Interview with Tennent Emmons

Dallas, Texas on April 1, 2017 | Interviewer: Rebecca Scofield

Filter by topic:

118 of 118 rows (click a missing row to make it appear)

Rebecca Scofield: This is Rebecca Scofield and I'm with Tennent Emmons at the Texas Tradition Rodeo outside Dallas. It's April 1st, 2017. So, could you tell me when you were born and where you grew up?
Tennent Emmons: I was born in New Jersey in 1957, so I'm one of the older contestants in the rodeo circuit. I did not start the rodeo circuit 'til approximately 1993. So, I was about 36 years old when I got involved in the rodeo circuit. I had taught country western dance for a little while and got connected with the rodeo system through an ex of mine, back in the ASGRA days, which is the Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association out of Washington D.C. in the metro area. And I've been competing, I've been a certified official, and now I'm Mr. IGRA 2017 first runner up.
RS: That's fantastic--so what was it like growing up in New Jersey? What was an average day like?
TE: An average day for me was mostly isolating in my room. I didn't get out too much growing up. I was shy, introverted--still am. Since I'd felt I was different from an early age I didn't do a lot of socialization, didn't want to get in trouble, didn't really get harassed or anything, maybe once in a while, but not anything that some folks go through.
RS: What did you parents do for a living?
TE: My dad was a truck driver and my mom was a seamstress. I was the first one to go to college out of my family. My dad had to quit school in 8th grade and go to work back in the '50s. Mom, unfortunately had my sister, [laughs] well fortunately had my sister so...then growing up I was more of a mama's boy and my sister was the daddy's girl. Dad got me into horses. He grew up with a horse. I didn't, but I've always had a love for horses and during high school that's how I would pass my afternoons was to go out trail riding in New Jersey.
RS: Was there like a company that did that or did you stable your own horse?
TE: No, it was an independent company. Gentleman's name was Mr. French--probably has deceased since then. God rest you, Mr. French. He allowed me to go on the trail rides by myself after going there several times and trusting me on a horse and I do not have a horse. It's one thing I miss out of the rodeo. Being a title holder in IGRA requires you to either doing horsemanship or entertainment. I am thankful for the support from my home association Great Plains Rodeo Association they help me with securing a horse for the horsemanship portion of the title comptetition. The President of GPRA told me after I won my association Mr. GPRA title, "We may have created a monster after I did the entertainment portion. Like I said, I was an introvert mostly.
RS: So after high school where did you go to college?
TE: High school I took 3 years off and worked at a veterinary hospital then worked at a human hospital and the patients ar similar, they bite. [Laughs] So then I went to college in Nebraska. Up and left New Jersey and went to Nebraska for a different atmosphere. Didn't do much in country western or anything back in the late '70s early '80s. So, yes, that's my dated years. I returned to New Jersey and after a couple years back there, I had gone out to Dallas with a boyfriend for his birthday and did a trail riding before we went back to New Jersey. It was too hot and it was just walking and I wanted to experience riding and I went to a western wear place--I was going to start going to country western bars because a friend's daughter was coming to NJ for a visit - she was from Oklahoma--so I felt I had to have authentic western boots, and asked the owner of the store, "where you could go horseback riding in New Jersey" and right off the bat he told me about a city slickers type vacation in Montana. I did that vacation for 4 years. So, for 10 days, we were in Montana and worked on a ranch for 7 of the 10 days. Not a dude ranch, open-range ranch. Slept in tepees in the open-range. I picked up a lot of horsemanship during the vacations.
RS: That's great. What was it about horses and riding horses and working with them that drew you to it?
TE: Basically, in the genes, I guess. Even though I'm a Jersey boy raised two miles from the shore, we were the Garden State, there were horses there. My aunt married a gentlemen who trained trotters. They had a pony and a horse out on their farm and I would ride their pony because I was small and I was young at the time and I said, "I can't ride that big horse - he is too big." [laughs]. But it has just been something inside me that really loved horses and riding.
RS: So when did you come out?
