Epitomized by gritty cowboys, seedy saloons, and sleek mustangs, the American West has been immortalized in literature, movies, and television for decades. Today, that culture still pulses through the states that made up the Old West, taking the form of rodeos, stock shows, and other traditions that have been carried through generations.
But as vibrant as the recorded history and culture of the West is, it often overlooks the region’s rich diversity.
One of the most prominent groups bypassed in those stories is the vibrant LGBTQ+ community that existed on the American frontier. Idaho native Rebecca Scofield, M.A. ’11, Ph.D. ’15, who returned to her home state as an assistant professor of 20th-century American history at the University of Idaho, has spent her professional career working to make that history more well known.
Scofield’s interest in the history of the West began as a child growing up in Idaho. Years later, as an American history Ph.D. candidate at Harvard, her fascination led her to something she didn’t expect: an LGBTQ+ rodeo community on the American frontier.
“I was increasingly interested in western wear, mechanical bull riding, and questions of how the West is imagined and consumed, and I stumbled upon the fact that there was a gay rodeo,” Scofield said.
That finding went on to inform both her dissertation and her most recent project: compiling an oral history of the International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA), a community of people who watch, host, and participate in what they call gay rodeo. Founded in 1985, the organization holds competitions around the country with the mission of fostering a positive and welcoming environment and promoting the LGBTQ+ country western lifestyle.
Scofield and her students travel across the country to the IGRA events, which include bull riding, steer decorating, and wild drag racing, and listen to the experiences of people who have had a front-row seat to the past several decades of LGBTQ+ history in the West. The narratives they collect are compiled into an oral history, which has been published in Scofield’s book and online.