Schoonmaker billed Stonewall Park as a resort community, a haven where gays could live and thrive 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 West Virginia mining town, he knew he was gay from age 9. 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 anticipate a happy future for themselves,” according to a story in the Los Angeles Times.
In 1974, Schoonmaker met Parkinson, his partner, in San Francisco, where the two ran a few business ventures before settling in Reno. There, they both worked at casinos but were relegated to the restaurants — at that time, gays were forbidden to handle cards, dice and money for gambling games.
Parkinson was black, and as Schoonmaker soon saw, America was not safe especially for African American gays at the time, they faced racial taunts in Reno. He was driven to build a gay homeland not just for the greater good, but also to give Parkinson, whom some described as cognitively challenged, a safe and peaceful place to live after Schoonmaker was gone, said Rob Schlegel, a reporter who covered the Stonewall Park story for Reno’s gay Bohemian Bugle newspaper, and the local mainstream paper, 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 probably involved with the Los Angeles Gay Liberation Front, which in 1970 developed plans to establish a gay community in northern California’s tiny Alpine County 10 miles south of Lake Tahoe, McBride wrote.
The proposal shocked California’s government and faced major opposition from religious leaders and residents. After a year, the plan fell apart, and eventually it came to be seen as sort of a joke.
But Schoonmaker held on to the idea.
In 1985, he tried to set up an earlier version of Stonewall Park in Silver Springs, Nev., only for the county planning commission to vote it down in 1986.
Schoonmaker took the failure hard. And in June of that year, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Bowers v. Hardwick, ruling that states had the right to regulate or outlaw same-sex behavior.
The decision was ultimately overturned in 2003. But at the time, the ruling and Nevada’s anti-sodomy law made Schoonmaker even more determined to set up his homeland, according to McBride.
“Fred was driven. Fred was a romantic,” McBride said in a phone interview about Stonewall Park’s mastermind. “Fred was not realistic, I think. But he could persuade you that his ideas were going to work.”
By the fall of 1986, Schoonmaker recast his sights on the dusty ghost town of Rhyolite in Nye County.
Situated two hours outside of 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 homes, and decaying buildings on a patch of desert, Schlegel said in a phone interview
The only cultural note to the 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 “wraithlike shapes, ghost images” marching toward a road, as The Washington Post described it in a December 1986 story on Stonewall Park. Szukalski had wanted to donate the piece to Death Valley, but “the Park Service demurred and the icons wound up here beneath the rotting timbers of an old mine hole,” the article said.
Schoonmaker knew he would need more than a modern sculpture to attract fellow gays to his town. But he reasoned that he’d have to build the gay community in an area where no one else would want to live, where locals would appreciate the development, and gays could be left alone, according to Schlegel.
Schoonmaker struck a deal with Rhyolite landowners to purchase what he hoped would be a few city blocks of land. In October of 1986, Schoonmaker announced the deal and the forthcoming gay mecca, even though one of the partners in the UPI article said that “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-fearing 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 very clear that gay people weren’t welcome, according to Schlegel.
“We’re not San Francisco. . . This is redneck country. When they get to the Nye County line, they cease being gays. They turn into queers,” Revert said to Schlegel for a Death Valley Gateway Gazette story.
To show they were serious about setting down roots in Rhyolite, Schoonmaker and Parkinson had moved to the town and were living in an abandoned red caboose near the town center. After the announcement, “bottles, rocks and firecrackers crashed through their windows,” said the L.A. Times. Residents painted highway signs black and spray painted anti-gay graffiti on the town’s abandoned buildings.
But it wasn’t just Schoonmaker and Parkinson’s sexual orientation that locals protested against, Schlegel said. The harassment “was more about racism than anti-gay,” he said. “Here you had a white man and a black man together. And not only were they gay, but they were flouting the rules by being open about their love as a black man and a white man together.”
Everyone in Beatty knew Schlegel was gay, he said. But as a white man, he never experienced the harassment or hatred that Schoonmaker and Parkinson did. “I don’t think it would have been as bad if it were two white men,” he said.
Even with the constant barrage, Schoonmaker and Parkinson stuck it out in Rhyolite until December. But the truth was, he hadn’t raised enough money for the venture. By Christmas time, the land deal fell apart, and he and Parkinson were hounded out of their caboose and back to Reno. Schoonmaker told the LA Times that it was a relief to leave the town and the constant harassment, including being threatened with guns several times.
In 1987, Schoonmaker tried one more time to create his gay utopia in an area near Nevada’s Thunder Mountain Park. But that project failed, too. By this time, Schoonmaker tested positive for AIDS, and McBride thinks that the death of his dream hastened his own death.
On May 27, 1987, Schoonmaker died of an AIDS-related heart attack, McBride writes. “Alfred, also infected, and carrying his partner’s ashes, returned to the Bay Area, where he’d first met Fred.”
It isn’t clear what happened to Parkinson after that, McBride said.
But the couple’s dream hasn’t fully died. The town of Rhyolite now has two sculptures. In the fall of 2019, artist Emily Budd rediscovered Schoonmaker’s vision and created a piece called, “Memorial for Queer Rhyolite, a temporary monument to dreams in the dust.”
“I was thinking about what home means to a queer person in a hetero-normative world, as I was looking for a home, too at the time,” the gay Las Vegas-based sculptor said in a phone interview.
After reading about Schoonmaker’s vision, she decided to produce an artwork that pays tribute to his courage to re-imagine the world, she said.
Budd said she decided not to use “the same monument tools and materials from a broken 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 did.”
The monument has withstood so much “crazy weather” since its installation eight months ago, she says, it’s surprising it’s still standing. From harsh winds to monsoons, “the fact that it’s still there and being resistant in that way is really inspiring.”
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