Interview with Bruce "Grumpy" Roby

Duncans Mills, California on September 11, 2016 | Interviewer: Rebecca Scofield

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Rebecca Scofield: This is Rebecca Scofield and I'm here with Bruce Roby on September 11, 2016 and we're at the Rodeo on the River in Duncans Mills, California. Could you tell me what year you were born?
Bruce Roby: 1959
RS: And where did you grow up?
BR: I grew up in Southern Idaho, Gooding and Fairfield. So, very rural.
RS: Did your family have a farm or a ranch of any kind?
BR: We were always the town kids. You know, in the summer you work on the farm but my rodeo experience really was very limited, because when the rodeo came to town, of course we went as a family to watch. But I didn't ride horses, didn't participate in any of that.
RS: Did you have a large family?
BR: There are 3 of us kids. I was the oldest. I have a younger brother and sister.
RS: Did you grow up in a very religious family?
BR: No. [Laughs] You know we went to church from time to time but we were not a religious family.
RS: And did you live in southern Idaho until college?
BR: Yeah, I was actually born in Missouri but we moved to Idaho when I was 6 months old. So, Idaho is really home. When I went to college I went to northern Idaho, the University of Idaho, and then after a couple of years I came back down to Boise but I never really left Idaho until 1989.
RS: And where did you go in 1989?
BR: Los Angeles. [Laughs]
RS: How was the adjustment?
BR: You know it was I had spent a lot of years struggling with me, being who I am and what I am. And there was a traveling salesmen came through for a travel school and I thought that's where the gay people are. I need a job in travel so I can meet other people like me. So I spent a summer in travel school and got a job with United Airlines in Los Angeles. So, I went from a town with 2,000 people to millions of people everywhere.
RS: Was…
BR: So it was quite an adventure.
RS: Was it…did you have a positive experience of that?
BR: The first, yeah, I mean it was it was a struggle to learn how to survive in a city, it wasn't like if you were looking for a place to live, you wouldn't just go talk to Bob down the street and say, “I see you have a place for rent can I go check it out.” No, there's these things called applications and background checks and where do you work, and I'm like well Bob knows where I work. So it was a bit adjusting to…but then there was the cool things like you ride your bike down the beach. Well, Idaho doesn't really have a beach, or even a decent bike trail back then. So you'd ride down the strand and here's a group of people putting on Shakespeare at the pier. And you would just walk up and watch Shakespeare. It was just such a whole new world. It was very amazing.
RS: Were you out at the time?
BR: No. No and even I spent 5 years with United Airlines and I never came out to anyone there. I was so afraid. To me as I look back at it now, that should've been the safest place on Earth to come out. But when I started with the airlines that was kind of at the peak of the AIDS epidemic and in our office, every week there was a memorial. Every week there was somebody out sick, there was so much going on that you were scared to death, so, you know, a lot of things didn't happen.
RS: So when did you first get involved with rodeo and was it the gay rodeo that you first got involved with?
BR: When I was still in Idaho I was part of the Lions Club. So we had the beer booth at the rodeo. So that was kind of my first real in to the rodeo and I had a few friends that rode. I'm the guy that drinks the beer and sells the beer and takes care of that. I'm not the contestant.
BR: And then once I left Idaho then in Los Angeles you don't really see rodeo. But I lived on the edge of West Hollywood and I had seen signs for this gay rodeo thing, and I'd seen them for 2 or 3 years. But I thought, you know, pink pansies, purple horses. I don't know about this gay rodeo thing, I grew up with real rodeo, I'm not interested. And some friends were coming to town for the rodeo and needed a place to say. I said well you can stay at my house, I'm working all weekend so you know make yourself at home. “Well you gotta come with us.” “Ehhh, I don't think it's my thing.” Well they got me to go with them to the dance at the Burbank Hilton on Friday night, 3,000 people at this dance, men, women, and it's men, it's like regular guys, it's not…it's a different subset of the gay community. It's not necessarily the very flamboyant. They are just…they happen to be…they are just regular people that happen to be gay and that's kind of where I really wanted to find life. And I called in sick the next day and went to the rodeo. I called in sick the next day, and went back. It was like, I found a life.
