Eli Sanders

[Originally published in The Stranger, June 24, 2004]
Conservative Paradise
One Homo's Journey Through Gay-Free Rural America—Land of Fractured Families, Methamphetamine Abuse, Underground KKK Dens, and Really Bad Hair

A preacher on the car radio is telling me to consider the question: "Just how good do you have to be to get to heaven?" Outside, west Texas rolls by, endless fields of green sagebrush dotted with the bent backs of giant oil pumps. I have been counting pumps to pass time while driving, but there are so many it's becoming impossible. Now, thankfully, I have the preacher's question to keep me busy. Soon I am scrolling through all the things I have done that surely fall way below his lowest gradation of good—again, too many to count. Pleased, my mind turns to a more pressing concern: Just how good a performance will I have to give today in order to pass as a straight guy?

I am about 100 miles west of Midland, the staunchly conservative Texas city where President Bush underwent his transformation from hard-drinking playboy oilman to God-fearing evangelical Christian oilman, and I am undergoing a transformation of my own. I am going back into the closet. People have warned me I am traveling to a place where I could get my ass kicked if I appear gay, and so I am preparing a more butch version of myself, a version that, in a pinch, will be able to laugh at a redneck fag joke.

The reason for this journey, my first foray into Texas? President Bush has declared the unions of people such as myself to be a threat to "the most fundamental institution of civilization"—which, according to him, is straight marriage. One man plus one woman, the president says, makes strong children and a stable culture, and this arrangement "cannot be severed from its cultural, religious, and natural roots without weakening the good influence of society."

It's a familiar claim, made often these days by religious conservatives, who variously promise that legalized gay marriage will send America "to hell in a hand-basket" (commentator Pat Buchanan), will "undermine the superstructure of Western civilization" (James Dobson, leader of Focus on the Family), will turn us into a "dying society" (columnist Maggie Gallagher), and will "create a crisis far more severe than any current danger marriage is facing" (Representative Marilyn Musgrave of Colorado). Because these doomsday prophecies have not stopped large numbers of Americans from embracing what über-religious conservatives call "sodomite marriage," some of them have even gone as far as to throw up their hands and call for a mass "Christian Exodus" from the country. Their plan (read it at www.christianexodus.com) is to migrate en masse to South Carolina, use that state's political process to restore a Biblical order, and then slowly take back the country one state at a time.

Behind all of these ideas, from the Exodus folks' talk of taking over South Carolina to Bush's warning, is one rather large assumption. All of these people seem to take for granted that America, at its most ideal, would be free of gay couples, whether married or even just married-acting; that a culture without coupled gays would be, ipso facto, better.

I am off to check this assumption. As it happens, there already are places in America that are totally free of gay couples—some 22 American counties where, according to the 2000 United States Census, there are zero men living with men and zero women living with women. So I am following the straight-edged road of religious conservative logic into a few of these counties, where I presume I will see thriving societies unburdened by the harmful effects of homosexual coupling.

• • •

Loving County, Texas, is shaped like a miniature Montana, with a ragged western border that looks like a finger pointing westward, as if urging visitors to head elsewhere. When the 2000 census counted gay couples for the first time in U.S. history, it found within this county's borders exactly zero cohabitating homos. The total number of people of all other types? Sixty-seven. Which makes Loving County not only a rare American slice of census-certified, gay-couple-free religious conservative heaven, but also the least-populated county in the entire nation.

I drive into Loving County on Texas State Highway 302 (a two-lane thruway that accounts for most of the county's 30 miles of paved road) and the first thing I see is a falling-down stucco-walled ranch house. There are holes in its roof, holes in the walls, and a sign in front that reads: "Caution: Poison Gas." Just beyond this tableau of decrepitude is a brand new mobile drilling platform, a shining monument to the priorities in a county whose 673 square miles of land are valued mainly for the oil and natural gas beneath them.

A bit farther down the highway is the Loving County Arena (a small rodeo corral), and across from this a home with 14 pickup trucks in its front yard. Another tap on the gas pedal and you're in the county seat of Mentone, whose four square blocks make up the only town in all of Loving County. In a nod to the scarcity of helping hands, the flagpole that sits in front of Mentone's tiny courthouse uses a motor to raise and lower the Stars and Stripes each day.

