'This Is Life With Lisa Ling' Explores The Gay Rodeo

The International Gay Rodeo Association has over 5,000 registered members. With its help, gay cowboys and cowgirls regularly come together not only to compete in a variety of events like bull riding and calf roping but also to share their lives, struggles, and triumphs, both in and out of the saddle.

Lisa Ling, who has spent much of her career exploring American subcultures, most recently for CNN's "This Is Life" series, recently headed to Santa Fe, New Mexico to explore the gay rodeo and the men and women who call it their home away from home. Once there, she learned that the event is not merely the rollicking party she imagined it would be, but instead, it is in many cases the only place in the world where these gay cowboys and cowgirls can truly be themselves.

We spoke with Ling earlier this week to learn more about the revelatory and emotional episode, which airs Sunday night at 10pm ET on CNN.

The Huffington Post: With so many subcultures and possible topics to cover, why did you choose the gay rodeo?
Lisa Ling: It’s been around for decades and is still thriving. We started talking to people and found it to be a really unique kind of culture. When we finally got to Santa Fe, New Mexico, it confirmed all of our thoughts. Rodeos themselves are pretty controversial these days, but the gay rodeo has provided this kind of refuge for people who have grown up in these western cowboy cultures and have felt so isolated. There’s no denying that rodeo has been an integral part of cowboy culture and these are people who have always wanted to maintain that because it is their culture but always felt very isolated because of their sexual orientation.

How do you get people to open up and trust you with their very personal stories?
I like to think that we have built up a kind of track record with the kind of shows that we do. It is incredibly important to me to never exploit or sensationalize a story or a topic. I think people recognize that about us. When you hear one of the topics — like “Sugar Babies” or “Traveling Strippers” — you think What’s this going to be about? but when you actually watch the episode, my hope is that you will see a kind of humanity in all of these people. I’ve always believed the more we know about each other, the more evolved we are as people. So no matter how sensational the topic may sound, when you watch the episodes, I think you’ll find there’s a lot more that you probably identify with when it comes to these people. And they could be living right next door to you or they could be in your own family and because you understand them better, you are a better person.

We often think of journalists as invisible, impartial beings who are just there to report the story. But that’s not how you operate. You’re very much a part of these stories. In fact, at one point in this episode you joke about being a Chinese American woman going to cowboy school. Tell me a bit about your approach to your work and how much of yourself you allow to be present.
I am part of the story because I am the vehicle through which people are able to experience these stories but it’s also very, very important to me to make sure that I am not the story. It’s not about me at all. I’m just giving you entree into these worlds and making it a little bit easier to get there. There are times when I have these experiences out in the field that are emotional or I become enraged or I become sad or I feel moved and we don’t hide that but I’m not necessarily giving you my opinion or telling you what to think, which is what I think a lot of journalism — a lot of broadcast journalism — does these days. And a lot of print journalism too, even though the people may not appear on camera as much, there’s still a very decisive tone that is expressed and ours is just an experience. I characterize what I do as “experiential journalism.”

For a lot of people, especially when we're talking about middle or mainstream America, watching your show is going to be the first encounter they have with some of these subcultures. Do you feel a responsibility to the subjects you’re working with -- as well as the viewers -- in terms of how you present these stories?
Absolutely. We’re very cautious about how we present a lot of our stories because a lot of people who we cover are incredibly judged people and people have preconceived ideas about them just based on hearing what they do. I invite people to come to our show with opinions but I also invite them to come and allow themselves to have their horizons broadened and expanded and be willing to accept that and to be provoked to even possibly think a little differently than they did at the outset [of the show]. That’s always been really important to me. You mentioned me being Chinese -- even though I was a fairly popular kid growing up, I was teased relentlessly for being Chinese. So I have always identified with people who have been targeted for discrimination or have been made to feel unwelcome -- it’s just something that’s always killed me because I feel like when I witness it, it takes me back to that time. I’ve always had a heart for the gay community because of that.

I think that shows. One part of the episode that really struck me is when you said you thought the gay rodeo was just going to be a big party and you were proven wrong once you experienced what actually takes place there. What else were you surprised by?
Just that it is such a fiercely competitive environment. It’s not that I didn’t expect it to be, but it is really intense. But also, the uniqueness of this event really came through. It really has provided this incredible refuge for people who have wanted to hold on to their cowboy and cowgirl roots and hold on to that rough and tumble kind of masculinity but also live freely.

Over the years you’ve covered so many different queer topics on your shows. What do you think about the state of queer America in 2014 and where we’re at?
I think we’ve made tremendous progress, given the fact that gay marriage is legal in over half of our states — it’s incredible. It’s happened very quickly and it’s exciting but as people will see in our episode, there are still people who are living in the closet. One of the women we feature, Brianna, just came out to her parents this year. There’s a man that we also feature who goes by the name of “Bubba” who works in a very testosterone-charged environment and can’t be out because of it and doesn’t know when he’ll be able to be out. It’s a constant reminder that all is not free for people in this country.

Watching you interview “Bubba,” you looked close to tears when he told you that being at the rodeo was a “fantasy” for him because he couldn’t do those things in his “real” life. How do these stories affect you personally?
That was a really incredible moment for me. The idea that in order for someone to feel free, he has to feel like it’s not real — it feels like it’s not real because his daily life is so different from what he experiences at gay rodeo — that’s why, even though rodeo is controversial, that’s why gay rodeo is still necessary for people… to provide a place where people can live freely. That isn’t the case with straight rodeo. Straight rodeo is just a viciously competitive event but at gay rodeo it means so much more.

What do you want viewers to take away from this episode?
I want people to just appreciate that gay rodeo is just as much part of American culture as straight rodeo and it does play an integral role in cowboy culture. It’s interesting because "Brokeback Mountain" — as we all know — was a groundbreaking film. When I saw it I thought — along with so many people — Wow! This exists? and when I talked to a number of the cowboys about it at gay rodeo they said, “We watched it once and we could never watch it again because it hit too close” — it was that profound for them. I vividly remember scenes from that movie and I felt how uncomfortable and awkward it was and that’s exactly what these cowboys and cowgirls felt for most of their lives.

The gay rodeo episode of "This is Life with Lisa Ling" airs on CNN on Sunday, November 9, at 10pm ET. For more info, head here.