TE: Little a bit of a long story. I came out in college to a few people and then I finally came out to my mom at about 32. When I spoke with her she kind of knew, she just waited for me to tell her. Of course, I was the one that ended up bawling when I told her and she was fine. She said, "I love you no matter what," and then she was concerned I was getting on a train to return home with red eyes. So, she was very protective mom.
RS: And did your siblings know?
TE: My sister and my mom came out to Oklahoma from New Jersey for my 50th birthday and I actually came out to [my sister] at that time. I was playing a softball tournament that weekend, it was co-ed team and the girls were very out, so I told my sister, "Just to let you know, by the way, I'm gay," and she looked at me and goes, "Hon, if I didn't know by now...". She had only met all my ex-boyfriends not as boyfriends but just as friends. [She's] very supportive, along with her husband and my neice and nephew. I came out to my father not too many years ago, we were not close. He just skipped over the subject and didn't really talk about it. My parents separated when I was in high school and I didn't have much of a relationship with my father afterwards.
RS: And when you came out to some friends in college...that would have been the Reagan years, what was the culture like back then?
TE: Now my memory isn't that great about that time. I was still kind of isolated myself. I knew more about gay, lesbian things through the women’s center in Nebraska and knew more lesbians than I did actual gay men. But I kept it hidden, but I think people probably knew.
RS: Did you feel any difference between the culture in Nebraska versus New Jersey?
TE: Actually, I've been lucky that everybody’s been treating me fair. I worked at a YMCA which, the issue never came straight forward, but they said to just be careful, keep the doors open and windows blinds open, things like that. One parent or child did say something about my orientation apparently. My director said to just be very cautious, but was still very supportive. Nebraska had some support...getting kind of mixed signal. A college friend who learned late I was gay, mentioned to his sister not to long ago said, "You let him watch your kids, really?" It was a little heartbreaking but I understand people's feelings--they need education. And they know who I am.
RS: And was it a foregone conclusion that you would go back east after college? Did anything try to keep you in Nebraska?
TE: The only thing that kept me in Nebraska...I was there for 7 years, I stayed 2 years after graduation and started the 2nd degree, I started to be perpetual student. There was a job opportunity back east. Plus Mom having a little bit of influence. Being a mama's boy you know. She asking when you're coming home and getting a real job. Although I worked for the Easter Seal Society and I mentioned summer camps. She might nat have thought that was a full-time job and only part-time, but I also did fundraising during the year for the society and then did the summer camps. So I ended up going back home for 10 years. Worked in and around New Jersey for 5, and then in New York City for 5 years. The first year I was working in the city I met a boyfriend and introduced me to the IGRA Rodeo circuit, ASGRA, Atlantic States Gay Rodeo Association in Washington, DC and then a 2nd boyfriend--you know I sound like I've been around [laughs]--he said if you really want to rodeo you need to go out to Oklahoma. So I went to Oklahoma, loved it, and went back for 3 years before I decided to move there.
RS: Wow. Can I ask, were you living in the city as well as working there?
TE: I lived in NJ and commuted to NYC and worked in the Chelsea section of NYC. I now live in Oklahoma City and I work in Norman at the University of Oklahoma.
RS: What do you do there?
TE: I'm a senior academic counselor. I counsel petroleum [engineering], geology, and geo physics majors at the Mewbourne College of Earth and Energy. I've been there for about a year and a half but I've been doing higher education for about 15 years.
RS: What did you do prior to that?
TE: Prior to that I was a recreation therapist. I counseled senior citizens in their housing for support, so more social service type jobs. Recreation therapy and nursing homes and YMCA's in New Jersey. In NYC, I worked for the Village Center for Care - AIDS Day Treatment Program and I was a rehabitation tech and also weekend cook, which was unusual, but they loved my food.
RS: How did you become involved with that and what did that feel like to be helping these people?
TE: I had moved back to New Jersey and a very good friend of mine, Barb had connected with 2 facilities who served persons with HIV/AIDS. I also worked at an AIDS foundation for children as a weekend caregiver for children whose families were in the hospital or sick with HIV or drug abusers. So we took care of the kids while they were in the hospital and she then connected me with the Village Center for Care. She has been a good friend of mine since 1986. I was a rehab tech with Village Center for Care. We did a lot of support for clients. We were their day treatment program. I'd take them to emergency rooms, psychiatric emergencies, medical emergencies, doctor appointments, housing appointments, etc. I was the case worker with them to help them with clothing out of our clothing bank, and again cooked their meals on Fridays and Saturdays and just provided day-to-day support for them.