BR: And 3 months later I happened to be interviewing for a job up here in the Bay Area the same weekend as the Bay Area Rodeo. And walking in the gate I heard people talking, “gosh we’re gonna have to get a few more volunteers cause we are gonna need help with this.” I was like, “I'll help. Tell me what you need to have done and, if I don't know, I'll tell ya.” And I've been volunteering now eighteen years.
RS: Did you ever ride in the rodeo at all?
BR: I have competed. [Laughs] I did goat dressing for one season, and when him and I broke up, I no longer wanted to. It was too…I'm a bit emotional so, you know, it brought back a lot of memories. So, you know, I enjoy the volunteer thing. There's less drama. I enjoy that I still get to talk to everybody and hang out. I'm just not the greatest guy competing.
RS: That's great.
BR: Last year I actually competed again for the first time in fifteen years in Santa Fe. I did goat dressing and I also did steer deco which I've always wanted to do. But, as an official, you can no longer compete when you are working, so you don't have the opportunity much anymore. But that weekend, it just kind of worked out that I was at a board meeting but I wasn't officiating, so it's like a couple of girls needed somebody to compete with ‘cause they are working for points for finals. I'm like, “well, if you keep expectations proper I'll play with ya.” I'll never forget that feeling on Saturday morning in steer deco, standing in the arena holding onto that rope, waiting for that chute to open, going, “What in the hell was I thinking? This has got to be the stupidest decision I've ever made in my whole life. They're gonna open that gate, the steer's gonna come out and I'm supposed to do this.” And we placed 7th, on Saturday, I was like: “Oh my God, we did it. It really happened.” I still had the same feeling Sunday, of standing there with the rope going, “Oh, shit, here we go.” But it was a great experience. I've been watching it for years and years and years. I'm really glad I got to do, but I don't really have to do it again, either. [Laughs] You know there's a certain time in life when you realize that those few extra pounds, the arthritis in the knees, maybe you are a little smarter than you used to be, you don't have to do those things to prove anything. [Laughs]
RS: Now what do you think the role of the camp events are in gay rodeo?
BR: It's…part of it's the entertainment. I think it's the most entertaining part of the rodeo. It's something you don't see anywhere else. Though I am seeing some of it start to filter into regular rodeo. But it's also the open door for anybody that wants to play. For me, that was my open door, putting panties on the goat. The animals are smaller than me…I've been around goats before…I think I can do this. And there is a little trick about grabbing the little hooks that are on their back legs, if you put your hands over that, the underwear slides up really well. And I was like, “Okay. I can…this sounds like…this is something,” and it's a blast. And if you trip and you fall the crowd loves it, all your friends laugh with you, they're not laughing at you. It's awesome and I think it's the entry event for [everyone]…we've had a blind woman that has done it, we've had people with various handicaps have done it. You know, a lot of people will bring their kids to the rodeo when we do the community goat dressing. And it's such a great adventure for the kids and you don't see anybody leave the arena that's not smiling.
RS: Now once you started attending and volunteering, did you get involved with a local association in the Bay Area or back in LA?
BR: Right, actually, I didn't…the first association I joined was the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association. I was dating somebody in Sacramento, so I joined the Sacramento chapter. By the time my first year was up and time for renewal, there were giant political problems in California. And now Sacramento's set was going in their own way and there was all this drama so I joined Oklahoma, ‘cause I didn't want to be a part of drama. There is enough drama in work, in life, in general. I didn't want it in my place that I enjoyed. So, I was a member at Oklahoma, I've been a member of the Canadian Gay Rockies Association, which is one of the finest groups on Earth, and I've maintained my membership through the end of their organization. But I did after a couple of years, and things calmed down in here California, I thought well I've started to become more active, I've started to work as an official--I got certified as a scorekeeper--it's important to be a part of my home association. And now I've been on the board of directors for nine years here in California.
RS: And for the board of directors here in California, does that take you to convention and connect you with the sort of umbrella IGRA in any way?
