Visualizing Subjects: Successes and Failures in Data Tagging Gay Rodeo Oral Histories

By Devin Becker and Rebecca Scofield

The Gay Rodeo Oral History Project

Gay cowboys, queer cowfolx, and LGBTQ country-westerners have spent decades staking a claim to western identity through rodeo, square dancing, and country-western bars. While the cowboy icon narrowed over the twentieth century to include only white, straight, cis-gender men, many people refused to adhere to this limited understanding of who belonged in both rural spaces and the mythological American West. Over the past two decades, scholars have tried to capture these histories to resist the simplified narratives of place and belonging that have long haunted our political and cultural landscapes. The textured reality of people’s everyday lives are essential teaching tools as we navigate the diverse terrain of American history.

IGRA member competing in Barrell Racing at the 2021 Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Alyson Roy.

The International Gay Rodeo Association (IGRA) was formed during Reagan’s America and the AIDS epidemic and has flourished for four decades. Yet today, the association’s history is threatened by age, the global pandemic, and a dwindling membership. The urgent need to collect and retell the vibrant stories of queer cowfolx drove us to create the Gay Rodeo Oral History Project in 2016. Working collaboratively with leadership in IGRA and financially supported by the University of Idaho (UI) and a Whiting Foundation Public Engagement Fellowship, we have recorded over 65 interviews to date. These have ranged from recitations of cowboy poetry to in-depth life histories. The bulk of these interviews are being donated to the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles alongside IGRA’s institutional archive. Aiding IGRA’s own quest to preserve its history as part of the diverse American West, we have also sought to not only collect but to make these histories available to our students, other researchers, and the general public through our curated web exhibit Voices of Gay Rodeo.

IGRA member competing in the Wild Drag Race at the 2021 Rocky Mountain Regional Rodeo in Denver, Colorado. Photo by Alyson Roy.

Oral history as Data

Oral history projects are always collaborative, and we have been lucky to partner with UI’s Center for Digital Inquiry and Learning (CD?L), who designed and built Voices using the Jekyll static site generator and following their lib-static approach to digital scholarship project development. As our creative team designed this exhibit, the concept of putting these discrete oral histories into conversation was at the forefront of our minds. Devin Becker, Co-Director of CD?L at UI, suggested using the visualization tool he had developed out of another oral history project, CTRL+Shift, which investigates the changing writing practice of poets in the digital age. This tool, now known as Oral History as Data, color codes subjects throughout each interview and across the collection of oral histories as a whole (see the Voices of Gay Rodeo Visualizations page below for an example), allowing a user to see and explore various subjects across a collection of oral histories.

The color-coded subject visualization featured on the Voices of Gay Rodeo website. (

In order for these visualizations to be created, users of the tool need to first convert their transcripts into a spreadsheet format, tagging sections with short keywords that correspond to the subjects being coded across the collection. Once the transcript is converted into this format, i.e. into “data,” the Oral History as Data tool is able to iterate over the various cells multiple times, assigning and creating the color coding for the visualization and building individual web pages for each interview that feature a full-text searchable and subject-browsable transcript. The tool also builds out the infrastructure of the rest of the site, allowing for additional customization, such as the conversation generator that Voices features on its home page. Oral History as Data is free to use; the simplest way to do this is to copy the tool’s GitHub repository and replace the tool’s demo data with one’s own.

More documentation for using and teaching with the tool can be found on our Oral History as Data Lesson Template, which the authors collaboratively developed for a recent history course entitled “The Long 1960s.” This lesson plan and the authors’ pedagogical collaboration was prompted by a recent NEH Digital Humanities Advancement award the CD?L received to further advance their work promoting the lib-static approach to digital scholarship. The grant and project, Learn-Static, was led by Olivia Wikle; it brought together librarians and humanities professors from UI and the University of Oregon to develop a series of lesson plans and short educational modules that are meant to increase the number of digital scholarship students and scholars that are familiar with this powerful way of developing projects.

This “static” approach to digital scholarship development creates digital exhibits and websites that are freely published via GitHub pages, require little maintenance or worry about security, and that are built in such a way, using only static HTML, CSS, and JavaScript files, that they will still work 5 to 10 years in the future, and likely longer. They also introduce a data-driven means for thinking about and presenting scholarship of all kinds in interactive, iterative, and preservable formats.  

