In the mid-1980s, anti-sodomy laws still criminalize gay sex, the HIV epidemic had starting killing off gay men and conservative Christians were railing against the entire queer community as disease-ridden moral degenerates (kinda like they do now). So two men, Fred Schoonmaker and his husband Alfred Parkinson, had a dream of turning part of the Nevadan desert into Stonewall Park, a safe, peaceful and entirely gay town (named after the Stonewall Riots) where gay men could live freely without fear of homophobia.
Schoonmaker had grown up as a gay teen in an industrial West Virginia town. Two of his friends struggled with homophobia and committed suicide at age 16. Meanwhile at age 14, he’d started taking the town bus into Pittsburgh just to visit the nearest gay bar.
“I don’t know where my parents thought I was going,” Schoonmaker told The Washington Post.
In the early 1960s, Schoonmaker moved to Reno, Nevada and met Parkinson, a black gay man who was reportedly less expressive but still very emotional.
The two men pined for a society where they could live without fear. Schoonmaker’s vision for Stonewall Park included space for over 24 million LGBT Americans (by his calculations) which offered “a casino, tennis courts, spas, condominiums and single-family homes.”
As the men shared their vision with other, they gained supporters. Soon, Schoonmaker and his small group started a gay magazine, the Stonewall Voice, to tell others about their idea. By February 1984, Schoonmaker’s supporters started the Stonewall Park Association, and by spring 1986, they began leaving change jars at local gay bars to help finance the idea.
But as Schoonmaker came close to purchasing 116 acres of land in Silver Springs, Nevada, local residents feared that gay men would take over their “small, quiet, rural, clean, healthy community” and turn it into a singles resort. Residents opposed Stonewall Park and Schoonmaker had to sue, causing some of his followers to leave or begin doubting that his dream would ever overcome society’s homophobia.
Undaunted, Schoonmaker set his eyes upon the ghost town of Rhyolite in Nye County, near the edge of Death Valley. The town had already been incorporated as its own city during the Gold Rush and, operating independently outside of state or county law, Schoonmaker and the newly established Rhyolite town board could establish its own laws decriminalizing homosexuality.
The town would cost $2.25 million to purchase. By October 1986, Schoonmaker put down a payment and began living with Parkinson and their four dogs in a red caboose at the edge of town (pictured above), encouraging others to move there too.
But as news of Stonewall Park’s dedication ceremony spread via national media, nearby locals began railing against Schoonmaker’s efforts. A local principal called Schoonmaker’s community “a breeding ground for AIDS;” kids threw “rocks, bullets, and slurs” at his caboose; another spray-painted “Save Our Children from AIDS” on a local billboard; and someone else covered the highway marker for Rhyolite entirely in black paint, making it unreadable.
Some people visited Rhyolite to live there, others just to see it for themselves, Schoonmaker had only raised $6,000 — not nearly enough to keep making payments on it. So, in December 1986, he and Parkinson were forced to move out.
Schoonmaker then put a down payment on a 40-acre abandoned goat ranch in Pershing County with the hopes of founding Stonewall Park there. But people were reluctant to move to its remote northwest location. Slowly, Schoonmaker realized many gay people didn’t want to leave their homophobic cities. Plus, upon announcing his intention to found Stonewall Park there, he faced immediate local threats and backlash.
By March 1987, Schoonmaker had been diagnosed with HIV, and his ambitious dream had shrunk to the hopes of founding a gay summer camp in nearby Thunder Mountain. He died of a heart attack on May 20, 1987 at age 44.
Parkinson left Nevada for San Francisco with Schoonmaker’s ashes and never returned, his partner’s dream smoldering like like an undiscovered gold nugget within Nevada’s vast, dark desert.
What do you think of Schoonmaker’s idea for Stonewall Park and the challenges he faced establishing it?
This story was originally published on August 30, 2018.