Stonewall Park: Rhyolite, Nevada’s gay community destroyed by homophobia and racism

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Schoonmaker presented Stonewall Park as a resort community, a refuge where homosexuals could live and prosper away from AIDS-inspired and legally sanctioned homophobia.

Schoonmaker, then 44, had faced homophobia long before moving to Nevada, which still had an anti-sodomy law, in the 1980s. Growing up in a small mining town in West Virginia, he knew he was gay when he was 9 years old. In high school, his two best friends, 16-year-old boys who were also gay, died by suicide, in part “because they knew what society thought of gay people and didn’t foresee a happy future for themselves.” , according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

In 1974 Schoonmaker met Parkinson, his partner, in San Francisco, where the two ran a few businesses before moving to Reno. There, they both worked in casinos but were relegated to restaurants — at that time, homosexuals were prohibited from handling cards, dice and money for gambling.

Parkinson was black, and as Schoonmaker soon saw, America was unsafe, especially for gay African Americans at the time, they faced racial taunts in Reno. He was driven to build a gay homeland not only for the greater good, but also to give Parkinson’s, who some have described as a cognitive disability, a safe and peaceful place to live after Schoonmaker’s departure, Rob Schlegel says , a journalist who covered the Stonewall. Article about the park for Reno’s gay Bohemian Bugle newspaper and local mainstream newspaper, the Death Valley Gateway Gazette.

The idea of ​​a separate gay community was not new to the charismatic Schoonmaker, according to Dennis McBride, who wrote about Stonewall Park in his book, “Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State.” He was likely involved with the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front, which in 1970 drew up plans to establish a gay community in the small alpine county in northern California, 10 miles south of Lake Tahoe, McBride wrote.

The proposal shocked the California government and faced major opposition from religious leaders and residents. After a year, the plan fell apart and came to be seen as some kind of joke.

But Schoonmaker held on to the idea.

In 1985 he tried to set up an earlier version of Stonewall Park in Silver Springs, Nevada, only to have the county planning commission reject it in 1986.

Schoonmaker took the failure hard. And in June of that year, the United States Supreme Court released its decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, ruling that states had the right to regulate or prohibit homosexual behavior.

The ruling was eventually overturned in 2003. But at the time, the ruling and Nevada’s anti-sodomy law made Schoonmaker even more determined to establish his homeland, according to McBride.

“Fred was driven. Fred was a romantic,” McBride said in a Stonewall Park mastermind phone interview. “Fred was unrealistic, I think. But he might persuade you that his ideas would work.

In the fall of 1986, Schoonmaker set his sights on the dusty ghost town of Rhyolite in County Nye.

Located two hours from Las Vegas on the edge of Death Valley National Park, Rhyolite was once a booming mining town in the early 20th century. But in 1986, Rhyolite consisted of a bar, a few houses and decaying buildings on a patch of desert, Schlegel said in a phone interview.

The only cultural note in town was a sculpture by a Belgian artist, Albert Szukalski, who lived in Rhyolite for a few years. Called “The Last Supper,” the piece was installed in 1984 and consisted of 13 “ghostly shapes, ghost images” walking toward a road, as the Washington Post described in a December 1986 article on Stonewall Park. Szukalski had wanted to donate the piece to Death Valley, but “the park service refused and the icons ended up here under the rotting woods of an old borehole,” the article said.

Schoonmaker knew he would need more than modern sculpture to attract other gay people to his town. But he felt he should build the gay community in an area where no one else would want to live, where locals would appreciate development and where gays could be left alone, according to Schlegel.

Schoonmaker made a deal with landowners in Rhyolite to buy what he hoped would be a few city blocks. In October 1986, Schoonmaker announced the deal and the future gay Mecca, although one of the UPI article partners said “negotiations were continuing and no money had changed hands “.

Schoonmaker assumed the announcement would attract some preliminary settlers for his vision. But instead, the homophobia he hoped to escape confronted him, as gay-fearful locals protested and news outlets descended.

Nye County Commissioner Bob Revert, who owned a general store and gas station in the nearby town of Beatty, made it clear that gay people were not welcome, Schlegel said.

“We are not San Francisco. . . This is the country of rednecks. When they get to the Nye County line, they stop being gay. They turn into fags,” Revert told Schlegel for a Death Valley Gateway Gazette article.

To show that they really wanted to put down roots in Rhyolite, Schoonmaker and Parkinson had moved to the city and were living in an abandoned red caboose near downtown. After the announcement, “bottles, rocks and firecrackers crashed through their windows,” the LA Times said. Residents painted road signs black and spray-painted homophobic graffiti on abandoned buildings in the city.

But it wasn’t just Schoonmaker and Parkinson’s sexual orientation that locals protested, Schlegel said. The harassment “was more related to racism than homosexuality,” he said. “Here you had a white man and a black man together. And not only were they gay, but they flouted the rules by openly expressing their love as a black and white man together.

Everyone at Beatty knew Schlegel was gay, he said. But as a white man, he never experienced harassment or hatred from Schoonmaker and Parkinson. “I don’t think it would have been that bad if it was two white men,” he said.

Even with the constant barrage, Schoonmaker and Parkinson held on at Rhyolite until December. But the truth was that he hadn’t raised enough money for the company. By Christmas, the land deal fell apart and he and Parkinson were kicked out of their caboose and sent back to Reno. Schoonmaker told the LA Times it was a relief to be leaving town and the constant harassment, including being repeatedly threatened with guns.

In 1987, Schoonmaker once again attempted to create his gay utopia in an area near Nevada’s Thunder Mountain Park. But this project also failed. At that time, Schoonmaker tested positive for AIDS, and McBride believes his dream death precipitated his own death.

On May 27, 1987, Schoonmaker died of an AIDS-related heart attack, writes McBride. “Alfred, also infected, and carrying his partner’s ashes, returned to the Bay Area, where he had first met Fred.”

It’s unclear what happened to Parkinson after that, McBride said.

“I was thinking about what a home means to a queer person in a hetero-normative world, because I was also looking for a home back then,” the Las Vegas-based gay sculptor said in an interview. telephone.

After reading Schoonmaker’s vision, she decided to produce an artwork that honors her courage to re-imagine the world, she said.

Budd said she decided not to use “the same monument tools and materials from a faulty system.” Instead, the sculpture is made of materials left over from nearby mines, designed to crumble in the weather, “just like ghost towns did when they were abandoned,” she said. . “Just like Schoonmaker’s dream.”

The monument has withstood so many “crazy temperatures” since it was installed eight months ago, she says, it’s surprising it’s still standing. From high winds to monsoons, “the fact that it’s still here and holding up in this way is really inspiring.”

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