I walk inside this yellow brick courthouse, past the sign on the front door that warns "Microwave Oven in Use," and tell the first person I see that I'm a reporter working on a story about Loving County. The clerk points me toward the county sheriff's office, which is about seven steps away. It's close to noon, and outside the sun is baking the corrugated metal siding that covers several of the town's low-slung homes. Inside the sheriff's office two large men are leaning back in desk chairs, looking at each other, saying nothing. I get their attention, give the pitch I have been rehearsing in my mind: "Hi, I'm a reporter from Seattle and I'm working on a feature about remote American counties...."

It's not the whole truth—more like a heavily edited version of the truth—but this heavy editing is one of the things I'm counting on to keep me from getting my queer ass run out of town. The other thing I'm counting on is my looks. I figure that if ever the stereotype of the effete, lispy gay man is going to work in my favor, it's now. I haven't had a lisp since elementary-school speech therapy and my wrists stay pretty firm when I'm holding a pen and reporter's notepad.

The men in the chairs consider what I've said, look me over for a moment, then tell me that if it's remote I'm after, I've come to the right place.

Billy Hopper, the county's incoming sheriff, is a ruddy-faced man wearing cowboy boots and a large gold badge pinned to his beige uniform. The current sheriff, Richard Putnam, sits across from him, blue Wrangler work shirt tucked into his worn blue jeans, cowboy hat on head. Both are in their 60s and speak with a measured Texas drawl. I begin by attempting to casually probe for whether Loving County has a criminal underbelly.

Things ever get busy around here? I ask.

"It's sporadic," says Hopper. "We set around here for days, and then it all hits at once."

Putnam gives me an example: "We were both up there as bailiffs," he begins. He is pointing upstairs, toward the only courtroom in the county, a courtroom of butter-colored '70s chairs and red floral print curtains pulled tight to block the sun. "We had a family violence situation come up, and so I went"—meaning Putnam left his post as bailiff to run off and deal with the fighting family. He didn't have to go far. "It was just over there across the street," he says, a phrase which could describe just about everything in town. A 31-year-old son was hitting his 51-year-old mother, Putnam recalls. Had to take her to the hospital.

It would presumably shock someone such as James Dobson to hear that domestic violence occurs even in a county with no gay couples corrupting the culture, but it turns out that Loving County is not the utopia he might imagine. And for those who believe Representative Musgrave's prediction that committed gay couples will cause a huge "crisis" for heterosexual marriage, it might be even more shocking to learn about Loving County's divorce and separation rate. The 2000 census puts the rate at 12.1 percent, which is higher than the national average, and indicates that many of the people in Loving County have been quite busy deciding that they don't love each other anymore, even without any coupled gays around to throw their relationships into crisis.

Putnam and Hopper are still talking, telling me about more things that keep them busy, but not wanting to seem like I came just to talk about crime, I steer the conversation toward Loving County's unfortunate lack of usable groundwater. "The water we got, it's all saltwater," Hopper laments. "It will kill your plants." It also takes the paint off cars.

Around this time, a man named Ely walks into the sheriff's office. We all marvel for a moment at the fact that Ely's name is pronounced like mine but spelled differently. Then Ely asks Hopper for some money. Turns out Hopper is paying Ely to run a pipe from beneath the courthouse, which has one of the only good wells in the county, directly into Hopper's home across the street. Something about the transaction causes Ely to want to joke about being taken advantage of, and on his way out he turns to us and says:

"I'm fixin' to get down on all fours and get fucked."

They all laugh. The more butch version of me laughs with them.

• • •

Being gay makes it pretty easy to stop believing what people tell you about God. And once you have rejected the idea that He is really hot and bothered about homos, it doesn't take long to begin wondering about other things people attribute to Him, like the idea that God makes everything happen just as it should. What if He doesn't? What if everything is more or less random and there is no hand of God guiding our fate? Well, among other things, there would then be no particular reason that I was born in Seattle; I could just as easily have been born here, in Loving County, perhaps a neighbor of Ely's. In fact, it seems to me that one sign that things are more or less random, that God isn't very good at advance planning, is that gay people keep being born in places like this. I wouldn't wish a life here on any gay man.

