explains Rocky Kuhn, a 48-year-old circuit veteran who lives on a farm near Bethany. He's ridden gay rodeo for the past 12 years, first in Washington, D.C., and then, for the past decade, in Missouri. Kuhn competes in everything except broncs and bulls, usually placing in all 11 of his events. His favorites are flag racing, chute dogging and pole bending.
This season, he also finished first in wild drag, but he doesn't tout this as a major accomplishment. "I do very well in wild drag, but I really don't like it that much," he says. "A lot of it is luck, as opposed to skill. It's in what animal you get."
In gay rodeo, he says, rough-stock events have a particularly low turnout. Overall, just eight bull riders and nine bronc riders competed nationally this season, compared with the more than 200 who entered wild drag.
This isn't the archetypal posse of wranglers Shorty envisioned. Too much giddy, too little giddyup.
In late November, the battle to determine Missouri's best all-around gay cowboy will be settled in the usual way: with an elaborate beauty pageant.
In truth, the MGRA functions more like a drinking club than a group bent on refuting stereotypes.
Ad hoc homo rodeos had been in full swing in Reno, Nevada, and Denver for more than a decade before 1985, when delegates from separate rodeo groups in Texas, Arizona, Colorado and California formalized as the International Gay Rodeo Association. In 1986, the Missouri Gay Rodeo Association joined the umbrella organization, which now holds more than 20 rodeos across the United States and Canada. Originally, in the '70s, the events were designed to increase awareness and raise money for charities such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Mainstream philanthropy didn't stop gay rodeo from encountering occasional bigotry, though. For the first rodeo, ranchers withheld their livestock; in the late '80s, one small town reneged on the arena lease. By the early '80s, auxiliary festivities such as drag shows, sing-a-thons and the crowning of rodeo royalty became draws that rivaled the livestock events, and charitable proceeds were split between mainstream and gay causes.
The MGRA hosted its first rodeo in Kansas City in 1993; the group now has roughly 150 members, with separate chapters in Joplin and Springfield, says Mandy Barbarell, a drag queen who is the group's trustee. (Last year, St. Louis formed its own organization, the Gateway Gay Rodeo Association.)
The Kansas City chapter has just 80 members, barely enough to fill a corner in the city's larger gay clubs. And the group seems to have more groupies than rustlers. The association's only real form of self-promotion consists of a few bar crawls that function as recruiting drives.
"We try not to be too pushy. You show up in a martini bar with a bunch of dudes in Western shirts and Western hats, and people tend to ask questions," says president Chuck Kirkwood, who grew up on a farm in Oklahoma and volunteers as an event timer. "It's a way to catch some of the lifestyle we grew up with and share similar interests."
That's why the association's annually anointed ambassadors Mr. Missouri Gay Rodeo (a man), Ms. Missouri Gay Rodeo (a woman), Miss Missouri Gay Rodeo (a drag queen) and MsTer Missouri Gay Rodeo (a drag king) need never rope or ride. Though they're judged in four categories horsemanship, an interview, a Western-wear pageant, and a talent show in which the contestant must perform a country song the MGRA allows would-be caballeros to forgo mounting a horse and simply sketch their riding principles on a chalkboard.
Missouri's is one of the few gay rodeo associations that allows cowboys to be theoretical. Mr. MGRA 2003, Steven Hammontree, has no real horsemanship experience but recently signed with Wild Oats Records in Nashville. He's just released an album called Breakin' Loose. The so-called Cowboy Steve has been performing at clubs such as Missy B's, Sidekicks and the now-defunct Cabaret for a decade. He says winning the title didn't get him the record deal, but carting merchandise to MGRA events has been a handy way to cross-promote. "It definitely helps me with my career," he says.
Being a real cowboy isn't a requirement, says the current Mr. MGRA, Jack Truman, who also lives on a farm outside of Kansas City. "It's just something they encourage on a national level," he says. "It's just nice to know they [contestants] know some aspect of rodeo and are not just ... looking purty."
In fact, times may be changing. The current Mr. IGRA, Ken Pool from Colorado, was a favored rope, speed and rough-stock competitor with no performance experience.
Meanwhile, Shorty isn't exactly the sweetheart of the stage. Sure, he's stumbled up for karaoke once in a while, but he says singing makes him more nervous than tackling a steer.
"Everyone is watching you onstage," he says. "This competition is strictly by memory. It's a whole different aspect of performing."
He's bought background tracks for songs by Alan Jackson, George Strait, Vince Gill and Tracy Byrd, but as of mid-October, he hasn't done much practicing. Not wanting to bother his roommate, he sings in his Jeep during morning commutes.
Shorty's competition for the Missouri title will be Kevin Lynn Beagley, a Northland hotel manager with shoulder-length blond hair who joined the organization last December and decided to make an immediate run for the title. He's a 35-year-old aspiring singer-songwriter whose stage name is Kevin Lynn.
Lynn has no plans to go butch. He says he can saddle up if necessary, but he explains that he was always more interested in local 4-H bake-offs. "I also know my limitations," he adds. "I myself love to watch."
