Editors' Note: Guest blogger Ronald L. Donaghe, winner of the Jim Duggins "Outstanding Mid-Career Novelist" Award for 2008, has been actively writing fiction since 1986. His first novel, Common Sons, was first published by a small, independent press out of Austin, Texas, in 1989. It has since been published in four editions. He lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico, with his mate of many years, in a 100 year-old adobe. He is a freelance editor and will retire from his university-based technical writing job in December 2008.
In 1999, a New York City editor for one of the big publishing houses declined consideration of my first novel by saying, "Southwestern New Mexico is an unlikely setting for a gay story." And it follows that southwestern New Mexico is also an unlikely setting for a LGBT history prior to Stonewall. And yet...
The distinction I need to make is that a history of gay people before Stonewall in the middle of nowhere would have been obscure, hidden, secretive, little known, and recognition of fellow gays would have been tentative.
So, when I chose to write fiction and to set my novels smack dab in the middle of nowhere, I tried to reflect that obscurity and relief when two gay people actually discovered each other. It would have been much simpler in the urban areas with gay bars and meeting places, even before Stonewall, for LGBT people to enter the "gay world."
In the extreme southwestern part of New Mexico, in what is called the boot heel, the Rocky Mountains snake their way southward between high desert valleys, and the Continental Divide separates the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. On the west lies the Sonoran desert of Arizona and southern California; on the east lies the Chihuahuan desert of southwestern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua, Mexico. I had been drawn to set a novel there, and on a day trip to a place called Hachita, I visited with the old timers in a café and asked if there were any farms in the area. The boot heel is mainly made up of ranches and BLM land, protected and very sparsely populated. One man in the café told me that there was exactly one farm in the county, twenty miles south of Hachita, right across the highway from the Big Hatchet Mountain.
So I set out and found the long-abandoned farm, walked the row beds that still existed from the last time it had been farmed, decades before--nothing disintegrates in the desert, really, even bones continue to exist, laying right on top of the ground, bleaching in the relentless desert sun. Nothing rusts. And even the spirit of a place remains long after it has been abandoned.
As I walked the land of that farm, I began to feel something deep inside, to get images in my head, and I saw the last family that might have lived there...a drop-dead gorgeous boy, big for his age, working the land, pausing to gaze off into the distance, daydreaming, wondering, feeling something unnamable within...aching to know what to call how he felt about his uncle, or that really pretty boy there in high school in Animas, where everyone from the ranches and the ghost towns had to go when they closed the high school in Hachita and turned it into a Catholic church.
I tapped into something that day, felt it still lingering in the quiet desert and, very faintly, I could actually hear those people on that farm as they went through their daily routines.
So I built my story from those impressions, as if it had really happened. And then one night, I got a call from a banker in Dallas who said that his friends kept telling him he needed to read this book. He said they thought I was talking about him. He had grown up in the boot heel, was gay, and lived there just about the same time as the setting of my story. But he surprised me. He said that he was not the main character in the story. But there had been a drop-dead gorgeous kid who lived on the farm I described, at precisely the same time. He also proceeded to tell me of the gay male couple who ran a ranch in the area for many years, and numerous other gay men and women, whom everyone knew about and, apparently, thought nothing of it.
We're talking about one of the most remote, unpopulated pair of counties in a very unpopulated state, back in a time before Stonewall, before the internet, and for many in that area, probably without television and even phone service. And yet, there were gay people there. Is it a significant history like Stonewall? Like the "gay-liberation" movements of the 1970s? Even like the organized work of "homosexuals" before Stonewall?
No. But it is a history. Time and again, I have had older men tell me that my stories, set in the middle of nowhere, in times before Stonewall, actually reflect their own real life stories, and many of them go back to the 1940s when they were young. So a history before Stonewall? Yes, back to the days when the Southwest was playing cowboys and Indians, back before that when much of the Southwest was being settled by Spaniards, up from Mexico, establishing missions and way stations on their way to Santa Fe, which is one of the oldest, continuous seats of government in the United States.
So to bring such probable history to light, all one needs to do is walk the land, pay attention to that something deep inside, allow the images of those gay folk to rise to the surface of the imagination. I have no doubt that LGBT people lived parallel lives with heterosexual men and women long before Stonewall, in the isolated places like the boot heel.
But the most exciting part is that other writers are setting their novels in early American historical times, tapping into the same probable history. I have no doubt that the westward movement brought gay men and lesbians to the frontier, seeking greater freedom for themselves, that saloons and houses of ill repute had their share of same sex liaisons, that LGBT people formed relationships that lasted like those I write about in my novels. But we do have to admit that these are only probable histories.