There are no schools in Loving County; in 1952, Hopper was one of the last students at the high school before it closed down from lack of use. There is one church in Mentone, and from a distance it does look like the Platonic ideal of the small rural house of worship—white clapboard siding, a peaked cupola on top holding a large metal bell—exactly the kind of building that might appear in an arch-homophobe's wet dream about a town with no gays. But hardly anyone ever sets foot in this church: "You got one family that claims to be religious, but I wouldn't call them religious," says Hopper. For food shopping, Mentone has just one small convenience store, but no grocery store. "If you want a quart of milk or a loaf of bread or anything like that, it's a 23-mile one-way trip," says Hopper.

Not surprisingly, the population of Loving County is declining. Between 1990 and 2000 it dropped by more than 37 percent. Over the next two years, according to estimates, it dropped another 4.5 percent, down to 64 people in 2002.

I can understand why. I would have left simply because there probably isn't another out queer within a 100-mile radius and nowhere for a gay boy to get laid other than his own imagination or a truck stop. But in Loving County, one doesn't have to be gay to want to flee. There are plenty of reasons for everyone here to head elsewhere.

Here's one: For such a small place, Loving County has a huge amount of gossip, bad blood, and contentious political disagreements. It's so bad the woman who runs Mentone's post office told me, with a serious face, that she couldn't discuss the town's epidemic of trash-talking because "the post office has to stay neutral."

The brief history of Loving County's political turmoil, as told by Hopper, begins with "some almost-killings over politics back in the late '40s and early '50s" and eventually arrives at his own recent run for county sheriff. During that race, Putnam says, "They blackwashed [Hopper] pretty good." I ask Hopper what his detractors said about him, and he demurs. He's too embarrassed to describe it—but it comes out in a few minutes.

In the meantime, I offhandedly mention that in my research on the county I noticed one more remarkable thing: It has no gay couples.

"They wouldn't last long around here probably," says Putnam. "People around here just don't go for that kind of stuff."

Maybe I wasn't offhanded enough in the way I said this, or maybe my wrists suddenly went noticeably limp, but an uncomfortable silence now fills the room. I can feel them eyeing me. I start to think of another question to ask, something totally unrelated to guys getting down on all fours and getting fucked, but before I come up with anything, Hopper breaks the silence with a surprising confession:

"I got accused of it," he says.

That's what Putnam meant when he talked about Hopper being "blackwashed" during the election. His opponents, trying to capitalize on the homophobia in Loving County, spread rumors that Hopper was gay. Hopper says it didn't hurt him because people just didn't believe the rumor, which says a lot more about his own undeniable hetero energy than the county's tolerance.

"Never a dull moment," Hopper says sheepishly. "A sense of humor's not necessary but it sure helps."

I decide it's time to wrap up, and ask Putnam what he thinks about the county, having worked as sheriff for 12 years and having lived here since 1967.

"It ain't worth a damn in my opinion," says Putnam. "The water ain't worth a damn, the roads are no good, the politics are so bad here everybody's mad at each other all the time. I think it's a rotten place. I'm fed up with the whole deal."

• • •

The next morning I am in Cimarron County, an elongated rectangle that makes up the westernmost part of the Oklahoma panhandle, land of Steinbeck's Oakies, land of the Dust Bowl. To get here, I drove north from Loving County, through Lubbock and Plainview and Amarillo, along the way watching the hard earth and high sky of West Texas give way to dry grasslands, soft soil, low heavens. There is more blue and green in the light here in Oklahoma, less orange and yellow.

There also are more people here than in Loving County, but only slightly. Cimarron County has about 3,100 residents living on its roughly 1,800 square miles, which works out to about 1.7 people per square mile. (In Loving, it's about 0.1 people per square mile and in King County, for contrast, it's 817 people per square mile.) The Cimarron County seat is Boise City, pronounced "Boys City," but, as in Loving County, there are no gay boys here—or, at least, no gay boys shacking up with other gay boys. No gay girls living together either.

