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LGBTQ History in Grant County, New Mexico

Many indigenous nations across the globe express gender and sexuality in ways that differ markedly from their Western counterparts. There were no legal or social punishments in Native American culture for differing modes of gender identity, nor for engaging in same-sex activity. For centuries, dozens of indigenous tribes have called New Mexico home, and we rank among the top three states nationwide for Native American population, with roughly one in every 10 residents identifying as indigenous.

All New Mexico-based tribes had their own words to describe their gender-diverse community members; the Mescalero Apache, for example, called them ńdéisdzan. Native Americans believed gender and sexual orientation happened along a continuum, that individuals could display both male and female characteristics, and that they were vital members of the community. They often served in ceremonial roles and as spiritual advisers and healers. Nowadays, the term “two-spirit” is commonly used to describe traditional Native American gender identities.

As a result of restrictive beliefs imposed upon them by Spanish colonizers appearing in New Mexico in 1540, Native Americans’ traditional cultural acceptance of two-spirited people gradually disappeared. Native American societies changed, and over time, two-spirited individuals became objects of ridicule.
1850 saw the creation of the New Mexico territory. In 1851, the territorial legislature passed measures adopting the common law in criminal cases. Over the next century, one same-sex sexual practice after another became capital offenses, punishable by hefty fines and prison sentences, and the colonialist paradigm continued.

In 1870, silver was discovered in Southwest New Mexico’s Grant County on Captain John Bullard’s farm near the old Spanish settlement of San Vicente de la Cienega, and the boom town of Silver City was born not long after. Legend has it that in the mid-1870s, Billy the Kid himself stole a gown from a women’s clothing store and paraded in full drag down Silver City’s Bullard Street, in clear violation of local ordinances forbidding theft and cross-dressing. From that point on, this local legend of the wild west embarked on a life of crime, but one that began in a dress.

Just over a century later, in 1996, gay Silver City native and local impresario Ward Rudick hosted a costume party in nearby Pinos Altos. The plan was to celebrate a successful weekend of LGBTQIA+ activism in Santa Fe. By all accounts, the party was the stuff of legend, and it served as inspiration for other gay-themed pop-up events that gradually appeared in and around Silver City. These parties became the organizing principle of a gay community in town that until then, didn’t really exist.

In the years that followed, gay men and women with means and vision bought and refurbished old, abandoned buildings in the historic downtown of the old mining town, and the $1.98 Show – A No Talent Required Talent Show and Beauty Pageant – was born. Featuring acts such as Siamese Twins named Cher and Cher Alike singing “I Got Me, Babe,” the event’s inspired camp ensured its attendance would double every year. The spirit of Billy the Kid was alive and well.

In 2013, Grant County became the eighth of 33 total New Mexico counties to recognize same sex marriage, a full two years before Obergefell vs Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for marriage equality nationwide.

Despite ongoing tension between liberal and conservative elements of the local population, the gay community in Grant County thrives. In the true spirit of the west, Silver City is known as a gay community without rules – indeed, one in which you can make your own rules. Silver City’s gay community also boasts an unusually balanced male-female representation, and considerable support from its straight allies.

Some wonder if that innate sense of balance isn’t the spirit of our Native American ancestors raising their voices once more to remind us who we are.