From The High Country News (Eric Siegel) [January 14, 2021, be sure to click through for the photos]:
A year ago, transgender rancher Penny Logue found the dome. Fed up with a hostile landlord in the city and fearful for their safety amid record-high deaths in the transgender community nationwide, Logue and her business partner, Bonnie Nelson, sought refuge in the rural, open rangelands.
The geodesic dome perched on sprawling acreage in the remote Wet Mountain Valley on the eastern flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountain Range, near the rural ranching hamlet of Westcliffe, Colorado. They were intrigued. “Domes are funky and cool and a bit against the status quo — and they help the planet,” Logue told me. So they bought it.
“They are weird but useful,” she said, “which is the essence of queer.”
If the dome caught their attention, the dramatic Wet Mountain Valley convinced them to stay. “We fell in love,” said Logue. “You emerge out of the mountains into the valley and the Sangre de Cristo range just breaks in front of you.” She and Nelson were unexpectedly taken with Westcliffe too — its quaint storefronts and theater, the wide sidewalks, signs for “Shakespeare in the Park.”
They bought the dome, and by March, with the pandemic raging and a divisive presidential election roiling, relocated to the valley and created the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, a community of gun-loving, transgender, anti-fascist alpaca ranchers. While they already knew the financial, physical, and emotional challenges of operating a successful ranch, they had no idea that the Wet Mountain Valley had become a cauldron of right-wing conservatism — home to militias, vigilantes, Three Percenters — anathema to the ranch’s gender-inclusive, anti-racist, ecological politics.
But rather than retreat, the unique LGBTQ+ community, around a dozen strong, asserted its right to exist. They armed up and began speaking out, quickly developing a local reputation that galvanized other local rural progressives. In the process, they’ve showed how queer communities can flourish. “We belong here,” Logue told me this past November. “Queers are reclaiming country spaces.”
CUSTER COUNTY, COLORADO, where the newly formed Tenacious Unicorn Ranch is located, is named after George Armstrong Custer. It was founded in March 1877 — nine months after Custer’s defeat at The Battle of Little Bighorn — and its overwhelmingly white, rural and conservative population hovers at around 5,000. While Colorado as a whole has shifted left in recent years, Custer County has tacked right: In every presidential election since 2008, when John McCain carried the county by 63%, the percentage of Republican votes has steadily increased; Trump won with nearly 70% in 2020.
But the county defies easy categorization. Locals describe Westcliffe, the county seat, as politically “purple.” The town is a mecca of sorts, a gateway to thousands of acres of protected wilderness, and its pristine dark skies attract photographers and stargazers from around the world. (It is a certified International Dark Sky Community, one of only a handful worldwide.) A number of countercultural communities have found a foothold there over the years—from Mission: Wolf, an off-the-grid wolf sanctuary founded in the 1980s, to the Mountain Publishing Company, the conservative media organization that publishes the weekly Sangre de Cristo Sentinel (“The Voice of Conservative Colorado!”). The Sentinel’s articles and columns — one called “Patriot Alert!” — editorialize on gun culture, patriotism and the history of “the Old West.”
When I visited the ranch around Thanksgiving, the late-afternoon light was reverberant, volleying off the Wet Mountains and Sangre de Cristos, casting a luminous glow across the landscape. J, a Texan who moved to the ranch in June — after losing her job and housing in the pandemic — waved to me from a long stairwell outside the dome’s entrance. Dressed in all-black denim, she was masked and distanced in a black cowboy hat and stylish black boots, armed with her favorite firearm, a Ruger-57. Ten enthusiastic dogs — five Great Pyrenees and Australian shepherd puppies, all named after Star Trek characters (Worf, Seven of Nine, Geordi, Lore and Data) — howled, tails wagging like windshield wipers. Nearly a hundred hissing alpaca trundled across the pasture.
The ranch exists at a philosophical intersection that is immediately evident inside the dome, where a wall displays prized firearms — Bonnie’s sniper, a Springfield AR-15, two 12-gauge shotguns and a 22-rifle — and flags for The Iron Front, the anti-Nazi symbol used by 1930s paramilitary groups, which now symbolizes anti-fascism and intersectional Pride. Pride flags with colorful stripes — pink, rose, yellow, green, pewter, black, white — bedeck the wall, celebrating asexuality, agender identity, lesbianism and nonbinary gender identities.
Since Logue founded the ranch in 2018, its frontier libertarian ethos has attracted social justice activists and gun-rights advocates, all seeking sanctuary. “We’re a haven. We offer work, we offer shelter, we offer peace,” says Logue, gesturing toward the expansive open space surrounding us. “There are a lot of people who visit for upwards of a week and just enjoy their time away from society,” Nelson added.