Shorty knows he's not supposed to trash-talk the competition.
In fact, Rule No. 8 in the IGRA Royalty's Abbreviated Guide to Dealing with the Media and the Public mandates: "When in doubt ... be PERKY.... Imagine you always have the ability to sprinkle happy dust on all those around you. Avoid discussing any IGRA (this includes your association and your chapter) dirty laundry where ANYONE can hear you."
Still, he can't help being a little catty. "His reasons are totally different than mine," Shorty says of Lynn. "I don't like him running for the position because he just wants that title."
According to Shorty, the unofficial slogan of gay rodeo is "We bring all the cowboys to town that you haven't slept with."
This is the kind of scene Shorty usually tries to avoid: On September 1, the day before the rodeo at the Wyandotte County Fairgrounds, last year's MGRA royalty and this year's candidates saddled bar stools for a kickoff party at Sidekicks. Dudes were packed tightly together in a back room that reeked of cigarette smoke and citrus cologne. Some leaned against a wooden fence surrounding a dance floor, thrusting their buckles at one another beneath an electric sunset.
This was the chance for candidates to court their blocs bargoers who support the organization but don't seem to follow rodeo. A representative sampling included Tom, a closeted 34-year-old from Warrensburg who is ignorant of the year's candidates; Bill, a 33-year-old "fan of cowboys" who didn't belong to MGRA but might join sometime; and another guy in his late twenties who said loudly that he hoped Shorty didn't win because he never showed up to events like this. (Shorty admits that he sang at just one MGRA revue this year.)
But Shorty was expected to be here on this night to further his campaign. The shindig was a typical drag show. Men dressed like women and strutted like divas, lip-synching with the enthusiasm of high school talent-show contestants. Locals in the lineup included Miss MGRA 2005 Onyx Diamanté and Trixie, who lifted her skirt to reveal some unidentified plumbing.
Dressed in a red shirt, tamping a Marlboro into an ashtray, Kevin Lynn, a veteran performer at local revues, perched at a table beside a metal briefcase filled with musical selections Cher, Janis Joplin and Martina McBride. He wore a baby-blue contestant sash festooned with buttons supporting his candidacy.
Shorty hadn't arrived by the time Lynn took the stage and pointed two fingers in the air as though firing a make-believe six-shooter, or by the time he pulled a fresh black Stetson from a nearby box for his second number.
Though he was expected to sing, Shorty never showed. He claimed he got a flat tire trucking out of Omaha. After that, he decided he'd rather get sleep for the weekend's competition than stump at some bar.
It's a talent he's hesitant to admit, but Shorty can pull underwear onto a goat faster than just about anyone you've ever seen.
He discovered this gift accidentally. After Shorty dropped out of steer-riding school in Phoenix, his friend Destiny B. Childs (a purple-rouged drag queen from Washington, D.C., who is the current Miss International Gay Rodeo Association) needed a partner for wild drag and goat dressing and asked him to join her. Shorty swallowed his pride and obliged. When they took fifth place in the event that weekend, Shorty developed more than a passing interest. The event rewards natural sprinters, and he was lean and quick. It seemed the perfect low-skill alternative to sitting in the stands.
"It's basically something to do," he says. "I go, 'This is fun and easy and kinda crazy.'"
He was also good, earning enough points in chute dogging and goat dressing to finish second out of roughly 40 rookies competing in a regional series with stops in Phoenix, Albuquerque and Denver.
He's a competitor in whatever he does, and now, as the crowd gathers at the Wyandotte County Fairgrounds to cheer for the afternoon's camp events, it's his goat-dressing skills that will endear him.
At the sound of the buzzer, Shorty and his partner, Teeny Copafeelya, a short, middle-aged lesbian from Omaha, sprint from a dirt line in the center of the arena toward a goat tied to a rope that's anchored to a cinder block. He has ditched his hat, unholstered his cell phone and traded his boots for a pair of softball cleats to pick up time.
The goat bucks at the end of its rope as Shorty and Teeny close in rapidly. Teeny, her arms thrust though the leg holes of a pair of blue underwear, gets there first and steps on the rope.
The duo met earlier this year in Wichita and found that they worked well together. Teeny had competed for seven years and burned through different partners before Shorty proved himself a smooth underwear handler.
Dressing goats is a sport of skill and chance. Sometimes the "lil bitch" is a runner. Sometimes her milk bag will leak all over you. Other times she can shake the undies off after you leave, getting you disqualified.
"Even something as simple and stupid as goat dressing, you still have to have strategy to get the best time," Shorty says. His basic game plan is pretty simple: "Wedgie the hell out of them."
He grabs the animal by its haunches and lifts its rear end into the air. When Teeny clamps her hands down on its haunches, Shorty releases his grip and slides the drawers straight off her arms and onto the animal and then pulls up hard. Then they turn and sprint back across the starting line. Shorty pumps his fist, whooping for the crowd.
