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Looking Back : Dream of a Gay City Dies

December 31, 1987|ANN JAPENGA

The abandoned goat ranch near Mill City, Nev., was wind-whipped and frigid last February when a reporter visited. Despite the inhospitable surroundings, former Reno casino-worker Fred Schoonmaker had a vision of the nation's first gay and lesbian city rising on the site. There would be gay-owned banks, shops, libraries and casinos, with the first settlers arriving in the spring of '87, he said.

But according to the woman who sold Schoonmaker the 40-acre plot, the ranch is just as cold and barren this winter.

Nine weeks after being diagnosed with AIDS last March, Schoonmaker died in a Reno hospital. He was 44.

"That was the end," said M. A. Caldwell, referring to Schoonmaker's dream. "We tried to get some interest, but nobody wanted to make the payments on the land."

Caldwell said she was forced to foreclose on the property--which she had sold to Schoonmaker for $4,000 down with payments of $100 a month--and has since leased out the mineral rights.

Reception in Rhyolite

It was a forlorn end to a plan that seemed to be cursed from the start. Schoonmaker originally moved to Rhyolite, an old Nevada ghost town, with the notion of building a sanctuary there for rural gays who, he felt, were often the target of small-town prejudice. The locals proved Schoonmaker at least partially correct in his opinion of rural attitudes toward gays when they pelted his house with bottles, rocks and firecrackers and bullied him with guns and threats.

When the plan to purchase Rhyolite failed for lack of cash, Schoonmaker moved on to the Mill City location, where a war with the local ranchers and miners immediately ensued. Some 200 Pershing Co. residents signed a petition to ban the gay city; the Pershing Co. district attorney predicted that Schoonmaker's presence would eventually lead to violence in the sparsely populated region.

To Schoonmaker, it seemed that most of Nevada was conspiring to oust him.

'He Meant Well'

But perhaps as damaging as any outside interference was the fact that Schoonmaker had shortcomings as a visionary.

"Fred had some great ideas, but he didn't have the charisma it takes to get a project like that going," said Rob Schlegel, publisher and editor of the Bohemian Bugle, a Las Vegas-based gay newspaper. "He was a good guy and he meant well."

In the end, despite long days spent composing letters to affluent gays and others who he thought might help him, Schoonmaker never had the support--financial or otherwise--that he needed for his project to succeed.

"Of course, he died disappointed," Schlegel said.

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