Jake Griffin never dreamed of being a cowboy as a kid. But here he was, a 28-year-old city slicker lowering himself onto the spine of an agitated black steer.
With a borrowed glove on his left hand and a buddy's too-small spurs on his boots, the first-timer did what he had been told: He squeezed his legs and fixed his eyes on a spot on the steer's back. He never looked up.
Six seconds passed. Then ten. Griffin was still atop the steer, but realized he had a problem. "They didn't tell me how to get off," he said.
So in front of the hollering crowd in Hugo's Dead Broke Arena last Saturday, Griffin did the only thing that came to mind — he rolled off the bucking beast and landed flat on his back.
But when the first-timer turned out another impressive ride the following night, he again rolled off the hulking animal and walked away with the steer-riding buckle.
Longtime competitors say that's part of what makes gay rodeo so special: Anyone, regardless of skill level, is welcome to compete.
Founded in 1989, the North Star Gay Rodeo Association (NSGRA) has been holding rodeos in Minnesota and donating profits to charity since 1993. But this year's event had special meaning and comeback-style flair.
The NSGRA, a nonprofit member of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), has weathered several stretches without any rodeos at all, due mostly to debt issues and dwindling membership.
Gay rodeo emerged at a time when discrimination dominated traditional circuits. The IGRA gained huge followings throughout the 1980s and '90s, and the NSGRA joined the circuit when cowboy culture was at its height in urban centers like Minneapolis.
But lagging membership and money problems knocked a few associations temporarily out of the circuit, said Bruce Gros, president of the IGRA. Griffin, the current NSGRA president, was recruited two years ago for his event-planning prowess.
"I didn't even know about rodeo," Griffin said. "I especially didn't know there was a gay rodeo."
In 2015 the group held its first rodeo in seven years, drawing a modest crowd but losing money. "The point is that you got back in the saddle and you rode, and you need to do it again," said rodeo director Colin Smith.
So the group tightened its belt, trimmed the budget and put on last week's rodeo for $33,000, yielding a profit that will be donated to the Aliveness Project in Minneapolis.
"This year was so over-the-top better," said Candace Pratt, who drove from Texas to compete and snagged the All-Around Cowgirl award.
Hundreds went to Hugo to see the rodeo's speed, roping, rough stock and camp events. The camp events, unique to gay rodeo, pit contestants against ornery livestock. The mishaps that ensue have always made them crowd favorites, said Gene Fraikes, an IGRA member who helped plan the rodeo.
Fraikes serves on the group's board and also competed last weekend in the Wild Drag Race, a three-person camp event that tasks a competitor dressed in drag with jumping on a wild steer.
Wearing a borrowed green dress and a Dolly Parton-style wig, Fraikes energized the crowd. "I'm a big boy," he said, "and that dress was stretched to the max … I had a blast."
Griffin and other board members hope to make the rodeo a regular event once again. "Whether you're straight, gay, bi — whatever you identify as — you're welcome here," he said.