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Pa.'s last gay rodeo is leaving the state

After five years of commonwealth competitions, the Keystone State Gay Rodeo is relocating to the Empire State, founder Adam Romanik confirms.

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May 19, 2023
Inside this edition: Scabby's star, broken murals, the return of Curious Philly, skirmish site, Morguen Toole, and Pennsylvania's gay rodeo is headed north. 
🏆 PA IQ TEST: If you think you've been paying attention to the news, we're here to help you prove it. Put your knowledge to the test with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: Big primary wins, election week cyberattack, and a pivotal House special.
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New Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino is a graduate and "distinguished alumni" of which Pennsylvania state-related university?

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Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth reading: Pro-union inflatable Scabby the Rat, a mainstay at workplace protests from Philly to Pittsburgh, has been a labor icon for decades. But the AP wonders: Is Scabby's star fading?

» One thing worth knowing: Isaiah Zagar's murals are renowned across Philadelphia, especially at Magic Gardens. But they're being demolished by developers, including this partial demolition in Bella Vista last week.

» One thing worth sharing: The Inquirer is relaunching its reader-driven Curious Philly feature to answer nagging questions like: Do Philly's street names run from hardwood to soft? The answer is yes

» One more thing worth reading: The site of a 15-minute skirmish that changed the world and ignited the French and Indian War has been pinpointed in Fayette County, TribLIVE reports.

» One place worth knowing: The historic and reportedly haunted Morguen Toole Company Hotel in Meyersdale is for sale and listed at $899,000. It has everything, including a defunct third-floor mortuary.

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A man barrel racing on a horse.
Adam Romanik riding. (Courtesy of Adam Romanik)

Pennsylvania’s last-remaining gay rodeo is moving out. 

After five years of commonwealth competitions, the Keystone State Gay Rodeo is relocating to the Empire State, founder Adam Romanik confirms.

The move isn’t in protest of the lack of LGBTQ protections in Pennsylvania law, ongoing attempts to turn anti-drag and anti-trans sentiment into new state laws here, or the kind of backlash that led to state police being stationed outside the last gay rodeo he held in York County. 

Romanik said he’s simply the new owner of a 71-acre farm in New York, and it will be cheaper and easier to host the competitions there. 

Things are slower than they used to be for the storied and subversive scene, which took formal shape decades ago in Nevada and afterward added chapters nationwide. 

A 2010 letter from the president of Philadelphia’s now-defunct Liberty Gay Rodeo, Jeff Bolognese, cited Great Recession-era declines in patronage as existential threats

Romanik said the Keystone State Gay Rodeo has seen similar drops since forming in 2015, but he plans to continue holding them. And even though the next one will be in New York, the Keystone State label is staying, at least for now, as it’s costly and complicated to change. 

In a New Yorker piece published last month on “the renewed importance” of Texas’ pioneering gay rodeo amid conservative crackdowns on expressions of gender and sexuality in that state, the magazine reported that what started out as a social club there became a form of mutual aid in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic.

“We did this to raise money, to take care of people,” patron Mac McMillan said. “The medications were astronomically expensive, plus food, housing. We had to do what we had to do.” 

Over time, gay rodeos like those in Texas and Pennsylvania have worked to upend assumptions about both LGBTQ and rural people, providing an outlet and refuge for a rural LGBTQ demographic that’s less likely to find acceptance at home.

Romanik grew up in one of Pennsylvania’s most rural counties, Bradford, which sits just over the state line from his new farm in New York’s southern tier. He’s 43 and has been out, or openly gay, for 20-plus years.

Adam Romanik in a cowboy hat smiles over his shoulder and makes eye contact with the camera.
Adam Romanik is pictured. (Courtesy of Adam Romanik)

He started riding and caring for horses at a young age. “My dad gave me my first pony at four,” he told PA Local. And he kept riding even after developing paraplegia at the age of 11 following a surgery at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

“There was a tumor inside my spinal cord and the doctors told me there was a 50/50 chance of me walking again if I had it removed,” Romanik recalled. “They told me that if I didn’t have it removed, it would probably eventually paralyze me.”

