By Steve Barnes
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (Reuters) - On a clear Arkansas spring afternoon after a day of horse riding, Wade Earp sighed and said, "I wish we didn't have to have a gay rodeo. I wish we could just rodeo."
Earp was a contestant at the International Gay Rodeo event held last month in Arkansas, a Bible Belt state on the front lines of the fight over gay rights and one of the 13 U.S. states where same-sex marriage is not recognized.
"Everybody deserves equal treatment. Everybody deserves equal rights," said Earp, 45, a native of Benton, Arkansas, where he was raised in a fundamentalist Christian denomination, and a competitor in barrel racing, calf roping and steer riding.
The sixteenth Diamond State Rodeo held in Little Rock drew 75 contestants, far outnumbering spectators, from a dozen states and Canada, all hoping to qualify for the International Gay Rodeo 2016 finals in Las Vegas.
"For years, no one would allow us to advertise it," said Sandy Bidwell, president of the Diamond State event, for fear protesters would create a disturbance.
"My attitude is, let them. It's free advertising."
This year, they put up a sign directing traffic to the event, and no protesters came.
For two days, gays and lesbians and at least one transgender man competed in barrel racing and bull riding on the soft soil of a fairgrounds arena at the rodeo that looked like just about every small-scale rodeo held across the country.
The arena's railings were festooned with the banners of corporate sponsors advertising products such as Bud Light beer, Jack Daniels whiskey, and Gun Oil personal lubricant.
TUSSLE OVER MARRIAGE
With same-sex marriage now legal in 37 states and Washington D.C., the focus has shifted to states such as Arkansas and the battle between social conservatives and those seeking expanded rights for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.
Change might be right around the corner in Little Rock, the state capital, where in May 2014 a state judge declared unconstitutional Arkansas's ban on same-sex marriage.
But one year later, the Arkansas Supreme Court has yet to decide the state's appeal, prompting the chief justice and an associate justice to angrily accuse their colleagues of manufacturing a delay.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule in June whether to strike down bans on gay marriage nationwide.
The Arkansas legislature this year approved a religious freedom bill that critics said would allow for residents to deny service to the LGBT community citing their religious beliefs.
Pressure from Arkansas-based retail giant Walmart Inc and other corporations along with rallies by gay rights activists helped spur the legislature to tone down the proposed law.
BAN 'ALMOST INSULTING'
In the state capital and some other pockets, support for the LGBT community has been strong.
Only days before the rodeo began, the Little Rock Board of Directors approved an ordinance barring discrimination against gays in municipal hiring and among vendors doing business with the city.
In Fayetteville, home to the state's largest university, a human rights policy friendly to gays was approved by aldermen but reversed in a referendum spearheaded by religious conservatives.
Back at the rodeo, Earp and partner Jonathan Suder, 25, dressed in typical western garb, insist they are not asking for "anything special."
"We just want what's right," said Earp, which for both men means marriage, a legal covenant denied them in Arkansas and Texas.
The contentious Arkansas debate over same-sex unions "has drawn our community in Arkansas closer than ever," organizer Bidwell said.
Bidwell, 68, and Lisa Smith, 59, sidestepped the Arkansas barrier by traveling from their home in Little Rock to wed in Bidwell's native New York, where same-sex marriage has been legal since 2011.
Yet to Ashley Vickers, an event volunteer and mental health technician from Little Rock, having to leave the state to marry her partner, Sara Strickland, "is almost insulting."
"I pay taxes here. I feel bad that I have to even consider going elsewhere to get married," said the 29-year-old Vickers.
(This story has been refiled to fix typographical errors in the eighth and final paragraphs)
(Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Mary Milliken)