BR: Yeah, I'm really fortunate as a certified official. Like I said, I certified as a scorekeeper, I think it was thirteen years ago, and then I certified as a secretary about five years ago, and now I'm a certified auditor on the rodeo circuit. So in that alone, I've traveled to rodeos all across the country and Canada. And then I started on the board of directors with GSGRA back in whatever year that was. [Laughs] One of those crazy years where I thought: “Okay it's time to give back.” Ahh, crazy idea. But again, it does put you into the political realm and I've never been good at office politics or anything else. Shit will come out of my mouth before I have a time to realize how it's going to affect. Yes it's honest, yes it's true, maybe it could have stayed inside for a little bit longer. But, you know, that's…welcome to my nickname on the circuit: it's Grumpy. I own it, I live it. But, it does take you to the conventions, you know, I've been fortunate enough I've been part of production at convention for the two years we had it in California on my tenure on the board. And then between university and convention I have my master’s degree in rodeo arts with IGRA University and I've been a trustee now for three years with the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association. So, I represent California on the international board.
RS: Now in the span of time that you've been involved, what are some of the changes you've seen over time with the rodeos or the leadership?
BR: Wow. [Laughs] You know, the changes in my own life have been…it's…I'm a night and day different person than I ever was. The fact that I can just sit here and talk to you, candidly, is something I could have never done twenty years ago. Even maybe ten years ago would have been a bit rough. But I've learned to…I can be…if I go to the bar, I'll stand in the corner and watch all night, never say a word to anybody. I come to the rodeo, I have my vest, my badge, I now have a job, I have a responsibility to talk to you and I embrace that. Especially with new folks ‘cause I want them to get the same experience, I want them to love and enjoy. Everything hmm sorry, um, oh wow, um… [emotional]
BR: The changes in the rodeo, like I said, the first rodeo I went to in ‘98 was already kind of things were starting to change. There were 3,000 people at that dance. The dances were the launch, the dances were the busiest part of the whole rodeo weekend even at the grounds. There's this giant tent with this giant dance floor, and there's these men dancing with men, women dancing with women, and it's the country dancing but it's ballroom style. It's the most amazing thing you ever see. And in the last ten years the dancing has stepped away. The contestants were getting older. The younger people don't have the same need in the gay community that we had twenty, thirty, forty years ago. So, we are our own worst enemy. We got the acceptance we've been dying for. When you go out to the arena, there are straight people competing with us and having a blast and bragging to their friend that they're competing in the gay rodeo and having a ball. You know it's so many people when they hear gay rodeo they are thinking: “sex in the bushes and, you know, they are always going to be grabbing at you and they are gonna try and convert you.” “Convert you, honey, if we could convert I'd have converted to straight forty years ago and saved myself some grief and aggravation.” But it wasn't me and it wasn't honest, and I couldn't do it. I dated women until I was thirty and never slept with one of them. What's wrong with this picture?
BR: But in the world today, I'm always, you know, when I see high school kids that are out, I'm like are you old enough to even know what out is? You know I've become my dad, it's kind of crazy that now I'm this old fart that, you know, “these young kids they just don't get it.” And as a board member I've struggled with that in the last few years. When we are trying to grow membership, they go, “well what's in it for me?” “Well, honey, I don't even know how to start.” Because I don't think this is for you, because if you are not looking at the bigger picture of what this was founded for, it's a non-profit organization, supporting the local community. And it's not just the gay community, they are supporting their community, you know, it's been a long time since money has been focused on a gay charity or an AIDS charity. You know, a lot of time it's horse rescue, it's animal rescue, it's hospice care that's not specifically a gay one, it's just something in your community you want to support. And I feel that the younger generation doesn't understand what supporting a community is about. Now you're gonna spend $17,000 to $20,000 a year working in a rodeo, it's crazy. I don't make--I'm in the travel industry, we don't make that kind of money--but the amazing amount of what I get for myself, I can't imagine why anyone wouldn't do it.
RS: Can I ask where are some of the favorite places you've been able to travel because of IGRA?
BR: Oh, you know, I get the question a lot especially from newer people, “I want to go to another rodeo, what's one of the best ones to go to?” You know everyone has something special to offer. I mean look at where we're at this weekend in Duncans Mills. It's out in the middle of nowhere but it's this beautiful little rustic campground, rustic arena. You feel like you're at the rodeo. When I've gone to Calgary, when I first started going up there, fourteen or fifteen years ago, it was a place called Simon's Valley, and they have acres of camping and it was tents, little campers you know, more European. In America we've got to have the forty-footer. Up there it's like I got a pup tent and a sleeping bag, we are going to the rodeo. And again, their dance would be 3,000 people on Friday night. Saturday night it could be 5,000 people just coming for the dance and entertainment. They've got Warner Brothers artists playing. Farmers Daughter, Emerson Drive, they get this amazing talent to perform at this little gay rodeo outside of Calgary. The Canadians are the warmest, most welcoming people you'll ever meet and I was proud to be a member.
