When I’ve been researching my “Games of Gay Thrones” articles I’ve come across self-identified sovereigns of micronations, those regions, homes, or occasionally a room, in which a resident has declared independence but is not recognised any national government. I wondered if I should include them in the “Gay Thrones” articles, but decided that are best left for a separate article (in the future).
What these lgbt micronations led to was research into queen nationalism and the various attempts over the years to set up a “gay nation”. The idea of queer nationalism arose in the wake of the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York, which is being commemorated tomorrow.
The term “queer nation” probably derives from a couple of articles written by Allan Bérubé, Jeffrey Escoffier and Alexander Chee that were published in the winter 1971 issue of “Out/Look: the National Lesbian and Gay Quarterly”. While the word “nation” implies some form of independent sovereign state or collective community identity it has also been applied to campaigns and communes that were set up which remained within the established national body in which they were located (organised as self-governing communities within the USA, for example).
The first proper lgbt micronation (if an area of 3,095 square kilometers can be said to be “micro”) that declared full independence in 2005 from its mother nation was the Gay and Lesbian Kingdom of the Coral Sea Islands, and Australian territory on which a small group of activists campaigning for same-sex marriage laid claim to sovereignty. I’ve written a bit more about this micronation here.
Just as few months after the Stonewall Riots an attempt was made to create a self-governing lgbt community, which would probably have been called the Stonewall Nation (there’s no record of that name being used at the time) in the USA. The location chosen was an area of 1,920 square kilometres (bigger than Singapore and Bahrain combined) though it had a resident population of less than 500.
This proposed gay nation was to be set up in Alpine County, California, the least populated county in the state. That’s one reason why this particular location was chosen, which I’ll come to later. But its location was perhaps the biggest obstacle to it becoming viable also. Alpine County is, as its name suggests, a snowy, remote area 3,000 kilometers up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just at the “elbow” of the California/Nevada state border.
So, who decided this should become the world’s first lgbt-governed nation and why? To do that we have to go to a dream that Don Jackson (1932-1998), a journalist and activist, had in the summer of 1969. In this dream someone he knew who had recently died stood with him on a mountain top and showed him an idyllic valley and settlement below. For Don this was a vision of a gay nation and he formulated an idea. Looking around for somewhere to establish this nation he spotted Alpine County.
At that time a new California Supreme Court ruling stated that anyone could register as a voter in any county if they had been resident there for more than 90 days. That would make it easy for a relatively small group of lgbt people to move there, become the majority community and vote themselves into public office and control the legislature, thereby becoming a “gay nation”.
Don presented his idea at the West Coast Gay Liberation Conference in Berkeley, California, on 28th December 1969. There was some positive reaction and Don began working on plans to recruit “pilgrims” to his Alpine County Project, as he called it, and the pilgrims were soon to be called Alpioneers.
To make his project viable Don needed the support of gay rights organisations. The Los Angeles chapter of the Gay Liberation Front (GLF-LA) gave their backing, with Morris Kight and Don Kelhefner as the leaders. They persuaded Jackson to make the project public by informing the mainstream California press with an open appeal for volunteers to join the project.
At a hastily-organised press conference Kilhelfner announced that over 400 people had already volunteered to settle in Alpine County, including doctors, teachers and lawyers. It was revealed a few months later that this was a deliberate “mistruth”.
There was the obvious response from the residents of Alpine County to the project. They had not been consulted. They saw the project as a hostile takeover. The national press hyped up the opposition, and a right-wing Presbyterian minister from New Jersey ranted about the project on his weekly radio programme.
The majority of Alpine County’s 500 residents met in Markleeville, the county’s main town, to discuss the situation. Some suggested merging with the neighbouring county to increase the population and make it harder for the Alpioneers to become the majority. Some said the settlers would soon realise how bad the weather was for most of the year and soon return to the warm, sunny coast from where they had come.
GLF-LA sent three of its members to Markleeville to assess the area (why no-one had bothered to do this at the start is one example of how badly organised the project was). It wasn’t long after this that one of the trio found out that Kight and Kilhefner had no intention of supporting the project through to the end and were treating the whole thing as a big joke. To them it was just a publicity stunt to promote GLF-LA and raise awareness of other issues.
When Don Jackson got to hear of this he felt devastated, betrayed, angry and humiliated. Kilhefner admitted that everything at the press conference was a lie – there were no volunteers, doctors, lawyers or teachers. Gradually, many members of GLF-LA who had believed and supported the Alpine County Project left, also feeling somewhat betrayed. With this revelation the project screeched to a halt. Within a couple of years GLF-LA had been disbanded (though this was a nationwide trend among other GLF groups during this period).
The residents of Alpine County breathed a sign of relief, though a couple of business owners lamented the loss of some expected increase in custom - and profits.
Don Jackson, although somewhat disheartened by the experience, didn’t abandon his dream of a gay nation just yet. He made another attempt to set up a gay commune in the ghost town of Bankhead Springs near San Diego, but that too, along with several other attempts by other groups to create a gay nation, came to nothing. But those are different stories for another day.