Back when she was 18 and struggling, Jen Vrana, a lesbian, would go to so-called “dignity meetings” where she and other members of the gay community would go to seek comfort, counseling, and from time to time, a hot meal.
Since then, Vrana has put in a quarter century working as a Philadelphia cop, forged the way for Philly's first gay rodeo, and beaten cancer.
“In the gay rodeo circuit, the women do everything the men do," Vrana told Metro.
It was a sad reality that in the 1990s in Philadelphia "dignity meetings" were needed to shelter the often ostrasized members of the LGBT community – but for Vrana, they helped get her where she is today.
Tuesday night, Vrana sat on a panel with three other women for the third annual Women in Business discussion at the Academy of Fine Arts, an event put on by the Independence Business Alliance. The topic was “From Partnerships to Power: Women in Business Today.”
Vrana talked about her 25 years with the Philadelphia Police Department and her service on the police commissioners LGBT liaison committee, as well as her forming a gay officers action league chapter.
Not only did she bring the International Gay Rodeo Association, or IGRA, for short, to Pennsylvania, but Vrana also built up – for two years – in Philadelphia, a local branch, drawing crowds near and far to watch men and women bring some four-legged beasts to their knees.
Originally from South Jersey, Vrana grew up riding horses and moved to Philly when she was 18. Quick-witted and fast on her feet, she labored through a number of different jobs before making it through the police academy by age 20. By age 26, she was in the police department's mounted patrol unit.
In 1992, she founded IGRA in Pennsylvania.
“The first international gay rodeo circuit east of the Mississippi was in 1992 in Washington D.C.,” said Vrana.
“There was a poster up for it up inside Woody’s [bar] and a friend and I saw it and went. I had no idea what to expect. It was the first of its kind. In 1992, it was extremely progressive.”
In 1996, Vrana took some time off work, came back a year later, and was diagnosed with stage four Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“Cancer. That’s what kept me from going back to the horses back then,” she said.
Then, a few weeks before a stem cell transplant, Vrana got back on the horse – literally. In 2003, she won an entire rodeo in Maryland after competing and placing in events like calf-roping, steer-wrestling and barrel races.
Fast forward to 2006, when she founded the Liberty Gay Rodeo Association, which now has hundreds of members of both genders across the country.
Vrana started up the “Liberty Stampede” in the Philadelphia area in 2007 and 2008, and held it at the Devon Horse Show grounds and at the Shriner’s Lu Lu Temple in Plymouth Meeting the second year, but poor weather led to poor attendance, and she and her following couldn’t keep it going.
“It would’ve been irresponsible to try to plan additional ones until the debt was caught up. We owed money. Not much, but enough,” she said.
"But I was the catalyst for it in Philadelphia."
Since then, Vrana has gone back to school to get her master’s degree in business.
With cancer behind her, Vrana said she marries her longtime love, Suzanne, on Oct. 1.
“I know what I do is vastly different from others on the panel," Vrana said. "I’ve always focused on the positive of the future and I’ve never once considered the fact that I’m a woman being an obstacle."