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One humid day in August of 2019, Bonnie Nelson loaded up a car and began a three day road trip. The destination: a small alpaca ranch in Colorado run entirely by trans people.
Nelson, who uses ey / em / eir pronouns, had recently quit eir day job as a home healthcare aid to elderly and disabled people in New York. Ey were now en route to begin a new life in the country along with eir partner, Sky, at the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch, a growing rural sanctuary that its residents sustain by selling alpaca wool on Etsy. The ranch is tiny, but it has an ambitious and important mission: to offer work, shelter, and community to queer and trans people in need.
Nelson had first heard of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch only a month earlier, when ey found the collective posting cute photos of its alpaca herd on Twitter. Nelson had already been looking to move to Colorado, so ey contacted the ranch in mid-July and set up a video interview the following weekend. Less than a month later, Nelson was sharing meals with eir new family.
The collective prides itself on being self-sufficient. Its power system is 100 percent off-grid, utilizing solar and wind energy in addition to gas generators, and residents have built their own structures to house the ranch’s growing population—including a herd of nearly 100 alpacas. “They were doing basically everything that I’ve ever wanted to do,” Nelson told me of the decision to become part of the collective. “To be fair, it was a really easy choice to make.”
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch’s founders say the idea for the utopian project started in the aftermath of the 2016 election, when many LGBTQ+ people across the U.S. were staring down the barrel of an authoritarian administration unambiguously hostile to queer and trans people. In the intervening years, the Trump administration has demonstrated this animus by rolling back LGBTQ+ rights across the board, most recently with an executive order that explicitly allows healthcare providers to deny medical care to queer and trans people purely based on their sexuality or gender. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing unprecedented mass-death and economic devastation, the collective behind the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch sees their mission as more crucial than ever.
“I’m getting contacted by three new people every day that desperately need housing for a myriad of reasons, mostly pandemic-related,” Penellope Logue, the ranch’s co-founder, told me. “There’s been a huge loss of jobs, and the people getting those jobs back aren’t trans people. They’re just not choosing us.”
Growing up in rural Colorado under the care of her grandfather and his wife, Logue learned farming from an early age. Her grandfather was a programmer for IBM in Boulder, and on the weekends, the two would work on the farm together.
Logue tried to come out at age 14 or 15, but ultimately found the environment around LGBTQ rights to be too hostile. “There was no language around being trans at that time, in the 1980s,” she said. “Even just being gay was so bad, and so I got shoved back into the closet.”
Logue went on to spend six years in the military during the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, which she described as a “very toxic environment.” Then, after years of therapy, she came out as transgender at age 36. While her adoptive parents were supportive, the neighborhood where she lived in the suburbs of Denver was much less accepting. So she rented out the house, moved back in with her adoptive family just outside of Boulder, and made a living working in retail and selling scrap collected from dumpsters.
Years later, Logue finally saw an opportunity to realize her dream of having her own ranch. After selling her house, she and her partners, Kathryn and Jennifer, rented a plot of land up north and adopted a herd of alpacas, which she had taken a shine to while researching different types of fiber-bearing animals. In all, the group spent nearly $100,000 putting down fencing and fixing up the property.
In order to help with the costs, the group started selling their alpaca wool on Etsy—their first batch sold out completely—and created a Patreon profile that would allow others to offer them monthly donations. They also began accepting new like-minded residents. Still, the group was eventually priced out of living on the property due to rent hikes from the owner. When Bonnie Nelson and eir partner arrived, the group was searching for new land that they could actually purchase. Finally, on Christmas of 2019, the now eight-person collective put down a deposit on a plot on the other side of the state, about an hour and a half drive from the city of Pueblo, CO.
And so, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch began a move of biblical proportions—a journey that would require 19 separate trips across the state of Colorado.
Now, the collective is settling in and raising money via GoFundMe to build additional housing so that they can invite up to 20 new residents. (The ranch has a basic satellite internet connection, which Logue describes as “comparable to old dial-up speeds.”) The goal is to become a rural haven for queer and trans people—similar to the IDA community land project in Tennessee—and eventually, to help people in other states set up queer farming collectives of their own.
“We don’t wanna just expand housing, we wanna have jobs for people,” said Logue, noting that despite the recent Supreme Court victory barring explicit discrimination, trans folks are far less likely to be employed in the first place. According to a 2015 survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality, trans people are three times more likely to be unemployed compared to the general population, and four times more likely if they are trans people of color.
“Between coronavirus and the revolts against the state, we’ve really been looking at the state of the world and thinking we can’t just sit back and try to get to a stable point,” Nelson told me. “More than anything, it’s really lit a fire under our feet.”
The collective has found work in the area by connecting with the local Amish communities, and there’s plenty to do around the ranch. Logue and Nelson are heading the construction projects in preparation for two new people who will be joining the collective next month. The group also recently added ducks and sheep to their expanding livestock, creating additional sources of income. “It’s country girl shit,” laughed Logue, while describing the day-to-day experience of working on the ranch. “We drive big trucks, we all wear boots and we cuss a lot.”
For its residents, the allure of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch is far greater than the aesthetics of the blue collar lifestyle. It’s about the freedom and joy of being queer and trans out in the country, and the opportunity to share that prosperity and sense of community with others.
“What we ultimately want to provide for people is peace of mind—you have a place to stay, you have food, and you’ll have something to do,” said Nelson. “I’ve never had that support network, that real understanding love from people. I can’t wait to spread that and have that be available to more people.”