Success and Failures

These tools have greatly aided in crafting a broader understanding of our data sets. For instance, one question that always came up in our interviews was if someone considered themselves a cowperson. The breadth of responses I received was fascinating. Danny Lee, a British ex-pat, responded, “There are people who are like me, who are weekend cowboys. We go to two-steps and put on our cowboy drag. And then there are people who live out on a ranch, they have cattle, they have horses.” Here Danny Lee yokes cowboy identity to the job of working with stock. In contrast, Cowboy Frank Harrell said, “I think being a cowboy is, more than just simply working cattle or horses. It’s a way of looking at life, and I try to uphold that as much as I can. I try to help the other person and I try to take care of what we have to take care of: our horses, our facilities, our organization.” For Cowboy Frank, being a cowboy was about a worldview and about doing what needs to be done.

“I think being a cowboy is, more than just simply working cattle or horses. It’s a way of looking at life.”

Cowboy Frank Harrell, IGRA Member

This diversity of perspective often gets lost in larger retellings of the association’s history as much of the evidence is located at the institutional level—board of directors minutes, programs, and rulebooks. These sources also build upon a mythological West that present the cowboy in simplistic ways and obscure the complexities of the community. By visualizing subjects—both the individual tagged topics and the holistic individual who provided their story—we were able to grapple with big picture questions and identify where opposing or overlapping experiences existed. This analysis helped us tell these stories in new ways and aided us in acknowledging that they expand far beyond what we deemed interesting. By creating these conversations, the exhibit allows users to trace their own themes and to explore what most interests them by facilitating multiple points of entry into the full transcripts.

Selected visualization for the topic of “homophobia” on Voices of Gay Rodeo exhibit.

As we have deployed these tools in our exhibit and in the classroom, our creative team was also able to utilize the tool in other creative ways, including our verbatim theater piece That Damn Horse: The Stories of Gay Rodeo. A collaboration between the Gay Rodeo Oral History Project and Rob Caisley, chair of the UI Department of Theatre, this play draws from dozens of our interviews to weave together a broad conversation about the meaning and experience of gay rodeo. Verbatim theater overlaps with documentarian approaches to history. Authors often use public records, like court transcripts, public hearing minutes, and newspaper reporting to weave together a story of an event or a moment in time. In some ways, it intertwines people’s factual statements within a larger fictional structure. In this play, we built off the framework of the visualization tools to place gay rodeoers in conversation with each other. This structure allowed us to resist mythologies and instead focus on the humanity of these narrators. Our play had a successful zoom reading with over 200 audience members in spring 2021 and is set for an in-person reading at the Autry Museum in fall 2023.

As we constructed these tags, however, we also found that our perspectives were limited. For instance, as Rebecca was initially creating content tags, she failed to tease apart the differences between homophobia and transphobia. It was not until a trans student who was helping with the project pointed out the flaw that we began to see the ways tagging, like any form of categorization, necessarily strips nuance from these subjects. Due to limits on budgets and time, these mistakes can be difficult to rectify in hindsight. We therefore urge others to be mindful in how they design data tags to avoid the same mistakes we made.

All good DH projects are collaborative. Bringing together the technical infrastructures, data, and “subject” expertise of all kinds, students and scholars need to work with and learn from each other. As tools are applied in surprising ways, the outcomes can be quite substantial, often leading to new stages of a project and different opportunities in the future. The infrastructure required to do this type of work well spans not only the technical but also the social. Having centers like CD?L and development approaches like Lib-Static in place helps, but these projects can also come together as learning opportunities in themselves—about the subjects of our research, the topics that galvanize change, and ourselves as imperfect practitioners seeking continual improvement.

Additional Resources

A Short Suggested Reading List in Queer Rural Studies

Scott Herring, Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism, New York: New York University Press, 2010.

Colin Johnson, Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2013.

Nadine Hubbs, Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.

Kathryn Alexander, “Politely Different: Queer Presence in Country Dancing and Music,” Yearbook for Traditional Music 50, no. 1(2018): 187-209.

Mary L. Gray, Colin R. Johnson, and Brian J. Gilley, editors, Queering the Countryside: New Frontiers in Rural Queer Studies, New York: New York University Press, 2016.

Rebecca Scofield, Outriders: Rodeo at the Fringes of the American West, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2019.

Elyssa Ford, Rodeo as Refuge, Rodeo as Rebellion: Gender, Race, and Identity in the American Rodeo, Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2020.

Ryan Lee Cartwright, Peculiar Places: A Queer Crip History of White Rural Nonconformity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021.

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