Yippee ki-yay! This week’s Portrait is the founder of the Keystone State Gay Rodeo Association, Adam Romanik. Feeling spontaneous? Grab your Stetson and join them for their monthly trail ride or check the website for other upcoming events.
PGN: What makes gay rodeo so gay?
AR: Well, there are a couple of different things: There are definitely differences between our circuit, the IGRA (International Gay Rodeo Association) and your typical rodeo. One of the things is that we embrace diversity, so that everybody can compete openly. In a traditional rodeo, the events are borderline-sexist. You have some events that only men can compete in and some that only women compete in. In the gay-rodeo circuit, men and women compete equally in all our events.
PGN: One of the things I’ve always liked about show jumping was that the men and women competed in the same classes as equals.
AR: That’s true. In gay rodeo there are also a number of special, what we call “camp,” events that are unique to us. They are events that are designed to allow people to get involved who may not know how to ride or have access to a horse. The first is goat dressing, where competitors have to put a pair of underwear on a goat. Another event is called steer decorating — it’s a team event in which two people have to tie a ribbon around a steer’s tail.
PGN: Tell me a little about your organization and how it came about.
AR: Keystone State Gay Rodeo Association (KSGRA) does all sorts of different events — we do social events and networking, we do trail rides and barn nights, we might do a mechanical bull night or go to a horse show, we’ve ridden in different pride parades — including Philadelphia Pride. Basically we’re a non-profit organization that is meant to cater to LGBTQ people who are interested in rodeo and the country life style. For me it was, number one, an opportunity to get like-minded people together to do fun things.
PGN: You mentioned that the group is geared for people who live the country lifestyle. Where did you grow up and what does that mean to you?
AR: I grew up in northeast Pennsylvania, up near Towanda. It was the country and I’ve been around horses since I was a little kid. I got my first pony and have been riding since I was 4 and started barrel racing at the age of 6.
PGN: And I understand that age 11 things changed drastically.
AR: I started having difficulty walking. I was having balance issues, so after going to a lot of different doctors they found that I had a tumor inside my spinal cord. I came to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to have surgery to remove the tumor. They got it out, but I have been a paraplegic ever since.
PGN: But you didn’t let that stop you and were back up on a horse competing not too long after. How long did it take and were there any cautions about getting back on a horse?
AR: It actually didn’t take me that long. For about nine months after the surgery, I was in a back brace, but as soon as they took it off I was back on a horse, and a few short years after that I was competing and barrel racing again.
PGN: My father has polio and when he learned to ride, it was very freeing for him to have a certain mobility again. Did you find an even stronger bond with your horses after the surgery?
AR: I would say yes, absolutely. Horses can sense things and they absolutely could sense there was something different. It definitely created a much stronger bond. The horses made me more independent, and they were also my motivation to become more independent, to go to school and earn my first master’s degree and now I’m working on a second master’s degree.
PGN: Tell me about the family. Were they also into horses?
AR: My dad is a truck driver and my mom’s a nurse. He rides and my one sister rides. I’m the oldest of four kids.
PGN: Political pundit James Carville once said, “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between.” I would imagine being a gay teenager in that atmosphere wasn’t easy.
AR: I agree, and living in that part of northeastern Pennsylvania was difficult. Being gay was a “bad thing,” so it wasn’t until I went to college at Clarion University in western Pennsylvania that I came out. It was still a very rural environment, but being on my own gave me a chance to come to terms with who I really was and then I came out to my family and friends and all of that.
PGN: But even as a teen, you might not know quite what it is, but you know something’s different.
AR: Yeah, I did know that there was something different about me and I remember hearing comments about it, but it was one of those things that I knew I’d have to deal with some day, but chose not to explore until I left.
PGN: I read that you got into gay rodeo in the first place because it was a place to find like-minded people.
AR: Yes, I was looking for someone who had similar interests. Before that, I’d had a few relationships that went sour because the person wasn’t able to understand the amount of time and money that goes into taking care of horses.
PGN: And that time and expense is in part because you have a lot of rescued horses, correct?
AR: Yeah, I get them from everywhere. Some from auctions when people can no longer care for them, some of them are retired thoroughbreds from the race tracks and some are just from individuals who for one reason or another can’t care for or keep them anymore. I’ll take them in.
PGN: What’s your biggest success story?
AR: A lot of the horses come in with difficulties and you don’t know anything about their history. I have two Belgian draft horses and they came in really skittish and they’re totally different animals now — very friendly and rideable. My favorite rodeo horse came from an auction — there were four horses on the block and no one wanted them, so I took them and she’s ended up being a really great horse. You never know.
PGN: You have a trail ride happening soon. Who can participate? Do you have to know how to ride? Do you have to have a horse?
AR: Anyone is welcome to come. You don’t have to be a rider and you don’t have to have your own horse. I have 11 horses and I bring all of them to the trail ride. A lot of them are beginner-safe. If you don’t know how to ride, we’ll help you. We get a variety of age groups and skill levels.
PGN: What was your craziest moment as a rider?
AR: A few years ago, I was at a weekend trail ride and I took a horse who was young and inexperienced. We were having a great ride until we were crossing some pavement and she slipped. My saddle turned sideways and there was no way for me to recover so I got myself off and onto the road as she ran away. They caught her and just as they got me back on, the horse took off bucking and running and I couldn’t get her under control. She was spooked and I had to bail again and ended up in someone’s yard. The horse then just followed the trail back to the club grounds and they had to send a car for me. It was a little embarrassing.
PGN: Tell me about your life when you’re not on a steed.
AR: I started my career with a bachelor’s degree in library science and I worked as a school librarian for a few years. Then I transitioned to the technology field and worked several positions there — as a technician, as an administrator, as an instructor and then went back and got my master’s in library science. Now I work as an IT manager for the Harford County Public Library. I’m four classes away from my second masters in information systems.
PGN: What’s a proud moment you’ve experienced?
AR: I’d say our first gay rodeo, which was held at the Farm Show Complex. It is a very expensive, large and well-known arena, so it was a big deal. It made is a very high-profile event and the moment that brought me to tears was when I was in between competitions, floating around in the crowd and talking to people. There was a trans person in the crowd who was very emotional and appreciative that there was an event of that magnitude that was so openly LGBTQ and everyone felt welcome. They had a great time which made me feel really good.
PGN: How can someone get involved with KSGRA?
AR: We have the trail ride. People can also attend meetings in person, by phone or through an app. You don’t have to be in Harrisburg or even in Pennsylvania. And we have a lot of events that people can participate in.