RS: That's amazing.
TE: So I did that for 5 years and decided to move to Oklahoma.
RS: So can you tell me about that first gay rodeo you went to and what it felt like?
TE: It was amazing because I'd never seen a few of the camp event that differ from the "straight" rodeos. I've seen rodeos, but not the community of gay rodeo and was hearing all these terms, slack - asking contestants to volunteer to go earlier in the day when they have too many people in one event and may extend the time of the afternoon performances late or fill in time prior to Grand Entry - presentaion of rodeo officials, associations and flags, US & Canada & Associations. I was going to volunteer, but learned it was only for registered contestants. Thought they meant any volunteer from the audience, truly a rodeo virgin. I had no clue of the rules and regulations in the rodeo and that was my first experience. Then going to the Oklahoma Rodeo my second time, my ex-boyfriend's friends were officers with the Rodeo association and I started learning what went on behind the scenes. I watched the events and learned the rules. My 3rd Rodeo, ASGRA - I started to compete and then next OGRA rodeo I went out and assisted the rodeo director in getting it prepped and everything. Learned about officials and timers. A lot of times you start as a timer at a rodeo and then you work your way up to be a certified official if interested. It just takes some time commitment and everything, but the community that meets up at the rodeo, the support of the community is just wonderful and that's why I've done it for 20-plus years.
RS: Did you start to get involved and actually competing?
TE: Yes. My actual second year in ASGRA I decided I was going to compete. I did goat dressing and I pulled my hamstrings--both of them--running in boots. I do not advise anybody to run in boots. [Wear] tennis shoes or cleats, and stretch before you run if you haven't done it for awhile. I did chute dogging, and it's all technique. I don't have the technique down, don't have the ribs to kind of support my twisting. Those are the two events I started in and I've progressed to steer deco and wild drag. I did steer riding, which has gone by several names--steer riding, junior bull riding, back to steer riding.
RS: How was that experience?
TE: That was awesome. You're there for 6 seconds if you make it that long. I didn't quite make it, but it was just the experience of being on top of a steer and trying to have that control.
RS: What are you competing in today?
TE: Today I'm competing in calf roping on foot. It's less harsh on the calf--we're doing it on foot, so we're not pulling the calf back after he's running and trying to tie him down or anything. That's what our rodeo is all about, you know, safety for contestants and safety for the animals.
RS: What other aspects of rodeo, other than the rodeo proper, maybe the dancing or things like that, brought you in and got you involved?
TE: There're some [rodeos] that have a lot more horse contestants in their rodeo, there are some that people watch and then go for the evening dances. The dances are a good time and fun because you get to meet new people when you're dancing. You have strangers who come up and ask you to dance. After a while you're like, "Ooh, a new person." But yeah, your community just keeps growing from the rodeo. New people every year.
RS: So, back in the '80s and '90s when there were a lot more country western bars, did you see any of that in New York?
TE: Yes. We had one big place called Yellow Rose in New Jersey and I started dancing there. My dance partner Cindy and I, danced every Thursday night for a year, and then we went on the cattle drive together. Then we were asked to join a dance group and through them we started teaching country western dance. Since working in New York, I was able to connect with a group whose name escapes my mind. It used to be Gotham Rodeo and I started teaching there...Big Apple Ranch is what it's called nowadays. They've been in existence this week for 20 years. They were involved before I left 20 years ago when I moved to Oklahoma, but their new name Big Apple Ranch started 20 years ago.
RS: And what all do they do?
TE: They do a lot of basic dancing, socials, fundraisers. They have a group called Prairie Dogs, Manhattan Prairie Dogs. And they go around and perform. They are a part of Iggly Wiggly which is the International Association of Gay and Lesbian Country Western Dancers. I hope I quoted their name correctly. I had been part of going to SoCo southern country music down all in the south, part of the south-east, part of the states, and they would have yearly conventions for country western dance and we would teach and just participate in socialization. Ever since I've been in Oklahoma I haven't been doing as much dancing, so I do it when I come to the rodeos.