At JoAnn's Country Restaurant in the heart of Boise City, while eating the most displeasing BLT ever assembled, I learn from the back of JoAnn's menu a bit about the history of this town. But first, a bit about this unfortunate BLT: It is two slices of unevenly toasted Wonder Bread filled with the hard inner bits of iceberg lettuce and a handful of flabby, soggy bacon. The bacon tastes like it has been fried in yesterday's Crisco, the Wonder Bread tastes like marshmallows, and the whole bad feeling of the thing reminds me of the night before, of the creepy closeted man who hit on me in the highway motel I had pulled into for the night in Dumas, Texas. I had been sitting alone in the motel hot tub, the man had come to check the pool area out, and I had made the mistake of glancing in his direction. He proceeded to stand nearby, staring at me for several long minutes. When I got out and walked down the hall to my room he was there, staring at me. Later, when I was in the small motel computer room, he stepped inside, stood close, and said: "Nice computer room, huh?" It was not a nice computer room. There was only space for one person at a time, and there was only one computer. I asked him if he wanted to use the computer. He said no, he was just looking, and continued to stand there. I ignored him, and eventually he left. The most creepy thing about the experience, I decided later, was not his boldness or his leering eyes, though they were both quite creepy. The most creepy thing was the fact that someone in the middle of nowhere had, with a glance, pegged me as gay. Creepy because it could therefore happen again, perhaps here in Cimarron County.

I leave the restaurant and head over to the courthouse, whose remarkable history, I have just read on the menu, includes the distinction of having been accidentally bombed by the U.S. Air Force during a 1943 training exercise. Up the steps of the courthouse, through a door, and soon I have met an elderly woman who tells me she is the county police dispatcher. The phone rings, and the woman, who we shall simply call Pam for reasons that will soon become apparent, answers.


I am confused. I thought she was the police dispatcher. After she gets off, she explains that she is the "mortuary, ambulance, fire, 911, whatever."

So what's to do for fun out here?

"There's nothing here to do," Pam says. "We don't have a movie theater, skate rink, nothing."

From my research, I had an inkling that Cimarron County was probably a pretty dull, unfortunate place. I had read its population statistics. I knew that Cimarron County has the highest suicide rate in Oklahoma, and the highest per capita death-by-firearms rate, too. I knew that the skies above Cimarron County have the worst air turbulence in the nation, and that the county is home to giant hog farms, a power plant that burns car tires for energy, and a former undersheriff who was once caught embezzling from the Boy Scouts. I knew that in 1936 the iconic photo from the awful Dust Bowl era—a photo of a man and his two children walking through a dust storm toward a rickety shack—was shot not far from where I am now standing.

But nothing in my research had prepared me for Pam's hair. After I met Pam, I sat in my car for a long time struggling to come up with a good description of its color. It seemed to me that it had been intended to arrive at strawberry blond, but had gotten lost somewhere along the way, somewhere around creamsicle. Just as I settled on creamsicle as the best description, another elderly woman walked by with the same bad dye job. Driving around town I saw two more women with the same creamsicle hair. And then it hit me: No gay men means no gay hairdressers. Pity the poor town.

I step into a hair salon across from the courthouse. The women inside—one of whom appears to be drinking a vodka tonic while getting a perm—have decent but certainly not fabulous hair, and after a brief chitchat I mention the apparent creamsicle trend. They tell me it must be another salon's doing. For a moment, I consider coming out to these women, coming clean about my project. It is a hair salon, after all, I think to myself. We're all girls here. But I remember the bad taste from the BLT and the bad motel-cruising experience from the night before and soon the moment passes. I decide to tiptoe around the subject, and simply ask hairdresser Valerie Loble, 30, if there are any male hairdressers in town.


The tone of her reply is firm, and I detect a note of disgust.

• • •

They say "backward" is not a nice word to use in describing other people, so let me direct it only at myself and say that each time I step out of my rental car I feel backward. More precisely, I feel as if I have fallen backward in time, into a me that I don't like. It is the me that fooled straight people for years, the me that put myself in places where I couldn't be who I was. The shame is familiar and the internal reaction as strong as ever, like some gay mammalian diving reflex pulling me back out, telling me to move, fast, to someplace I can breathe. It's a reflex I appreciate being equipped with, and one I like to think all gay people possess. Movement is the way those of us who are gay become ourselves, migration our way of dealing with the peculiar condition of being homosexual. We are, almost all of us, assumed straight at birth. From then on the burden falls on the gay child to realize that he or she is not what the culture assumed, and to negotiate a path toward telling others. The bulk of gay-oriented art and literature is concerned with this personal migration, a psychic voyage that is often reflected in a physical voyage as well, so that the most common gay story is to have grown up somewhere, traveled somewhere else to come out, and then perhaps traveled back home again with the news. This is true even for gay people who grow up in tolerant places; I was raised in Seattle, a place that has long been a destination point for people planning to announce themselves gay, but I went from here to New York to begin coming out. I don't know any gay people who haven't made a similar journey of some sort.

