College prep turned cowboy

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Justin James never thought he’d be the poster boy for Nashville’s Smoky Mountain Rodeo Association.

But, when he slips into his Wranglers, pulls on his Laredo boots and puts his black cowboy hat on top of his 5’10” frame, he looks like he just walked in from the range.

As the title holder of “Mr. SMRA 2004” and the organization’s newly elected president, James says his new role serves as the perfect spring board for him to express his passion for the rodeo, and local charities.

James, 27, moved to Nashville in 2003. Despite growing up on a farm in Aberdeen, SD, he had no interest in cowboy life or rodeos, until he moved to Nashville.

“I’ve always lived on farms but never really was into it,” he said. “I was a big college prep back home. The second I moved down here, this coin flipped and a whole new side started showing.”

Though he has been involved in rodeos since 2003, it wasn’t until this past month that he competed in his first rodeo, which was held in Phoenix on Jan. 15 and 16. He competed in goat dressing.

“I got a fourth place ribbon in goat dressing on Sunday,” he said. “And an 11th on Saturday. I didn’t get to compete in chute dogging or steer riding.”

Before the competition, James said his involvement had been as “rodeo royalty.”

“That is how they classify my Mr. SMRA 2004 title,” he said with a smile. “I am Rodeo Royalty!”

He’s joined by Miss SMRA 2004 Yvette DuPree, and Jason Haywood, Mr. SMRA 2004 First Runner Up.

To win the title of Mr. SMRA 2004, he competed in four categories – western wear, personal interview, entertainment and public presentation.

James credits his involvement with SMRA to Tom Sheridan.

“I watched Tom Sheridan, former SMRA Alternate Trustee, at the first couple of rodeos,” he explained. “The Friday night before the rodeo’s start, there is registration and that is where everyone is at. I kind of walked with him when he would go and sign up for the different events during registration at the rodeos. It’s a little intimidating but the guys working the tables are very, very helpful.”

You don’t have to be a cowboy or rodeo expert to join SMRA. Everyone is welcome – a message the new president wants the Middle Tennessee GLBT community to know.

“Membership is open to absolutely anyone,” he said. “You don’t have to be a cowboy to be a part of the rodeo association. You don’t have to be at every event we have or hold a chair in one of our committees. Just being a member and helping financially is appreciated and needed. Of course, we would love to see everyone at all our events but we know that isn’t possible.”

To become a member, go to www.smra.net and click on the membership link. Individual memberships are $24 per year; joint membership for those residing in the same household is $36 per year and corporate membership $100 per year.

“Plus, at rodeos, everyone is so darn nice,” he said. “You have an opportunity to volunteer at any rodeo you go to and you meet such great people! It’s just an incredible chance to help out and have fun all in on package.”

A 2002 Northern State University graduate, James holds a B.S. in biology with a minor in German. He currently works in pharmaceutical research, and works part-time as a server at Red Restaurant in Tribe.

Coming to terms with being gay wasn’t really an issue for James. He kissed his first guy while a freshman in college, and a whole new world opened up for him.

“I felt a display of fireworks going off over my head as I kissed that guy,” he said. “It was then I knew.”

A few months later he told his mother that he was gay. Then he was in for quite a shock.

“She told me that she had always known,” he said. “And then, she came out to me.”

James said he was speechless for two weeks, and wasn’t sure how to handle the news that his mother was a lesbian.

“We are closest of friends now,” he added. “I love her with all my heart and soul. I guess I always knew she was gay.”