RS: Can you explain country western dance? Are there numerous types of dancing?
TE: Country western dance is a style. It's two-stepping, it's West Coast Swing, it's line dancing, some places do more line dancing--regional--than others. Big social dancing. Mostly country music, but the dances can be mixed with updated music, contemporary music. But it's a pattern.
RS: So, you've been doing this country western dancing, do you think that it's as popular as it used to be in general in the U.S.?
TE: I think it's lost some of its popularity. The music has expounded multilevels. But I think with the changes in society in general, people like the music but just don't go out as much as much as they have in the past. Some do, it's just regional, pretty much state by state I think.
RS: What do you think drove that western bar boom in the '80s and '90s?
TE: Of course we have to talk about Urban Cowboy with John Travolta. That was a big thing and it was out in the movies. It got out there, not just localized. It got out into the country, into the world and everybody saw how much fun it was. And of course the outfits people were wearing. A lot of people started enjoying those outfits.
RS: And was there a pretty good space as a gay man to fit into that western [scene]?
TE: Not as much. Basically I started in the traditional straight bar or whatever. Cindy knew, I came out to her a little bit later, but she was so accepting and we talked about the hot men and stuff. But, they were accepting. It's one of those where some still do have an issue with hearing the word "homosexual" or anything and feel uncomfortable with it. But a lot of them may not even know. You know, it's just how the other person is.
RS: So when you had danced in New York you had a female dance partner. When you danced at the gay rodeos could you dance with same sex partners?
TE: You can do either. Occasionally we would go to some of the dances and we would go same sex. Not often. It just depended on the atmosphere and who was there and if you felt comfortable doing it so.
RS: How did you get into the entertaining side of rodeo?
TE: As I mentioned earlier I was introverted to an extent. I'm one of the introverted extroverts. I found that our rodeo system had been losing some associations and I felt strongly about the rodeo and the community. I wanted to add as much as I can to pull people back who have left. Sometimes you get tired over the years, but you try to get the community back together and still try to grow it. So, I put my bid in for Mr. GPRA and won the title and started getting some people back a little bit. A little at a time. Like I mentioned also, they created a monster sometimes. I get a little wild and crazy on the floor while entertaining. I was not an entertainer prior to that, but I love to dance so I added the dance with the lip syncing. If I live sang I probably would have cleared out the rodeo. Would be a good ending to the rodeo, time to go home folks.
RS: So what are your duties as first runner up?
TE: Duties of a first runner up is to support the rodeo itself, IGRA. Support our royalty team. If Mr. can't be present I would step in as a representative. We go around and promote the rodeos, help organizations if they need any kind of advice, educate the community, fundraising is a big thing with royalty. We fundraise for IGRA itself and we have charities that we donate to. We've donated approximately $4.3 million plus in the 30 years that IGRA has been in existence. The 3 charities that we have are Stupid Cancer for adolescent cancer, Equest horse therapy program, and Joshua Tree, an HIV AIDS pantry who supports the individual and, if they have pets, their pets and everything.
RS: That's wonderful.
TE: So we are a big fundraising Organization for charity.
RS: Over the last 20 years, have the efforts of the royalty changed or stayed the same?
TE: I think they've changed because of new gender issues. We're trying to educate the community on gender issues and the equity of everybody being treated equally, to be recognized, to understand the person is the person and not to look just because they've changed their appearance or anything. So that's the big thing, the educational aspect of the rodeo. Charity work has gone on for years, and it continues. It's hard work, I'm not going to lie about that. It's hard work. You have your local community that you work with, you work within your state, there's regionals, region areas, or divisions that you have all across the United States. We had Canada. We have a representative from Australia.
RS: So how many rodeos are you looking at going to in this one year?
TE: I have to keep looking at my work schedule, too. I'm looking at approximately six. Standard is four for royalty, and then finals and Convention. So we have a pretty busy schedule.
RS: Yeah.
TE: And unfortunately I started the new job a year-and-a-half ago, so I was limited on how many I could have done. Now I'm adding up my time so I'm able to get to some of the other rodeos.