Which is why it feels so awful and self-negating to be making the opposite journey, to be going back into the closet each time I enter these counties. It's also why it feels so good to leave them. Unfortunately, at the end of this road I am now speeding down, the one that leads northward out of Cimarron County, is not New York or Seattle, but rather eastern Colorado.

I'm headed to Cheyenne County, Colorado, also known as "Marilyn Musgrave country." Musgrave is best known as the motherly congresswoman who proposed a bill that would alter the U.S. Constitution so that it bans gay marriage. She comes from a district that covers most of eastern Colorado, where apparently residents of the wheat-covered high plains want their representative in Washington, D.C., to defend them—along with the rest of the nation—from the spreading social blight of what Musgrave calls "counterfeit marital unions." Cheyenne County, however, is one place in Musgrave's district that she needn't worry about defending; the census says it has no gay couples.

The heart of Cheyenne County is the small town of Cheyenne Wells, and the heart of Cheyenne Wells is Main Street, which looks like something straight out of a Hollywood western. Residents say people used to ride their horses into the bars in this town, and that if Gunsmoke wasn't actually filmed here, it could have been. Tumbleweeds still sometimes roll through in high wind, and in the old days so many blew into town that they used to stack up against the sides of the flat-fronted, frontier-style buildings.

I am pointed toward the town coffee shop for the real story on Cheyenne Wells and told I need to hurry, because it will close at noon, as many things in this sleepy town do on Saturdays. The coffee shop, with its tiny espresso machine steaming away, is a slice of the urbanity that I have been missing for the past three days, and I order a large green tea. The wholesome-looking woman serving me is Emy Eiring, 22, and soon she and a wholesome-looking friend, Lexi Beek, 18, are telling me all about the dark side of Cheyenne Wells.

Let's begin with the coffee shop itself, which is located in a building that was once city hall, which later became a barbershop, and which, just before the coffee shop moved in, housed a meth lab. There is something rather telling in this trajectory. People like to imagine that the story of small western towns such as Cheyenne Wells goes like this: First the law arrives to tame the depraved debauchery of the frontier, then the twin fertilizing agents of Christianity and good government are sprinkled across the land, and soon, a healthy community full of upstanding citizens takes root.

Instead, the trajectory of Cheyenne Wells has delivered it straight into the hell of what I am told is "a big meth problem."

And it's not just meth that's causing a problem here in Musgrave's back yard. "Underage drinking," Lexi tells me. "That's a big one. There's not a lot to do in little towns, so everyone likes to go out and party." People in Cheyenne Wells favor Coors Light and Keystone, she says, and it's not just those who are underage. Three big bars cater to the considerable thirsts of a town that has just taken me less than three minutes to drive through. The bars, Emy says, are "the reason for a lot of the marriage breakups," and here she's not talking just about the drinking, but also the fact that in a town so small, everyone sees you when you take your mistress out. The census found 134 people either divorced or separated among the 1,726 people over age 15 in the county.

What about the schools? I ask. (I've read that the schools in Cheyenne County are so bad they're on the state's watch list.)

"Nobody wants to go to school here," Emy says.

"It's hard to get teachers here," Lexi adds.

Why? I ask.

"They just really don't like it here," says Emy.

Here's one reason why teachers don't like it in Cheyenne County: It turns out that about 10 years ago, Emy's grandmother rented a house to a black man who had come to town to work as a teacher. This is a town where Emy still knows old-timers who were in the KKK, folks who in the old days met in tunnels beneath the Knights of Columbus Hall and other buildings on Main Street. (Lexi, trying to explain this away, says: "It was just something to do. Just a bunch of guys getting together and having fun.") The KKK may not meet in the tunnels below Main Street anymore, but as recently as 10 years ago there was enough hostility here toward black people that a cross was burned on the black teacher's front lawn. "He wasn't here long," Emy says.

