By Michael Knipp
You’ve partied it up in P-Town, played hard to get in the Big Easy, and pitted a peach in Hotlanta – but have you ever experienced the homosexual side of Sin City?
That’s because Las Vegas has long been a straight person’s playground. From legalized prostitution and sex shows on the Strip to quickie marriages and even quicker annulments, the desert destination draws in droves of heteros with promises of ‘What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas.’
That recently abandoned motto is hardly true, as most vacationers soon find out, but there is one secret Vegas has managed to keep – where its LGBT community is hidden.
As history reveals, Vegas has never catered to gays and lesbians. Sure, the scandal-laden city’s Broadway-quality shows and other entertainment have maintained an über-queer vibe for decades, but Vegas – truth be told – has all but disregarded its LGBT patrons. In fact, it wasn’t until 2004, when nightclub Krave opened its doors, that Vegas finally acquired an entire complex dedicated to accommodating the downtime of Dorothy’s friends. A testament to Vegas’ still-slow progression, however, is Krave’s four-year-old, mainstay slogan: “The First and Only Alternative Club on the Strip.”
Recently, though, it seems that Vegas business owners have reopened their minds to change – and the cha-ching of cold, hard cash: According to an article in an August 2007 edition of USA Today, LGBT tourism is a $55 billion annual market, and given that Vegas is ranked as the #2 vacation destination among Gen X, Gen Y and Boomer gay men and the #1 destination among Gen X and Boomer lesbians, according to Community Marketing Inc.’s 12th Annual Gay and Lesbian Tourism Study, well, it’s no surprise that Vegas wants a piece of that pie.
So, how is Vegas continuing its slow saunter out of the closet?
Dennis McBride, a long-standing local gay historian, said that he’s noticed a dramatic change in whom advertisers are targeting.
“What’s changed more than anything is the Las Vegas business community’s marketing to gay, lesbian and transgender tourists,” he says. “Take the June 2008 issue of Passport magazine, for instance – there are gay-oriented advertisements from the Luxor Hotel Casino, Paris [Hotel], and from the ‘Zumanity’ production at New York New York.”
In addition, most hotel wedding chapels and several stand-alone chapels are offering same-sex commitment ceremonies, and a social networking organization called Sin City Qs sponsor well-attended martini mixers at a different location every Tuesday evening, encouraging a wide variety of hotel-casinos, restaurants, bars, art galleries, and other businesses to become accustomed to large-scale, openly gay clientele, he continues.
But McBride is quick to note, however, that despite Vegas’ about-face in courting the gay tourist, the state of Nevada still has political debates to resolve.
“That this marketing has been so successful,” adds the 53-year-old Nevada native, “speaks to an interesting disconnect between a relatively enlightened Nevada business community – particularly Las Vegas – and the Nevada electorate, who, in 2002, voted by a large margin to add an anti-same-sex marriage amendment to the state constitution. If you’re a gay tourist, Las Vegas can be heaven; if you’re a gay Nevada citizen, there are problematic issues.”
Politics aside, Cindy Hall, president of Betty’s Outdoor Adventures, a lesbian social group, and chief correspondent for the L Group Newsletter and Las Vegas Night Beat, says that gays and lesbians visiting Vegas shouldn’t relegate themselves to activities located on The Strip. Las Vegas and its surrounding suburbs offer ample opportunities for exploration and excitement – visitors just need to know where to look.
“At the core of our community is our beloved [Gay & Lesbian Community] Center [of Southern Nevada],” Hall says. “It’s the hub for most everything in our community. [It] offers a fun, safe place for new people to connect and others to reconnect.”
R. Darin Hollingsworth, president of the Liberace Foundation, a popular attraction among LGBT tourists that celebrates the life and times of the legendary performer, reinforces Hall’s sentiment that the Gay & Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada is a valuable resource for those who want to experience the many sides of Vegas.
“Some will enjoy fantastic spas or restaurants, others will want to play into the whole gambling spirit,” he says. “Still others will use Vegas as home base for some excellent outdoor adventures.”
Adventures such as soaring over the Grand Canyon in a helicopter or stepping onto the new Skywalk, a glass bridge suspended 4,000 feet above the Colorado River.
Babs Daitch, tour guide and proprietor of Thanks Babs The Day Tripper, says that she “can keep anyone busy for at least a week” on her queer-geared trips that also include river rafting excursions, kayaking on Lake Mead, and discovery tours of the Hoover Dam.
While the list of alternatives to traditional Las Vegas expands, however, the LGBT tourist shouldn’t forget what’s at the heart of this sand-surrounded city – or why they’ve flocked to it in the first place.
Vegas, at its best, is a desert getaway – the Entertainment Capital of the World – created expressly to drown sorrows in several rounds of blackjack and even more shots of bourbon, spend hard-earned rent money to engage in immoral activity, and barely make it out alive. It grants all of its visitors, regardless of their sexuality, a free pass to indulge in life’s greatest existential pleasures – and the anonymity to lie about it once they return home.
As R. Darin Hollingsworth puts it, “It’s not called ‘Fabulous Las Vegas’ for nothin’”
Michael A. Knipp is a New York City-based freelance writer and the founder of Line/Byline Communications. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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