RS: What really dictates which rodeos you can go to and can't?
TE: We have 4 divisions and they would like us to attend at least one per division. Some of it is of course crosswise for us getting to and from the rodeos whether it's air fair or driving. Time off of work. A lot of associations try to help us out by giving us a room--or the royalty-- a room for the night, helping us get back and forth from the airports for the contestants if they let them know they need to.
RS: As royalty, what do you do you while the rodeo is going on if you're not competing in events? What do you spend your time doing?
TE: We are basically the spokespersons for IGRA. We go through the crowd, meet the crowd, we do fundraising, so that's a little bit of what we do throughout the day. We're basically the upfront representatives. They see who we are and people start asking questions and we educate them on what the sash means, what our title means, what IGRA means. And a lot of times it gets personal and sometimes gets teary eyed going through it and realizing how amazing it is.
RS: Can you tell me about a couple of your pins, your broaches?
TE: Each of the other contestants give us pins to [represent] who they are. Several of course are of the AIDS ribbons; my horseshoe is from my Mister--the actual title holder--for luck; the beautiful horse pin is from the president of my local association, Jeff Germany; and this heart is for my husband and of course it's right over my heart. The angel in my right shoulder...this is where it gets my mom. Passed away 2 years ago and she was a big supporter. She loved to hear about what was going on every weekend. They just represent who people are in our organizations. They're kind of their "icon" I guess nowadays--I'm not a techy--but who they are and what represents them.
RS: Was your mom ever able to make it to a rodeo?
TE: No, she didn't. I was able to show her some of the videos that are on the IGRA website and YouTube and everything so she got to see some of that. But I would call her after if I got hurt or anything and she would go, "Not again."
RS: So it seems like you've had a lot of female friends over the years--how do you think IGRA does with gender equity as far as women being involved in the association? And has that changed over time?
TE: They've always been supportive of women being involved. It's an open organization. We don't discriminate against gay, straight, lesbian, we are all inclusive. Yes we do have gay in our name, but it's all inclusive. Women can be in the same events as men--we do compete against each other, not against the opposite gender, but in the camp events they can combine and some team events they can have male/female. But in a lot of the others it's females against females and males against males. Also with transgendered people we recognize what they identify as. We don't say, "No, you're born a man you're competing with them." Whatever they identify with we respect that.
RS: And how does drag performance operate at the rodeo? Do you see much performance as far as drag queens and royalty or as entertainers?
TE: Well our Miss IGRA is a drag queen. And she represents drag queens very well. When they come to registration they are either in face or not. When they compete they can be in face or not. When they perform they actually are in face, or what we call painted. When they're in public with their sash they usually have their face on. The men are lucky, we're just natural beauties [laughs]. Yeah, exactly thank you for laughing too. We also have the new Mster--it's not new, it's been around--where it's a female to male representation.
RS: Do you currently have a titleholder for Mster?
TE: We do not for Mster. Hopefully we will have a couple next year. We have a Mr., Miss, and Ms., which is a female as a female, but we do not have a Mster yet.
RS: What about other forms of diversity. Has the association been predominantly white? Do you have a large group of people of color participating?
TE: We do have several participants that are African American, Asian, but generally still mostly Caucasian.
RS: Why do you think that is?
TE: Opportunity I think. Just getting to the place, the openness of the person, feeling comfortable. Oklahoma has a big black rodeo. They started...well it's been around for decades--Oklahoma's Boley Rodeo. Just depends on the area that we're at, and how many are interested. It all comes down to the interest in rodeo, country music, things like that.
RS: That's great. As far as the experience of the rodeo, how has your day-to-day of what you do at the rodeo changed from the '90s 'til now?
TE: In the '90s I was just competing, or I was working the rodeos as a certified official. I actually did secretarial a lot--that's usually an all-day process. If you time, you can time so many of the events, or you can have some time off. In secretarial we have usually a secretary and a secretary assistant, so we kind of rotate duties. If you're competing, sometimes you're there for your event and then you can hang out or leave or whatever. Now, as [royalty] title holders, pretty much we should be representing the rodeo all day long, from morning to night. We perform the shows to do the fundraising for the rodeos. Tonight, we have an Oklahoma tea party where Great Plains Rodeo Association is doing a show for Texas. The money is going to go back towards Texas for the charity of their choice. We feed them, we provide the entertainment, we bring auction items. During the day we have silent auctions that are available for fundraising also. Again, we just go throughout the crowd and socialize and promote the rodeos.