BR: You go to Texas--you're in a rodeo, ‘cause you're in Texas. You know, you go to Arizona, we're in this Mexican arena that contestants complain because they don't like this or they don't like that. But it's rodeo in the round, the people are right on it, they love it, the beer sales are the best they are going to be at a rodeo all year. Florida has put on some amazing rodeos. Chicago, I remember one year Chicago they've got, the rodeo is like 60 miles out of the city, they charter buses. And the rodeo never starts before 12 o' clock because we are going to party and drink until the cows come home. We're not going to start before noon so, you know, as an official you are out there 9:30, 10 o' clock starting to get ready. That first bus shows up at 11:30 and it's full. And right after that there's another bus and another bus and another bus. There are like five full buses of people coming in. The first stop is the ATM, the next stop is the bar. They are right there at the arena and we are starting the rodeo. It's always just so…communities are so excited to have the rodeo. There was one time in Wichita. They had finals in Wichita. Gay rodeo in Wichita, gay rodeo in Little Rock. I was standing there on Bill Clinton Drive in Little Rock, I'm like, "Oh there are so many things wrong with this picture."
BR: But again, it's our rodeo family, and they’re the warmest, most loving people you'll ever meet. I've got friends in every city I swear in the country, all from rodeo. I go to Christmas parties in Dallas, and people are going, “Why you going to Dallas? You live in San Francisco, there's a whole giant gay community.” “I don't know anybody there. But I know a whole bunch of people if I go to the one in Dallas.”
RS: Have you ever experienced any homophobia from communities that you are going into to have a rodeo?
BR: You know, that's what has really surprises me is, I haven't. But I like to think that I'm kind of reserved and I'm pretty cautious, especially in a place I've never been. And then I find out, oh you have ten gay bars in this town! In Minneapolis? Oh my God! And, you know, I haven't dated in a long time so I'm not walking down the street hand in hand with my chosen or anything like that. I've seen protests at rodeos, we get a lot of PETA protest. I remember that one year in Florida they had security all over the place because we were told, “PETA is there. There's gonna be all this protest.” Yeah, there were four signs for cruelty to animals and one saying that rodeo is not gay. [Laughs] Have you ever been to a rodeo? Let’s talk about the PRCA, when I was a young guy going to rodeos there was never a bunch of tighter butts in jeans in my life, and the women had hair to heaven. I'm sorry. We got the same thing at the gay rodeo. You've got drag queens with hair to heaven and you got men in tight pants. There's nothing different. Except we are actually a little more open and accepting and we have a lot more fun.”
RS: Now is your family still in Idaho?
BR: Yep.
RS: Have you come out to them?
BR: I did come out to my parents, twelve years ago. I'd made the trip to Idaho many times to have “the talk,” and every time I get there, there'd be one little thing that happens and I can't do it. I'll never forget one time I'd gone home, and that's when we still lived up in Fairfield and dad and I were going on the prairie fishing. I thought, “Okay, today's the day.” And I kind of had a feeling dad knew I was wanting to talk about something. My dad's in recovery, he has been sober now almost forty years. My first twenty years, we did not get along very well, but now dad's been through and is still very active in AA and he's met a lot of people like his son, so I thought, you know, “I think we're there.” And we are on our way out to the reservoir, and he starts talking about theses two guys that live in this house on the edge of town and he made some straight guy smart ass comment. I thought, “Okay, it's not today.”
BR: But then I was doing my own recovery in a different program and it was kind of like, you know: “how can I be honest with myself and my friends if I can't be honest with my parents and my family?” So we're sitting at the table, I wait till it's way past their bedtime, so that they are really kind of tired and you know so we can get this over and move on. And I said, “You know mom and dad, there is something we need to talk about, I'm gay. Dad said, “It doesn't matter, you are our son and we love you.” I'm like, “You've got to be shitting me. I've been holding on to this for twenty-five freaking years and that's the best you got. Oh my God.” [Laughs] And you know mom still struggles...
