Reno's Gay Rodeo And The Challenge Of Documenting Local LGBTQ History

Jan 26, 2018

The program for the 1981 National Gay Rodeo, which took place in Reno.

Jeff Auer is the director of the Nevada LGBTQ Archives. He's dedicated some time to preserving the history of LGBTQ people in Reno. Auer is going to be talking about his research in a public presentation on Sunday. Reno Public Radio's Bree Zender spoke with him about the stories he's preserving.

Zender: What's unique about the LGBTQ history of Reno?

Auer: Well, that is goes so far back. It goes back to the late 19th century. There's documentation of individuals living here, who by today's standards we would sort of characterize as one of the people within that sort of group. Smaller to mid-size cities have tended to not have gotten as much attention and tend to be ignored in favor of the bigger cities, and Reno has this rich, long history going way back. And there's still some very important sites. One of them is the Washoe County Fairgrounds, where the Reno Gay Rodeo, the National Gay Rodeo was held. 

Zender: When was that held?

Auer: 1976-1984. They tried to bring it back in '88. Didn't work. And then it came back in 2004-2006. 

Zender: I'm curious...what's a gay rodeo?

Auer: It was created by members of the local Imperial Court System, which is a social group. The rodeo took all the standard sort of 'straight' rodeo events, and tried to open them up to all members of the community who normally would not be able to be 'out' in a 'straight' rodeo.

Zender: Rodeos seem like a very straight, male specifically, straight male thing to do. 

Auer: Right. So they opened it up to men, women, transgender [people], drag queens. You name it, and it was a huge thing. People that lived here remember how big it was, but it's sort of being lost to history because I'm not exactly sure why but at it's peak in 1982, 20,000 people descended upon Reno to attend it. Joan Rivers was the grand marshal. They had hay rides from the airport shuttling people to it. It was a huge, huge thing.

Zender: I'm curious...were gay rodeos popular in other areas or was it just kind of a Reno thing?

Auer: Well, actually, Reno sparked the National Gay Rodeo movement. Other states all across the country sprang out of the Reno one, so Reno's really important because it was the birthplace of it. It actually started the whole movement. 

Zender: Why did they stop doing gay rodeos?

Auer: By that point, the AIDS crisis started to really take a toll on the community. The first officially diagnosed case in Nevada was in 1983 in Las Vegas, so it was already in the state. San Francisco, especially, was decimated very early, as early as the late '70s. In '79 I had a boyfriend back in the day who actually had a friend who died in 1979 of it, but they didn't know at the time what it was. It was also the constant political attacks that seemed to come every other year, starting in '81, and people just didn't have the energy really to fight it anymore. And we can look back and say, yeah, in '84, it's only going to get worse from there, and that's what happened, so by '85, the community was completely decimated all across the country.

Zender: It seems like now is a critical time to start recording that history because the people who experienced a lot of the big things that happened within the gay movements are getting older.

Auer: It's true. They're in their sixties and seventies. Especially I found, when trying to track down even older people, like in their eighties, most likely they're in assisted living facilities, and it's very hard to track them down once they're sort of in those places. Some of them still are...not in the closet per se, but they don't want to go public with a lot of their stuff that happened for various reasons. You know, they grew up in a time where they were heavily persecuted in ways I don't think we can sort of conceive of. I certainly didn't go through the levels they did. It was still bad in, let's say, the '90s and 2000s, but it started to turn around at that point when I came out. 

Jeff Auer will be speaking at the Sierra View Library in Reno on Sunday afternoon, January 28, 2018 at 1:30.