A joyous celebration of America’s queer cowboy community

Photographer Luke Gilford revisits his childhood love of rodeo in new photo book National Anthem, based on his four-year project documenting the vibrant community behind the International Gay Rodeo Association

Luke Gilford spent his formative years surrounded by rodeo culture. Born in Denver, Colorado, his father was a champion and later a judge in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.

While the mythology and magnetism surrounding American rodeo was fascinating to Gilford as a young boy, when he grew older he started to take note of its darker underbelly, which was rife with homophobia and hostility to anything that could be categorised as ‘other’.

All images © Luke Gilford

Now based between LA and New York, it wasn’t until 2016 that Gilford discovered an entire subculture within the rodeo circuit, the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), and finally began to see himself as part of the rodeo family.

Functioning as the organising body for the LGBTQ+ cowboy and cowgirl communities in North America, it brings in participants from rural regions across the country for various educational programmes and competitions.

“Finding the IGRA felt like uncovering a shining beacon of exception – a caveat to the rural standard,” writes Gilford in the introduction to his new photo book on the people that make up the community.

“The queer rodeo is a safe space for anyone on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, including allies and supporters. Participants often travel hundreds of miles to be there since most live in communities without resources or opportunities for queer people to connect with one another.”

Over the course of the last four years, Gilford has travelled across the country with this vibrant community, building up trust both as a participant and an observer, and documenting everything that he could along the way. Shot on medium-format film and printed in a traditional dark room, the resulting images are rich with emotion and colour.

Featuring everyone from champion bull riders to drag performers to avid fans of queer rodeo, the intimate series succeeds in challenging the narrative of rugged individualism and conventional masculinity that has dominated the cowboy mythology of the American West for so many years.

“This project started as a way of proving to myself that rural queerness is not just a myth, but a living, breathing reality. One of the great powers of the queer rodeo is its ability to disrupt America’s tribal dichotomies that cannot contain who we really are – liberal versus conservative, urban versus rural, ‘coastal elite’ versus ‘middle America’,” Gilford writes.

“It’s incredibly rare to find a community that actually embraces both ends of the spectrum – bringing forth a new kind of spectrum entirely. National Anthem celebrates the typically invisible queer bodies living their lives, discovering themselves, and falling in love within rural landscapes. These subjects return the aura of promise to the notion of America.”

National Anthem is published by Damiani; lukegilford.com