“And cry,” Logue said. “When that ranch gate shuts behind you, the cis world stays out there.”
On that November afternoon at the barn, Justine — a 21-year-old who moved to the ranch in July — filled water basins for the alpaca and sheep and fed the ducks and chickens. “I started the watering because it was needed, but then I realized I was doing it because it got me out of bed,” she said. “As long as the alpaca are healthy and fed, we can keep growing and help more people.”
Logue and her cohort seek to challenge the patriotic myths — about Manifest Destiny, liberty and freedom — that their Wet Mountain Valley neighbors double-down on in The Sentinel. “The American frontier or ‘the American West’ wasn’t conquered with rugged individualism,” she said. “It was conquered by communities sticking together. … Nobody did that by themselves.” Their social mission — akin to that of mutual-aid networks and similar to anti-fascist groups like The Redneck Revolt as well as leftist pro-gun groups like the John Brown Gun Club or the Socialist Rifle Association — stems from their political commitments. “It isn’t through harsh words and violence that you defeat fascism,” Logue told me. “It’s through building community, but only if you can stay alive long enough to do it. That means you have to be armed — because fascists are armed, always.”
This is something they’ve learned firsthand. “There are militias in the Wet Mountain Valley,” Logue said. “They’ve showed up armed and threatening.” That spurred the ranchers to arm up. “Moving here demanded gun ownership,” she continued. The ranchers watched from their front porch with a high-powered scope and sniper rifle — the Springfield AR-15 on the living room wall — staking out visitors loitering at the end of their driveway. The visits ceased. It’s rumored locally that militias unofficially “patrol” their surroundings to establish dominance. “In order to be treated as a human, you have to show you can defend yourself more than they can hurt you,” Logue said. “Then you can reach equality.”
But achieving that has been elusive. This past summer, with COVID-19 cases rising, residents disagreed about local officials’ handling of the pandemic. The town’s political conflicts erupted on July Fourth, when armed demonstrators — led by The Custer Citizens for Liberty, a right-wing patriot group that The Sentinel frequently endorsed — paraded through downtown Westcliffe, protesting the Custer County Board of Health’s decision to cancel the annual Independence Day Parade. The ranchers had planned to avoid the protest downtown but got caught in the crowds during morning errands. “We saw them flying the Three Percenter flags front and center and everybody was armed. It was a fascist parade,” Logue told me. “So, we came back and started antifa accounts on Instagram. We called them out on being Nazis by tweeting about them, then on Facebook.”
What happened next surprised them. “There was a real upsurge from the leftist community in the Valley,” said Logue. The outcry created an unexpected opening, as they unknowingly tapped into long-simmering sentiments. Meanwhile, they found another niche: Many residents began employing them in local handiwork and physical labor. The ranchers also provide recycling services at the county landfill. That has exponentially increased their visibility: “It’s really hard for people to paint you as ‘weird’ or whatever, if you’re just helping people,” Logue said.
If the political headwinds they faced seem daunting, they’ve also made them adapt. “We’re queer. We get second-guessed all the time,” Logue said. “We’re always having to innovate and think ahead.” When they couldn’t get certain Department of Agriculture livestock loans, for example — alpacas are technically classified as pets — they acquired a few sheep. “There’s something inherently queer about how many alpaca we have. People don’t know what to do with us,” said Kathryn, one of Logue’s partners, who goes by her first name only. “Sure, we’ll bring out some sheep, I guess that makes us ‘normal’ or whatever, but that’s the closest we’ll get to assimilation.”
This underscores a larger point: Exceeding established categories, and reinventing something better in their wake, is a hallmark of “Camp culture” — what critic Susan Sontag famously described in her 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” as the “love of the exaggerated, the ‘off’ … the spirit of extravagance.” The perceived surplus or frivolity is the point. Hence the large number of alpaca (nearly 200, as of January): It’s a sensibility, a vision — a distinctly ecological one. “We deliberately chose alpaca because their poop is particularly good for establishing deep soil,” Logue said. “We do natural farming and ranching, so we don’t rob the land of its inherent goodness. We make it better.” The Tenacious Unicorns and their brand of Camp culture are leading the way, seeding a blueprint, reinventing what rural America can be.
“What we lose by thinking of rural America as a white stronghold. …” Logue drifted off. “You know, there’s plenty of space in those communities for queer voices.”
Eric Siegel is an editorial intern for High Country News. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.