CUSTER COUNTY (AP) – Two sets of headlights headed straight for the geodesic dome house that serves as the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch’s headquarters.
Outside in the deep dark of Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley, the people who live at the ranch prepared to defend their home.
For weeks, they had received threats online and warnings from others in the area that the rhetoric against the leftist, anarchist alpaca ranch commune for queer people had intensified. The day before, March 4, someone aggressively tailed the ranchers’ truck down the washboard county dirt road as they drove home. The ranchers thought the headlights could be those people coming to harm them. They grabbed their guns.
Then the headlights swerved away. It was the neighbors coming home down their dirt drive, which follows the alpaca ranch’s fence line for a bit.
The Tenacious Unicorn Ranch stood down, relieved.
“I think that moment proved that this is home,” said Penny Logue, one of the ranch’s founders. “We were ready to defend it.”
For about a year, the Tenacious Unicorn ranchers have called home a 40-acre plot of hardscrabble land about 20 minutes south of Westcliffe, the seat of rural Custer County, population 4,700. About nine people live on the ranch at any given time, though that number changes as people come and go from the property.
Logue and her business partner, Bonnie Nelson, created the ranch as a place where queer people can live and work safely and without fear. Along with the human occupants, the property is home to about 180 alpaca, a few dozen ducks and chickens, a herd of gigantic Great Pyrenees dogs, a flock of sheep, a few goats and a handful of cats.
“The birth of the Tenacious Unicorn Ranch was really in response to watching the trans community get hammered under the Trump administration,” Logue said. “We wanted to make somewhere where queer people could thrive – not just escape, but actually do something. We wanted to build community.”
The ranchers love the valley and Westcliffe. The community has been welcoming and incredibly helpful, they said. But after stories about the ranch appeared in High Country News and on Denver’s 9NEWS, they have received online threats and faced increased in-person harassment, they said. In one 48-hour period in early March, they were followed in their truck and caught armed people trespassing on their property twice.
The harassment prompted increased security measures, like cameras, lights and the ongoing installation of 1.5 miles of 6-foot fence around the entire property. But it hasn’t changed the group’s mind about settling in the conservative ranching valley. When they felt threatened, their neighbors offered help.
“We’re a haven for a vulnerable group of people, so it’s doubly important that it’s safe,” Logue said. “It’s not a normal occurrence for queer people to just have exclusively queer space.”
Sixteen-hour daysLogue and Nelson chose the valley as their home because it was affordable and would support their dream of a working farm.
They moved in March 2020 from a ranch they were leasing in Larimer County after falling in love with the dome house property. Every day they watch from their home as the sun and clouds play on the jagged Sangre de Cristo mountain range, in all of its moods. At night, the sky is so dark they can see the stars’ colors.
The group shares food, a bank account and chores. Ranching is hard work, said Logue, who grew up on a Colorado farm. Animals must be fed, poop scooped, fences mended. Sixteen-hour days are normal. There are many sleepless nights, like when the ranch’s lambs were born in the middle of a cold snap.
Shearing the herd once a year yields nearly 2,000 pounds of wool, which they turn into yarn to sell. They also pick up work from other ranches or communities, like digging fences or cleaning out barns. Nelson worked for a bit as a driver for an Amish man. They also raise money online.
In their downtime, the ranch residents cook and eat together in the dome house, filled with food, manuals on alpaca health and bulletproof vests adorned with patches showing a rifle on the trans pride flag.
The walls in the main room are bedecked with several large rifles, a 5-foot sword and pride flags representing some of the identities of the people who live there: non-binary, lesbian, agender and asexual. There’s also a red-and-black flag stating, “Sometimes antisocial, always antifascist.” New people arriving at the ranch cry with relief sometimes when they see the flags hanging, Nelson said. It can be tedious living in a world where people see you as “other.”
“We all want to get away from everything because there is so much pressure and stress brought up by just existing,” Nelson said.
The ranch can especially be a safe place for transgender people who are transitioning and who may not want to be in the public eye during the process. Logue said she worked during part of her transition and was met with stares and many questions.