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BR: I had a big problem in Santa Fe last year and it was very traumatic. It was some homophobic slurs thrown my way at my safe place, at my rodeo. And I did not handle it well, I was very upset with my retort and horribly embarrassed. But I wanted to get on a plane and go home. I didn't even want to face my friends. I wanted out. I still struggle with it and of course my friends still tease the shit out of me over it. But I didn't realize how much that would affect me. How comfortable I had become. Santa Fe is a very open community and for this woman to basically be calling me a pedophile because I'm “one of those people.” ‘Cause I'm like, “Your son doesn't have a security badge he's not supposed to be here, and when I tried to talk to him he's turning and giving me a dirty look and walking off. Not at my rodeo, honey.” And she just kept coming, she was right in my face, and then I finally uttered the word that no woman ever likes to hear. And unfortunately, there were several of my friends standing right there and it was not a pretty picture.
RS: Were they spectators or involved with the rodeo?
BR: Oh, it turns out they were the stock contractors with the bulls. ‘Cause now she is gonna pack up her bulls and they're gonna leave. And I'm like, “You shouldn't have been here to begin with.” But I'm also thinking, “I screwed the whole rodeo.” These contestants, a lot of contestants only come to do the rough stock and now I've ruined everything. You know, it all gets sorted out. But I'm not going back. That was my safe place and it's no longer safe there.
RS: Is it usual for the leadership to try vet stock contractors or anything to see if incident like that's going to occur?
BR: You know, I think it surprised everybody. Because we're very upfront. The stock contracts are from the International Gay Rodeo Association. You are dealing with the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association. The gay is in there, it's in there, it’s in there, it’s in there. It's in everything you read, it's how we are gearing towards things, how we do things. I mean, even getting the rodeo here was not an easy thing to do. It's a very old world family, very well established, and they weren't so sure about [it]. They've seen what goes on up the road on those special weekends when they're all in town and there's all this stuff going on around them. They really weren't so sure and comfortable about it. After the first year, they're ready for a five year contract. And I've experienced that in so many cities across the country that nobody's really sure about this gay rodeo thing and everything else and it's like, “Well, here's a few things to read. Here's how we feel about the animals and how we want to show respect and how we arrange some of our events to be less harmful to the animals. Here's what we feel about the people. Here's how we treat our people. Here's what we are trying to do for the community.” If you can get past that three letter word, you're gonna have an amazing thing happen.
RS: So you talked about a little bit earlier the dancing wing of the festivities. Did that sort of dissipate completely or have they split with the rodeo and do their own events?
BR: It's…it really just dissipated. I know when I, in my tenure, there's a group called Sundance Saloon outside of San Francisco and they are also a non-profit group. And it's all about the country western dancing, and when I first started it was their group that was a lot of times in charge of the dances at the rodeo ‘cause they knew the music, they had the DJ's, they could get the dance floors, and everything else. So they were a big part of the rodeo. And I think over time, personalities, politics, you know, things kind of clash, and you'll get a person that's gonna be the rodeo director: “I don't really care about that crap…that's just that…doesn't do anything for me.” And you'll have one year where nobody shows up to dance so the next year you just don't bother. Well, the reason they didn't show up is they didn't feel welcome. Or, you know, did you reach out to the people in charge of this group or that group? And go "Can we do something, can we help you at one of your events and then in turn you can come and help us at one of ours? And then we can both grow with that." I think, that's the hardest thing we still have in our community, is how well we can all work together to keep us all alive. When gay rodeo first started, there wasn't a gay league for everything under the sun. You know, we were the game in town, and we were a big game. ‘Cause everybody wants to see the cowboys, everybody, straight, gay, doesn't matter. They all want to see those cowboys.
BR: Well, as I said, now as an athlete, or as a volunteer, you have fifty options every weekend, especially in the Bay Area for a group that is giving back that you can volunteer your time and money and be part of. So part of the gay rodeo we really have to differentiate and I think dance has…the loss of the dance has got us to where we are at. 'Cause dance was a big part of it when it started. That is the social part of the rodeo. We have our social with the contestants and volunteers and you have some social around the bar during the rodeo. But the dance... after a couple cocktails that cute guy that's over there, you've finally earned up enough courage to ask him if he will dance. And sometimes it's going to be a line dance, ‘cause I'm not sure if my two-steppin’ is up to somebody else’s snuff. But you made…you reached out. And here it's harder. I don't think you get the same effect sitting in the stands. You might make a comment to somebody about something that happened in the dirt but that's not the same thing as, for me, asking somebody to dance. That's the hardest thing on the Earth for me to do is ask for a dance.
