(Whitney Leaming/The Washington Post)

Before they faced each other in competition on the final afternoon of their first rodeo in three years, Louis Varnado and Andy Pittman found a quiet place to settle their horses in a long corridor underneath New Holland Arena. The married couple from Upper Marlboro shared a kiss and whispered good luck to each other before lining up with the other riders.

“We’re competitive,” Pittman said, “but we look out for each other.”

Soon each would take his turn riding under the dim lights in the arena, racing against the clock in their favorite event, pole bending, which requires a rider and his horse to weave, slalom-like, through six poles arranged in a line 21 feet apart. Hit one of those poles, and a rider is cost both a five-second penalty and likely a chance to win with the best time.

When Varnado, 63, heard his name called first, he couldn’t get his sorrel, Assured Cause, to budge toward the gate. A small crowd quietly waited. A rodeo director screamed, “Next rider!” Pittman dismounted from his own horse and grabbed the reins of Assured Cause, urgently leading Varnado to the edge of the arena’s soil to begin the run.

Varnado responded with one of his best times of the weekend, perfectly weaving around the poles in the largely empty arena while a Keith Urban song blared over the speakers. A few minutes later, when Pittman, 58, got back onto his 14-year-old palomino named Lance, he beat his husband’s time. Pittman pumped his fist and adjusted his tan cowboy hat as he returned to the gate underneath the stadium. A group of cowboys that he hadn’t seen in years greeted him there to celebrate. Varnado gave his husband a thumbs-up.

This was the kind of moment that Varnado and Pittman longed for when they arrived late last month at the inaugural Keystone State Gay Rodeo, the first gay rodeo in the region in at least seven years. They had been bonded by horses for much of their 34 years together, and like so many other gay cowboys who feared they would not be accepted by straight rodeo circuits, Varnado and Pittman began competing in gay rodeos nearly two decades ago because it gave them a growing, accepting community.

“We went to a rodeo, and we just kind of fell in love with the whole thing,” Varnado said.

John Lipscomb, left, chats with John Payton at the Keystone State Gay Rodeo. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
‘It’s not only about . . . rodeo’

Varnado and Pittman loved everything about the gay rodeo culture when they first joined the International Gay Rodeo Association in the late 1990s. It included the same competitive categories as mainstream rodeo: roping, speed events and rough stock competition such as bull riding, saddle bronc riding and steer wrestling.

But they also were allured by how gay rodeo separated itself from its more traditional counterpart with “camp” events including “wild drag racing,” in which three contestants dress up in thrift-store clothing and try to direct or drag a steer across a finish line; and “goat dressing,” which requires two contestants to slip a pair of white briefs on the back of a goat. And Varnado and Pittman were emboldened by the fact that gay rodeos allowed anyone to sign up and compete in any event.

On the second day of the Keystone State Gay Rodeo, about 60 contestants arrived at New Holland Arena — which sits inside the massive Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex — but they weren’t alone on the grounds. Next door, a gathering of Muslims celebrated Eid al-Fitr, the end of the holy month of Ramadan. On the other end of the building, whistles could be heard as hundreds of youth basketball players took part in a tournament.

The arena, though, belonged to the gay rodeo. It had been nearly a year in the making, the brainchild of Adam Romanik, 37, a cheerful cowboy from rural Pennsylvania who began participating in gay rodeos in 2009 and founded the Keystone State Gay Rodeo Association in 2015.

This was his dream. He slogged his wheelchair through the dirt and manure on the ground floor of the dimly lit arena to make sure his operation was running smoothly. Romanik has been a paraplegic since doctors found a tumor in his spinal cord when he was 11 years old.

As a teenager, he briefly held on to hope that he would walk again but realized it likely never would happen. But he could fly when he was on a horse. His father would pick him up and set him on horses to ride for much of his youth, but Romanik was determined to learn how to climb on top himself without the use of his legs. Like Varnado and Pittman, he became involved in gay rodeo not only to compete in the sport he loves but to build relationships and find acceptance.

“It’s not only about holding a rodeo, it’s about building community with people that have similar interests to you,” Romanik said.

He considered one of his greatest victories to be signing up about 20 new members, many of whom were straight and unfamiliar with rodeo, to his association before the event.

“I love it,” said Jilesa Dillon, 23, a Maryland native who started riding bulls four months ago. “Because it’s like the perfect actual first show.”

Mark Zwiers, left, and Floyd Zwiers, who were married at the Keystone State Gay Rodeo, show off their new wedding rings and bejeweled belts. (Calla Kessler/The Washington Post)
‘So much has changed’

On the opening day of the rodeo, Mark Smith, 53, competed in the roping and camp events. That night, in a ceremony in the middle of the arena, he was married to one of the rodeo’s timers, 62-year-old Floyd Zwiers.

They had met at a gay rodeo in Chicago and had been engaged for two years. After considering getting married in court, the couple from Walnut Port, Pa., decided it would be fitting to get hitched at the first gay rodeo in their state in years. They wore gold-embroidered black jackets. Much of the IGRA royalty were guards for the service, and the organization’s president, Bruce Gros, officiated.

On Sunday, Smith was registered on event lists as Mark Zwiers. His new husband said he felt “relief” after it was over “for what we had to go through to get to that point.”