RS: That's great. Do you miss the wilder days of all day competition?
TE: Yes and no. The older I get no. But it's the adrenaline you get when you come back to the rodeo. You feed off of everybody's excitement and their positiveness for the rodeo.
RS: So what do you think the future of gay rodeo is?
TE: I'm looking bright for it. It's such an inclusive community to be involved with. We're trying to get the young whippersnappers--which is what I used to be called when I was starting out--involved in making it grow, because our population is growing and it's for a worthy cause. I mean if you can do it for a worthy cause, it should be growing.
RS: Now, you mentioned you have a husband.
TE: I have a husband.
RS: Are you legally married?
TE: We are legally married. We got married 3 years ago--March 22nd this year. We went back to New Jersey and then in October, Oklahoma pass the same-sex marriage law. We've been together for 21 years in October. We didn't meet in the rodeo, we met at volleyball in New York [laughs]. He limits his time on rodeos. He is a performer. He's performed for me in my fundraising and been very supportive of the whole issue of me being rodeo. And does his theatre and shows.
RS: How many rodeos would he make it to this year?
TE: He usually makes it to the Oklahoma Rodeo. They changed the rodeo to a barrel and pole event this year. He was hoping to make it down to Texas but we also have furry children at home that he's taking care of.
RS: Can you tell me about those furry children?
TE: We've had Bullwinkle who is a 16 and a half Jack Russell Terrier. And then we have a new one, Herbie Husker. Yes, I'm a die-hard Nebraska fan and alumni. And he's 7 months old now. He's a handful.
RS: That is a handful.
TE: We usually take them to Lance's moms to babysit, but Herbie is still too much of a handful for her. And Lance is originally from Texas so when we met and I told him I was moving to Oklahoma he's like, "I'll be closer to family." And we saw them as much as we did mine in New Jersey which is only 40 miles away and we saw them maybe 3 times a year. [Laughs] Rodeos came first, then family. Oh wait, rodeo is family. Which we haven't talked about. You build a very strong family with rodeo. We're like brothers and sisters in arms.
RS: Has there ever been a moment when your rodeo family has come to your rescue and helped you out?
TE: I think every event. Every fundraiser I do they are there supporting me. During the competition for Mr. IGRA they were there, just saying, "Be yourself, go out there and do it, you can do it." When a contestant gets hurt, we rally around the contestant. In Arizona, we had a couple people hurt and contacted them to keep the support and get them back in the rodeo.
RS: So would you call yourself a cowboy?
TE: Inside, yes. Outside people are like, "You do what?" [Laughs]
RS: Would you wear Wranglers and a cowboy shirt to work?
TE: I don’t as much, because we have to wear professional dress. I have worn my jeans but of course--this is bad--if you notice, they're a little tighter than usual so I really couldn't wear those to work.
RS: What does "cowboy" mean to you?
TE: "Cowboy" is, which I forgot to mention is what we also promote, is country western lifestyle. It's basically having...well, for me it's really the country inside, and then I bring it out to the rodeos. It's a lifestyle. It's a way of life. It's being there for your family. It's just down deep. For me it's kind of hard to explain because I didn't grow up on a farm or ranch or anything like that, but I know the passion people have for that way of living. I see it in the people with their horses.
RS: If you could own horses, would you?
TE: I would. I would. I was hoping to have one in the 20 years that I've been in Oklahoma, but I had to adjust to a new lifestyle in Oklahoma.
RS: Well, is there anything else you want to mention?
TE: It's been a wonderful 20-plus years in the rodeo circuit. I'm so proud to be part of it. It allows me to be who I really am from the inside out.
RS: That's wonderful. Thank you for your time.
TE: Thank you. If you notice it's getting a little teary here, a little watery eyes. [Laughs]
RS: Thank you so much.
TE: Thank you.