I hear a dull moan coming into the coffee shop from the street, and as it grows louder and more persistent I realize it is a siren and turn my head, expecting to see a fire truck racing by. "That's the noon whistle," Emy explains.

Which means my time is almost up. I just come right out and ask if there are any gay people in Cheyenne Wells.

"If there is, they haven't come out," Emy says. "There's a man whose cousin has a woman-friend. They come into town every once in a while. But they don't do anything in public or anything." I ask if they could put me in touch with this woman or her "woman-friend," but they decline.

So how do people here feel about Musgrave's proposed amendment?

"I think a lot of people support that here," Emy says. "We pretty much follow what God says."

• • •

One of the juiciest bits of news to emerge from Cheyenne Wells recently concerned the Range Ledger news- paper, a 1,300-circulation weekly that serves Cheyenne County's 2,200 people and the surrounding areas. The newspaper criticized local school board president Sam Mitchek for holding closed meetings and he retaliated.

"He came in and said, 'This is a bunch of horseshit,'" Nancy Bogenhagen, publisher of the paper, explains shortly after I walk into the paper's offices, which are just a couple doors down from the coffee shop. Mitchek was carrying a five-gallon bucket of manure, "and dumped this big bucket on the counter," Bogenhagen explains. Mitchek was later charged with littering.

Bogenhagen is leaning up against the same light blue linoleum countertop that was the scene of this crime, and telling me that she is not a woman who is cowed by shit like that.

"I didn't think it was one damn bit funny," she says, but to illustrate how unruffled the experience left her, adds: "I done swept that horseshit up and put it in some of these plants." Here she motions with her USA Full Flavor Gold 800 cigarette toward the many cacti, jade, and geranium plants that are thriving in the hot light that streams in through the front windows.

Bogenhagen has a lean face framed by straight brown hair and is wearing tight black jeans, a green long underwear top, and a fleece jacket. She is 52 years old ("Earned every wrinkle"), divorced from a husband she's glad to be rid of, and possessed of a flinty attractiveness.

"It's redneck country here," she complains to me, "and when you're a woman in business it's extremely tough." She's been called a "damn Democrat" and a "bitch," she says, but then reminds me that "a bitch is a babe in total control of herself." At which point I begin to fall in love with Nancy Bogenhagen, who without knowing it has all the righteous toughness, stoic self-reliance, and anger toward no-good men that we homos tend to worship.

She notices me suppressing a thrilled smile at this—a smile that is in reaction to her fierceness, but that she probably mistakes for a smirk.

"I really need to get out of here, can you tell?" she says. I nod, and as I do I am thinking: This is it. Finally, someone I can come out to.

We turn to other topics. She tells me about her son, who died days before his 18th birthday when he hit a semi while drinking and driving. "He had been to the fair dance, and I'd been out of town," she begins, looking sadly at his picture on her desk, and then trailing off. "He was a good kid, asked his girlfriend to accept Jesus Christ...."

On second thought maybe it would not be such a good idea to come out to Ms. Bogenhagen. She is now looking into the middle distance, presumably thinking about her son.

Nonchalantly, I tell her about the census findings, and ask her if she thinks it's true that there are no gay couples in this county.

"They're still in the closet," she says, referring to the same couple I already heard about in the coffee shop. "I know both of those women," she says a minute later. "They're nice people."

I ask what the attitude is toward gay people around here, and she begins a series of statements that all begin with a profession of honesty, I guess to indicate that she's now telling me things that she might not tell other locals, or perhaps things that she's never given much thought to.

"To tell the truth," she begins, "I don't really care what sexuality people have." But then, as if remembering the town party line, she adds: "But don't shove it down our throats."

Does she support gay marriage?

"To be honest"—there's that profession of honesty again—"I do not support gay marriage and I'll tell you why...."

Here she begins a rambling discourse that essentially boils down to the problem with gay marriage being that it's "another message sent to our kids," but while doing this she shoots me a quick sideways glance, which I notice from the corner of my eyes as I'm writing in my notepad—a glance I consciously do not meet. She is trying to see if I'm gay.

"Do you have kids?" she asks a second later.

I tell her no.

Without missing a beat, and without revealing what she makes of this information, she goes on, telling me that the desire for gay marriage comes from the fact that gay people "have issues within themselves and they're looking for something that can validate themselves." Yeah, I think. We have issues within ourselves because of people like you, and now we want the government to validate the idea that people like you shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against people like us.

