Out in the Deliverance country north of Houston -- past signs that read "Convict Clinton Now" and "Concealed Handgun Club" -- is the barn where rodeo cowboy Gene Mikulenka keeps his three horses.
The kicker, so to speak? This rodeo cowboy is gay.
Mikulenka grew up rodeoing in the little south Texas town of Hallettsville, where gay men bloom late, if at all. He didn't know what the word gay meant until he was 17. "From reading 'Dear Abby,' I thought it meant that you smoked pot, that you were cool," he laughs. Then one day, two guys came into the restaurant where he worked and asked if he was gay. "I did it a couple of weeks ago," Mikulenka told them, "but I'm not going to do it anymore because it hurt my throat." They didn't ask him any more questions.
These days, Mikulenka's got his sexuality figured out. Of course, thanks to a documentary about his trip to the 1996 International Gay and Lesbian Rodeo Finals, everyone has got it figured out. The film, American Cowboy, by Kyle Henry, premiered a year ago at the Museum of Fine Arts, playing to a packed house of Mikulenka's straight cowboy colleagues, old high school girlfriends and those just curious to see the combination rugged wrangler/handsome homosexual. Mikulenka surely obliged them: He wore an Armani tuxedo specially outfitted with flashy Western lapels.
Suprisingly, since he came out to other cowboys he hasn't had the tar beaten out of him between the horse trailers. "I work with a lot of people who are professionals," he explains. "I would be insulted if someone called me a redneck." But it's as much a testament to his talent as to their professionalism that he gets respect on the straight circuit, the only circuit he's competed on since the film was made.
Gene Mikulenka is no pansy. He's been gored, bucked, tossed around and stepped on with the best of them; he thrived on riding rough stock before a bull broke his leg in 1996. He even rode a couple of bucking broncs with his cast on before calling it quits. "It's an adrenaline rush," he remembers wistfully. "It's better than doing any kind of drugs. It kills me to go to a rodeo and to not be able to ride."
Now Mikulenka sticks to dominating speed events on his phenomenal mare, Wild Lovers Lassie, Sassy for short. Their specialty is pole bending, an event in which horse and rider must twice weave at top speed through six poles placed 21 feet apart. Just one year after a trailer accident that cut Sassy's back leg down to the bone, the pair won the American Quarter Horse Association Senior Pole Bending class at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- a ride Mikulenka dedicated to his late mother.
Mikulenka and Sassy repeated at the Houston Stock Show in 1997 before moving on to Topeka to win two world championship pole bending titles from the American Buckskin Registry Association. In their respective careers, Sassy's been named top pole horse in Texas six times and Mikulenka's made it into the world's top ten pole benders five times -- once with his cast on. And these are just the straight circuit highlights.
"I never wanted to be known as the gay cowboy," Mikulenka says. "I was worried that it would be: 'Let's see if the gay cowboy can beat the straight cowboy.' " He shouldn't worry. He may be known as the gay cowboy, but there's not much question who'll win.
-- Lauren Kern
Gene Mikulenka will ride Wild Lovers Lassie in the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Pole-Bending Competition. Wednesday, February 24, 7 a.m. Great Southwest Equestrian Center, off I-10 at 2501 S. Mason Road. Call (281)578-7669 for information.