After graduating college, in a “phase of self-discovery,” he attended his first gay rodeo in Philadelphia and then another in Illinois. “I felt like I was home, you know, like I had found my people,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I was bitten by the bug.” 

Years later he formed the Keystone State Gay Rodeo Association. Their first event was held at the Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg in 2017 and drew 2,000 people, a large turnout. 

But the event proved exceptionally expensive, clocking in at almost $75,000. Much of the overhead was a product of requirements from the International Gay Rodeo Association, a sanctioning body that the Keystone State Gay Rodeo disaffiliated from in 2019.

Following the Harrisburg show, Keystone used new venues and turnouts grew smaller but also more manageable. “I would say in the last three years we always had around 100 people and that’s fine because the cost is so much less,” Romanik explained. 

They advertised where they could, as some advertising services refused their business because it’s a gay rodeo. In 2021, a Facebook ad for a Keystone State Gay Rodeo at a ranch in New Freedom, York County, drew threats against the venue and event. 

“The police were called and a state trooper came and sat outside the venue the whole time from 11:30 a.m. to 3 or 4 p.m., whenever we were done, for two days. That was really the only time we experienced anything like that,” Romanik recalled. 

Some of the earliest gay rodeos in the U.S. were clandestine. Romanik said the Keystone State Gay Rodeo has never hidden itself but acknowledges some competitors use aliases: “There’s one guy, honestly I’m not sure if he’s gay or straight, but he goes by Johnny Rodeo and nobody knows his real last name.”

Attendees also would exercise discretion, sometimes asking to be left out of public-facing event photos; Romanik said they’re happy to oblige those requests.

The Keystone State Gay Rodeo isn’t hosting royalty shows, the gay rodeo term for drag shows, anymore. And like other gay rodeos, all of them amateur affairs, women are allowed to compete in all events, not just barrel racing, which they’ve been relegated to on the professional circuit. 

With the goats on his new farm braying in the background, Romanik said he plans to still hold occasional small events in Pennsylvania (cattle penning, for example) going forward. But the full-fledged annual rodeo is going north to New York, which he said lacks a gay rodeo of its own.

Romanik hasn't ruled out hosting the gay rodeo in Pennsylvania again at some point in the future, if the right opportunity presents itself. Until then, Pennsylvania is another eastern state without one.

"It's always been more of a western thing for sure," Romanik said. "[The Keystone State Gay Rodeo] was created to get people with like minds together and to bring [the rodeo scene] to the east. But it's also about networking. Things have changed so much in the gay community. You used to just go to the gay bars and meet, and so much of that has gone away."

The seventh Keystone State Gay Rodeo (number six was canceled due to weather) is slated for Sept. 30 in Owego, NY. Find updates here.

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

See more, via Vogue: In National Anthem, Photographer Luke Gilford Captures the Radical Inclusivity of the Queer Rodeo.

Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"I've mentioned that at work, at a meeting at work, and I was like, ‘Oh, we think 'Gold Rush' is gonna be one of the surprise songs because of the Eagles' T-shirt,' and my coworkers said, ‘Oh, I thought it was for the band.'"

—Alexa Aulisio to Spotlight PA's Kate Huangpu at last weekend's Taylor Swift concert in Philly where Swift decoded this oft-debated lyrical reference

“I got here at like 10 o'clock in the morning to get a good parking spot in here under the shade. And we just like pulled our car up and set everything up. And then people have just come over to us and like sat down with us. We brought games and stuff to play while we waited." 

Alli McGrath to Spotlight PA's Kate Huangpu at the same concert; some ticketless fans listened from the parking lot and didn't seem to mind

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
From Robert N. on the Duke Street Bridge overlooking the Swatara Creek in Dauphin County. Have a photo you'd like to share? Send it to us by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag @spotlightpennsylvania.
A rainbow over a creek framed by trees.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

New Twitter CEO Linda Yaccarino is a "distinguished alumni" of Penn State University and joins the social media platform as owner and former CEO Elon Musk, a UPenn grad, pivots to focus on product design.

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