She rambles some more and after a while it begins to emerge that, to be honest, she's not totally anti-gay. First she tells me she believes being gay is genetic ("You can see it in animals") and therefore not a choice, then that when she was working at a local hospital she met gay alcoholics who were "the most sensitive men you've ever seen," then that she would hire a gay person, and finally that, matter of fact, she wouldn't mind if one of her children brought home a gay lover.

I begin to see that by just keeping quiet and letting her go on I have allowed her to talk herself out, and to look at her own logic while doing so. In the process she's realized that she doesn't really have any good arguments against gays or gay marriage, and that she's not really all that bothered about either to begin with. It's as if her whole life she's heard people in town say, "Those gays are trouble," and she's replied, "Sure are," and no one has ever forced her to think about why.

Bogenhagen eventually arrives at this: "To the best of my knowledge none of these people with gay tendencies are bad people.... I don't know. I don't know what the answer is."

I am thinking: I know what the answer is, and it's very simple. You need to get out of this town. The problem here is that it's all theoretical, it's all "to the best of your knowledge" when it comes to gays, and the best knowledge anyone in this town has about gay people comes from quietly observing these supposedly closeted lesbians who hang around town every once in a while. You're actually a pretty open-minded person, and I bet if you met real, live, out gay people you'd like them and have some ammunition to use in arguing against the religious-conservative echo chamber you live in.

Suddenly, I am very angry at the supposed lesbians for not coming out and providing Bogenhagen with this type of ammunition themselves. And then I am mad at myself for not doing the same. But the anger is quickly followed by fear of what might happen if I do come out, and then I am more understanding of the lesbians. I ask if I can talk to the famous Cheyenne Wells closet cases.

"Those women would deny it," Bogenhagen says, shaking her head no.

Right. They would have to deny it in order to continue living here, while I can just get in my car and go. It's a vicious cycle: Their closetedness allows the logic of religious conservatives to go unchallenged, while the religious conservative logic promotes their closetedness.

Do you think there will ever be a time when a lesbian couple could come out here? I ask Bogenhagen.

"To be real honest with you," she says—and this being her third profession of honesty, I take her at her word—"it's going to be a long time before they could be accepted."

• • •

I drive out of there fast, headed for Denver—so fast I get pulled over going 96 in a 75. I am sick of being in the closet and sick of being in these counties, so beautiful and pastoral they make me wish I could live in them when I'm old, but so bigoted and narrow-minded that I know I never will. In Denver, I see my first black people in three days, the first Hispanic people who aren't cleaning a motel room, the first gay people holding hands on the street. I am back, finally, in blue America. An early Cinco de Mayo celebration has brought thousands into the plazas in front of the state capitol buildings, and all kinds of people are there, kissing in public, checking each other out.

There is crime in this city, I know, and divorce and domestic violence and closed-minded people and crystal meth, too. That's not the point. The point is this: Clearly it is not, as the religious conservatives argue, the presence of gay couples that is responsible for afflicting Western civilization with maladies such as meth abuse and divorce. As I've just experienced in Loving County and Cimarron County and Cheyenne County, even when you remove gay couples from a culture these problems arise, often in worse form, and minus a lot of the things that make a flawed society worth living in (good hair salons, sophisticated people, job opportunities, and art, to name a few). It's not cities full of gay couples that are the problem in America, and it's not places without gays that offer the solution.

Several blocks away I find a nice gay bar filled with pretty boys and tough lesbians, sit down, and confess. It is happy hour and I am telling my story to a sweet guy who soon introduces me to his partner, a guy he refers to as his husband even though Colorado will probably be one of the last places in the nation ever to give two husbands legal standing. I tell them I have been in conservative Cheyenne County, and these are smart, worldly people—one paints, the other is a flight attendant—but they have no idea where Cheyenne County is. It's in their own state, but they don't know anything about it, and now that they hear Cheyenne County is not a very hospitable place for gays, they don't care much about it either. It ceases to exist to them, except during the brief moment that it takes for them to add Cheyenne County to the long mental list many of us keep these days. It's the list of places in America where people like us—people who value open-mindedness, sophistication, and the presence of a few good gay bars—would never, ever want to live.