Guest Blogger

Southwestern New Mexico - A Probable History Before Stonewall

Filed By Guest Blogger | October 17, 2008 11:00 AM | comments

Filed in: Gay Icons and History, Politics
Tags: gay history, New Mexico, Ronald Donaghe, Stonewall

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.

RonPhoto1.jpgIn 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.

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I love this story and can't wait to find a copy of Common Sons. I live in Austin, and I hope it's accessible here.

Your piece here reminds me of my gay dad, who grew up in Wyoming in the 1950s but didn't end up dead in a ditch somewhere ala Brokeback Mountain. It also reminds me of Judith Halberstam's In a Queer Time and Place, where she urges queer theorists to re-think their assumptions about the country and the city, the rural and the urban.

I would also be interested in reading love stories loaded with cross cultural conflict. An example would be a Native American "two spirit" one and a Joseph Smith type (Mormon) getting married.

Ha! So, someone finally took in my suggestion of inviting Mr. Donaghe to post. Couldn't have been a better decision. As usual, he never disappoints. His posts expressing his fondness for the settings he likes to write in are just dreamy, and this is coming from a person that usually detests when writers place a noticeable focus on desscribing the surroundings in their books.

I've got to read The Gathering! Keep on the beautiful work, Mr. Donaghe; don't let some snooty metropolitan gays monopolize the "gay experience".

Keep on the beautiful work, Mr. Donaghe; don't let some snooty metropolitan gays monopolize the "gay experience".

Amen, Lucrese.

John R. Selig | October 17, 2008 9:52 PM


How great to see your post on Bilerico, my friend! I hope that after you retire that you write some more books for us to enjoy.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ron's Donaghe's books I recommend that you immediately purchase a copy of anything he has written. He is one of the best writers in our community. I have had the great honor of writing reviews of several of his books.

He is also one heck of a nice guy too!

Ron's so correctly reminds us that lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender folks live not only in West Hollywood, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C. We are everywhere.

I really liked this post, and like Paige cannot wait to read Common Sons. It is very true that the Gold Rush, building of railroads and massive farming brought many men and women to the West. In Peter Boag's book "Same Sex Affairs" and Nayan Shah's article in Social Text, there is replete evidence of affairs between younger white working class boys and transient laboring men, many of them being Greek and Indian immigrant men. Several of these men were arrested on charges of sodomy and public indecency. The infamous Saloon's were places were the poor-working class white boys hsutled and met many of the laboring men.

On my trip to my friend's ranch in remote Wyoming, I had the chance of meeting women loving women, and negotiating their lives with a rural samll town Wyoming, Two-Spirit queens who are out and about within their tribes, a gay man who fell in love with another gay man from the Phillipines and was struggling with immigration authorities to bring his lover here in the US.

Histories of Queerness across time and place are rich and needs to reimagined and reclaimed.

A remarkable post from Mr. Donaghe—a beautiful vignette of creative nonfiction in its own right apart from his historical novel set in New Mexico.

Many old photographs of the Western Frontier or Old San Francisco will yield details that suggest a more fluid approach to same-sex bonding or sexual relations than was publicly permitted in many places back East. I once ran across an 1850s or 1860s photograph of volunteer firefighters in San Francisco that pushed my gaydar off the scale.

Hey, wow,

Thanks to everyone who posted comments about my guest blog. Yep, I'm retiring from my university job in December. I will be taking day trips to more isolated areas of New Mexico and southern Arizona...maybe a cross-cultural/cross ethnic relationship would be a wise idea.

For a little 19th century story of gay immigrants in Canada, read Gerry Burnie's Two Irish Lads. He's working on more stuff, and I found his voice authentic.

I am myself returning to Ireland in a year or two. Maybe something set there would be of interest?

Wow, I got goosebumps as I read this story. I'll also be looking for this book. I finally saw Brokeback Mountain about a month ago. So sad. Your story has a happier ending. Having said that, I can't imagine what it would have been like to be a gay male on a ranch in the 50s.

thank you, Cheryl

Mary Ann Cobos Boyd | March 2, 2010 3:52 AM

I was looking up Hachita history since I grew up there. Came across this page. Thought it was interesting. I love Hachita.. always will be a part of my history and a part of my heart. Anything that mentions it catches my attention.
Feel kind of proud that you would want to use it as a setting for your story. Brings another side of my hometown that I never thought about or realized even existed.

Hi Mary,

I love the bootheel of NM, one of the most ecologically diverse areas in the United States, not only the animal and plant life, not only the geography, but also the people—and tolerance is surprising, or was, to me in my own hometown of Deming back in the late '80s, when my first gay novel came out. My old school chums treated me like a celebrity, rather than being mean about me being gay. It was an eye-opener.

At any rate, I hope you get back to your roots occasionally.