“Having worked retail from beginning to mid of my transition, I can tell you that the world is not kind,” Logue said. “It is unpleasant to be in the public eye during your transition. Offering a place to do that privately is really important. And who doesn’t want to be surrounded by alpaca all the time?”
‘An old-school conservative Christian county’On top of the stress of raising herds of animals, the ranchers have navigated a tension between the ranch and some of the valley’s residents that began after a Fourth of July parade in Westcliffe.
In town that morning running errands, the ranchers saw people carrying Confederate flags and banners with the logo of the Three Percenters – one of the prominent anti-government militia movements in Colorado that is classified by the Anti-Defamation League as far-right, antigovernmental extremism.
The ranchers later posted on social media denouncing the flags, which made people angry. Then, in the High Country News article published in January, Logue called the event a “fascist parade.”
The Sangre De Cristo Sentinel – a weekly conservative publication in Westcliffe – republished the magazine story but included lengthy editor’s notes at the beginning and end. The notes, written by publisher George Gramlich, called the ranchers a “hypocritical bunch of hate-filled xenophobes” and said the article was “very, very disturbing.”
In a recent interview, Gramlich walked back some of the language in the note and said the article was generally well done and that the Tenacious Unicorn ranchers are good people. When asked which part of the story he found disturbing, Gramlich pointed to the quote calling the Fourth of July parade fascist. That sentence felt like an attack on the community as a whole, he said.
“There could have been a Three Percenter flag there, but basically people can bring their own flags,” Gramlich said. “We’re not excluding anybody.”
Some in the community agreed with Gramlich’s rebuke of the comment, letters to the editor and social media comments show. Others disagreed.
“The article does not imply that the community as a whole is not good,” one Westcliffe resident commented on Facebook.
The Sentinel has also re-printed several transphobic cartoons and commentary pieces from websites like The Daily Signal and The Federalist.
“This is an old-school conservative Christian county. Folks here have never seen any folks like them before they moved in,” said Gramlich, who has lived in the valley for nine years.
The Tenacious Unicorn ranchers said the publication stirs up transphobic sentiment in the area, though they mostly try to ignore the articles. The backlash they’ve faced has also drawn people to their aid, they said.
Stephen Holmes, owner of Peregrine Coffee in Westcliffe, said much of the angry rhetoric toward the ranchers has come from “a small radical minority” that feels like they have more power in town than they do. Holmes and the Tenacious Unicorn ranchers have grown a friendship over the past year.
“I’m a Christian, I’m a minister, and I’m a Bible teacher,” Holmes said. “People might think that would provide a big gap between me and people like Penny and Bonnie, but there has not been that gap.”
“I think people should try to get to know them,” he said. “They’ve been extremely kind to me.”
Last month, when the ranchers found the trespassers and were facing increased online threats, they asked for help. People from across the country came to the farm to provide guard services. For all of March, the ranchers and volunteer armed security guarded the property 24/7. The ranchers often wore heavy vests with bulletproof plates as they went about their chores and tried to leave the property as little as possible.
Recently, Logue and Nelson still wore their handguns as they worked around the property, even though the tension had started to ease.
“Doing what we do, people are going to hate us,” Nelson said. “If you’re doing things right, the right people are going to hate you.”
Nationwide expansionThe vast majority of the community, however, have welcomed the ranchers, Nelson and Logue said. They’ve joined in with other alpaca farmers in the area to pool their fibers and have them processed in bulk to create hats and socks.
Logue and Nelson hope to expand the ranch so that more trans and queer people can live with them. The dome house already is filled with people.
“We can’t literally house every trans person in this country,” Nelson said. “They won’t all fit in this valley.”
The long-term goal is to help other queer groups start similar communes across the nation. Logue and Nelson envision helping other groups with downpayments, co-signing loans, teaching others how to raise alpacas and donating starter herds.
“I would love it if you could stay at a Tenacious Unicorn from California to New York and never have to stay in a cis hotel,” Logue said.
The group plans to soon fly three flags on the property: one representing the transgender community, one red-and-black flag representing anti-fascism and one pirate flag. They’re not interested in trying to hide who they are.
“We’re not leaving,” Nelson said. “We’re building our foundation stronger.”