Amid rainbow flags, cross-dressing rodeo queens and a synchronized horse drill to the tune of Beyoncé’s “All the Single Ladies,” the Best Buck in the Bay kicked off its 18th year in La Honda last weekend.

The Bay Area gay rodeo chapter made changes to the event after failing to scrape together the funds for last year’s event. In previous years, attendees stayed in Half Moon Bay hotels and ventured up to San Francisco for a Saturday night ball. This year the event organizers opened up a nearby camping ground and brought in a big dance floor for the ball. With the addition of a mechanical bull and other vendors, the rodeo took on a “festival feel” distinct from other years.

“There’s an overall up-beat energy present that I didn’t feel in years past,” beamed Ricky Abston, a San Leandro resident who came to the rodeo with his husband. “It’s evidence of what’s happening in the gay community.”

A group of Abston’s friends joined him after he tumbled from the mechanical bull booth in the midst of full-bodied laughter. Abston’s partner, Jerry Smythe, draped an arm around him. They hold up hands decorated with rings from their wedding in 2008, just before California voters passed Proposition 8, the same-sex marriage ban that was recently overturned.

Another rodeo attendee standing nearby chimed in to explain the importance, “for the gay community to have a place to be ourselves,” said Bryan Baker. “I can look at a cowboy and not be ostracized.”

The cheerful couple nod their heads in agreement. The group is camping overnight among the 40 campsites for rodeo guests. They say their homemade outfits for the evening’s festivities are hanging in their tent, ready for the dance later that night.

Across the festival first-time gay rodeo attendee and Alameda resident Kara Tow is standing back to look in on the rodeo festivities. “It’s awesome to be yourself without the harsh stereotypes,” Tow said. “It rocks.”

People travel near — and sometimes far — to take part in gay rodeos. The Golden State Gay Rodeo Association circuit started in February and has already traveled to dozens of towns. “It’s like a reunion every time we get together,” said Allen Register with the Golden State Gay Rodeo Association.

But it’s hit or miss with gay rodeos, Best Buck in the Bay volunteer Steve Martinez conceded. The success of the rodeo is contingent upon the economy local weather and nearby competing events. Last year all of these factors coalesced and the Bay Area chapter had to call off the competition.

Besides being LGBT-friendly, the rodeo is similar to others. One difference: men and women compete in all of the events. There are also some campy additions, like “goat dressing,” “steer decorating” and “wild drag racing.”

This year also marked the first time four people — some bending the gender line — were crowned as Bay Area rodeo royalty.

John Paul Soto, who was last year’s Mr. Gay San Francisco, walked away as Mr. Bay Area Rodeo 2010. To earn the crown, he submitted a horsemanship video, presented his western wear and he was quizzed about gay rodeo history.

During his year-long reign, Soto will promote the gay rodeo while raising money for various charities. In January Soto will compete in Los Angeles to be crowned a “Mr.” at the state level. If he wins that he could move onto the International Gay Rodeo Association pageant.

Rodeo royalty from a Sacramento chapter, which broke off from the California association because of gay rodeo politics, explained one of the sash customs. “If I take off my sash and put it down and he grabs it,” Mark Scammel explained, pointing to a nearby pageant winner, “then I have to hold a formal fundraiser for his charity.” Scammel made sure he had a friend holding his sash as he was changing into his western wear.

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