The National Reno Gay Rodeo was the first gay rodeo in the United States, and ran from 1976 to 1984.
The first gay rodeo is said to have been organized by Phil Ragsdale (then "Emperor I of Reno" in the Imperial Court System) in 1975, and took place on October 2, 1976 at Washoe County Fairgrounds near Reno, Nevada; after much looking for steers and horses to use, he found five "wild" range cows, ten "wild" range calves, one pig, and a Shetland pony. Over 125 people attended, and crowns for the best performance were given out; first, "King of the Cowboys," second, "Queen of the Cowgirls," and third, "Miss Dusty Spurs" (the drag queen). The rodeo became a minor success; proceeds from the rodeo went to supporting the local Senior Citizens Annual Thanksgiving Day feed.
The following year, Ragsdale founded the Comstock Gay Rodeo Association and his rodeo project became the National Reno Gay Rodeo. At the 1977 event, the "Mr., Ms., and Miss National Reno Gay Rodeo" contest was created to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association (which received USD $214.00 from the event); the money was donated under the name "Reno Gay Liberation". Many of the conventions for future gay rodeos were established at the 1977 National Reno Gay Rodeo, including the introduction of:
- Dance troupes who were skilled in Square dancing, clogging, formation line dancing, and the two-step
- 24-hour casinos
By 1980-81, the rodeo became a major source of tourism for Reno, with over 10,000 from various states (including Utah, California, and Texas) packing into the Washoe County Fairgrounds and nearby Sands Hotel for the festivities; a further 40,000 came to the city for the nightlife, many of whom came from San Francisco, California, due to the major word-of-mouth and press that was given to the event within San Francisco's LGBT community. The Pacific Coast Gay Rodeo Association dominated the 1980 event, while the Texas association dominated the 1981 competitions. It grossed over $40,000 for the donation to MDA in 1981.
However, Colorado dominated the 1982 event, and the event encountered a major disruption from within: contestants wanted standardized rules for rodeo competition for the sake of equality with traditional rodeos, and also desired a change in the destination of proceeds from the competition, which had previously gone from 1977-1981 to MDA. Many previous contestants did not come to the 1982 event as a result, and changes were made to accompany the demands for 1983.
Despite the setbacks of the previous year and the Texas association deciding to not come this year, 1983 still managed to bring a peak attendance of 12,000 attendees. The "Mr., Ms., and Miss National Reno Gay Rodeo" contestants were allowed to designate 50% of the proceeds towards the LGBT-related charity of their choice, while 50% was retained for MDA; most contestants chose the AIDS Foundation.
The ninth and final National Reno Gay Rodeo, held in 1984, still managed to bring over 10,000 attendees, but succumbed to a dispute between the Comstock Association and both the Fairgrounds and Hotel; a seizure of the rodeo books was also purported as a cause for the demise. The event managed to bring such people as Rose Maddox and Joan Rivers to see the gay Western lifestyle.