He retreats to his shirtless boyfriend, Will McDonald, a computer programmer from St. Louis, while his offensive-lineman-sized opponents take turns goosing the shell-shocked goats. He and McDonald have spent most of the morning hawking beer from a stand in the shadow of the bleachers. They were introduced at a rodeo in Chicago last weekend, and McDonald has since joined the MGRA to volunteer.
"We just kind of met," Shorty admits later. He says he's already thinking long term. "Believe it or not, I'm not doing the hookup thing, but we met at a rodeo."
The loudspeaker announces that his time was just more than 10 seconds, good enough for first place in today's heat and good enough to keep him in contention for the first-place silver buckle.
Earlier, Shorty confided that it might be sort of embarrassing to win first place overall in goat dressing. But now, as the drag queens cheer, he seems to have forgotten that.
"But the buckle? Who gets the buckle?" he chants hopefully to himself.
Last night in the fairground auditorium, which is reminiscent of an elementary school cafeteria, Shorty donned a low-cut, hot-pink dress and strutted for the other IGRA members as part of a charity auction. The garment went for $65. It was his first time in drag. He says he was told to get used to it. If he wins Mr. MGRA, he'll be playing dress-up for charity more often.
Now, after today's chute dogging and goat dressing, he will have to confront his stage fright by singing in a post-awards show in the same auditorium.
Folding chairs are parked at long golden-plastic-covered tables topped by gold and silver stars. A small stage is set with the life-sized glittery silhouettes of a pair of cowboys near a banner announcing tonight's theme: "When the Dust Settles Legends Are Born." (Actually, the theme is supposed to be "After the Roping and Riding It's Time to Rodeo," but because of a miscommunication, the set has been designed with the same theme as last year.)
The day's bull-riding event was a slaughter none of the six riders managed to stay up for the six seconds necessary to score. Half the competitors were viciously tossed or trampled and required medical attention from on-site paramedics. Wild Drag was more of a fashion show than a competition. One guy wore a hot-pink wig and a racing jumpsuit with boob and butt implants. Another wore an orange wig, a pink top and a skirt revealing his bikini briefs.
Still, the awards ceremony lasted about two hours, with ribbons offered to even fifth-place finishers in the 13 categories of men's and women's events.
About 30 people linger after the ceremony to hear the singers.
Cowboy Steve keeps their attention. Shorty stands in the shadows next to Lynn.
Before stepping out to sing, Shorty faces Lynn and admits that he has a problem he's never had to deal with. His throat is raw from a day spent yelling and eating dust and smoking countless cigarettes. This is something Great American Cowboys shouldn't have to think about: how too much hollerin' might affect one's dulcet tones.
"Try a little bit of lemon in water," Lynn tells him gently.
There isn't any water handy, so he reaches crudely into a condiment cup on a nearby bar, grabs a lemon rind and tosses it directly into his mouth.
He performs Alan Jackson's "Little Bitty," leaning away from the audience, speaking the lyrics more than singing them, in a deep, commanding rasp. Shorty forgets a verse and stumbles to find his place, but Jackson's voice is faintly audible in the backing track, and he manages to pick up the lyrics again for the chorus.
Well, it's all right to be little bitty
Little hometown or a big old city
Might as well share, might as well smile
Life goes on for a little bitty while
Shorty's finishing Yee-ha! is the only part of the act that sounds authentic.
On November 10, Shorty will have a chance to compete against the country's best cowboys at the IGRA National Finals in Dallas.
In a goat-dressing showdown.
The top 20 competitors in each event make the finals. Nationally, Shorty placed 47th out of 99 in chute dogging. But in goat dressing, which attracted 164 participants over the course of the season, Shorty and Teeny came up big, finishing 25th and 32nd, respectively, to earn an invitation to the finals as alternates. Rocky Kuhn will be there in Dallas, too. He finished among the top three in calf roping, break-away roping, team roping and flag racing, and placed well enough to represent Missouri in the rest of his 11 events.
All of them will probably face camera crews from Hero Unit Productions, a company that's been at tour stops in Oklahoma City, Minneapolis, Denver, Atlanta, Los Angeles and San Francisco filming a seven-part documentary series for broadcast on the gay cable station OUTtv this fall. In Atlanta, the crew's presence caused a minor disruption when at least eight competitors dropped out because they were afraid of going public, Shorty says. He reckons the publicity will be a good thing. He even two-stepped with a male producer while the cameras rolled in Denver.
His feelings about actually winning the goat-dressing title are mixed.
"To be a world champion in goat dressing would actually be quite embarrassing because it means I can dress a goat faster than anyone else can," he says. He thinks for a moment. "It's not really embarrassing it's just, how should I put this? It's just kind of a letdown. Aw, I can't find the right word for it.... I mean, I would rather be there in chute dogging, but at the same time, I placed well enough my rookie year to get to finals. If you have the chance to win the belt buckle for chute dogging or goat dressing, what would you rather have?"
Nonetheless, when he enters the arena in Dallas, he'll be representing Missouri and looking to win. He'd be an unlikely hero in an obscure event. But isn't that how frontier legends begin?