Gros travels the country to oversee his circuit, which this year has held rodeos in Denton, Tex.; Little Rock; and Palm Springs, Calif.; and has events scheduled for Denver; Santa Fe, N.M.; Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Las Vegas; and Albuquerque. And while it is not every rodeo that Gros officiates a wedding, those are the kind of celebrations that tie the organization together.

When Varnado, who is retired from his position at the Department of Transportation, married Pittman, a paralegal at a law firm in Washington’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, the couple celebrated with rodeo friends at a small gathering at a barn in Maryland.

When the transmission in Romanik’s truck went out as he pulled into the rodeo in Little Rock this past spring, he wondered how he would cover the $3,500 to replace it. A week later, the gay rodeo community had raised enough money to cover it — and buy him new tires for his horse trailer. When Wade Earp, a Texas cowboy who has claimed to be related to Wyatt Earp and is considered one of the stars of the circuit, blew out a tire on his trailer in Illinois while traveling to the Keystone event, he called an old competitor from the gay rodeo in Indiana. She drove more than two hours to meet him and provide a trailer so he could make it to Harrisburg. He refused to miss the event.

“We haven’t been on this side of the country for seven years. So much has changed, with marriage being legal now. Love is love, no matter what. Now all these people that have lived in the shadows and have been afraid, they’re able to see what we’re all about,” said Earp, fighting back tears.

As Earp made his way into the arena to begin his roping events, another cowboy playfully mingled with spectators. “Rodeo virgin!” he yelled at one point, pointing to a laughing fan who admitted this was her first time. Everyone cheered. Gros found a seat and looked out at his newest rodeo taking shape. Sponsors set up booths outside the arena. A DJ blasted country music. Vendors sold hot dogs and soft drinks. But there weren’t more than a few hundred people in the stands.

Founded in 1985, the International Gay Rodeo Association once boasted around 5,000 members. That number has dwindled to roughly 1,500; there are now more chapters that are defunct than operating. Members from the IGRA’s 20 local chapters are taking part in 11 scheduled rodeos in 2017, which for the second consecutive year is the lowest number since 1991.

It is difficult for members such as Varnado and Pittman to point to reasons for the downturn. They wonder: Is general interest in rodeo dying? Or has growing acceptance of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community over the past two decades rendered their organization less essential, especially in rural areas?

“Rodeo itself is a sport that isn’t drawing as many people. Gay rodeo is no longer unique and necessary, in the sense that you can’t be gay except here, like it was in the ’70s or ’80s or even the ’90s,” Gros said.

While most competitors still feel excluded by mainstream rodeo, Gros can at least point to signs of incremental progress that his organization is becoming more accepted. An IGRA-member flag was flown in a professional rodeo in New Mexico for the first time two years ago, he said. Last year, Gros said, the leadership in the Professional Bull Riders organization contacted him about a relationship in the future.

“What we’re looking forward to is the day that there are out cowboys and cowgirls competing in the professional level, but that has not yet happened,” he said.

Louis Varnado, left, and Andy Pittman at their wedding in 2010. (Laurel Jensen)
‘Look! You won some money!’

For as competitive as Varnado and Pittman are — they built a ring in the back of their Upper Marlboro home to practice with Assured Cause and Lance — they spent much of their weekend catching up with old friends. A secretary in Pittman’s law firm even made the drive up on the first day to support the couple.

They all watched Dillon and her friends ride bulls, and they cheered during some of the camp events. The reordering of the schedule had made them wait longer than normal.

“I’m ready,” an antsy Varnado said, tugging on his white and blue cowboy shirt.

“It’s a hurry-up-and-wait game,” Pittman muttered with a smirk, bending his thick white mustache.

The last time they competed in a rodeo was in the Gay Games in 2014, so they have been limited to competing in the Maryland Barrel Horse Association, where they first were greeted cautiously when they joined in the late ’90s.

Today, Varnado is the state director, and the couple counts most of the members as close friends.

This was the kind of life both envisioned when they first met in Louisiana more than three decades ago, after Varnado split with his wife.

They made their home in the Washington area along with Varnado’s three sons, finding just enough acreage to raise horses and hone their skills as riders. They have often come in first and second place in barrel racing competitions, and their horses have developed a herd mentality when they are together at events. That’s why Assured Cause wouldn’t leave Lance’s side when it was Varnado’s turn to enter the arena in Harrisburg.

“They’re very bonded that way,” Pittman said.

As the barrel racing event came to a close, Varnado took his last event and went full-bore, not knowing when he might have another chance to compete in a rodeo like this. Pittman, who has had neck problems that have affected his riding, peered over the gate to watch his husband make one last run.

“Go!” he screamed in his southern drawl. “Drive all the way to the wall!”

When Varnado was done, he tapped Assured Cause on the neck and took him back to the stalls behind the building. Pittman tagged along with Lance. They eventually cooled down together and washed their horses with a hose. Then they made one last walk into the arena to check their scores before setting off for the awards dinner with a rekindled community.

“Look! You won some money!” Pittman said as he scanned Varnado’s third-place finish in barrel racing, which was good for $64.60. They high-fived one another after Pittman saw he earned third place in pole bending, bringing home $57.80. They stood together and double-checked the scores.

Pittman gently wrapped his arm around his husband’s neck and said: “I’m proud of you, baby doll.”