RS: What do you think when you when you went to that first rodeo, what was it about the gay rodeo that pulled you in, that spoke to you in a way that other spaces maybe hadn't before?
BR: I think it was my idea of the real guy, just you know these guys could ride horses, ride broncs and steers, and you know and dance, and sit and chat and just be open and genuine. You know I was living in West Hollywood when there was nothing genuine about any of that. I would go to the bar and it would take me 2 beers to mark up the courage to say hello to somebody and they would just sneer and kind of look at me. I would be almost in tears and I put the beer on the counter and go home. It's not even like I'm going to move to the next person I think is cute, no. It took me this long to get enough courage to talk to that one, and I'm not good enough, I go home. And I won't go out for two or three more weeks. Just can't do it. But at the rodeo, early on again, I still had the issue if you kind of dissed me, I'm gone, now it's like, “Oh get over yourself.” I'm like, “You're not all what you think you are, so come on let's…”. I’ve got friends. I don't, you know…if I meet new people that's great, and I meet a lot of people being part of secretarial, doing registration at every rodeo. I meet every new contestant, and nothing gives me greater joy on that new contestant when they come up and thank me after the rodeo. Or just come up and say: “Did you see what I did?” I had, you know, it's like: “Good job, son.” I feel like the dad now with the young kids that are coming in: “You did so good, son. You did good.” And the sexual part is not there. It's just you know, we all happen to be gay, that doesn't mean we all have to sleep with each other or anything else. It's just we can be appreciative just like anyone else.
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RS: Now being from rural Idaho, would you characterize yourself as a cowboy?
BR: No. No, I've been on a horse maybe six, seven times my whole life. I enjoy watching somebody ride well, but horse power to me is under the front of my car. Under the hood, more horse power is good. One horse power out of one horse here, that you have no control over whatsoever, is not a good thing. I respect them, but it's still just a little unnerving.
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BR: And as much as I think that's gotta be the most awesome feeling in the arena, racing on the horse, with the, you know, it's kind of like being on in the convertible with the top down. You know, you are racing through the arena, you are doing the poles, and the barrels, and you get a, I see how fast they do that, and how comfortable they look, that's never going to be me. I think it's awesome, I'm thrilled that they can. But I can't do that. [Laughs] So no, I guess in one respect, I guess I could be a cowboy because I do appreciate and I kind of live the country lifestyle: you're honest, you're true, I enjoy my boots and jeans I listen to country music everywhere. So, you know, maybe I am a cowboy, you don't necessarily have to ride a horse to be a cowboy.
RS: What do you think it means for some people who like you felt they needed to move away from rural America because they couldn't find a space to be able to identify as a cowboy and to find a place like this?
BR: It's fear. That little town up in the mountains of Idaho was, to me, homophobe central. The worst thing you could ever call somebody--of course gay wasn't in the vocabulary when I was in school--it was a fag. The horrible fear every time I heard that word...I was scared to death it may come my way. Even in college I thought, "Okay, when I go to college, things are going to open up a little bit." Oh no. I was in a fraternity at the University of Idaho, and I was constantly scared to death that somebody was going to find out. To me it was like, if I move to the city I'm anonymous. Nobody knows me, nobody cares. And I think, sadly, it's still that way for a lot of rural America. It starts at home, and unless your family is open and supportive as you're growing up you'll never believe your community is either. So you have to run.
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RS: Well, is there anything else about your experience with the gay rodeo and your personal history you'd like to share?
BR: You know I list two things that saved my life as an adult. One was finding the rodeo. I was a very lost person for a very long time. Then I found the rodeo and it gave me purpose, it gave me direction. It gave me amazing family. And then through all of this, in two days I celebrate fifteen years of sobriety, being sober, and without the two of those things, I'm not sure where I'd be.
RS: Well, thank you for speaking with me.
BR: My pleasure, good questions.