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As Pride celebrates its 28th year, pioneering gay community activists remember the struggles -- and the triumphs

Nowadays, it's pretty easy to be a gay activist in Las Vegas. It's no longer risky to be out of the closet in most quarters - even at Nellis Air Force Base - thanks to laws that protect workers and customers from discrimination based on sexual orientation. This month's Las Vegas Pride celebration, then, will be yet another celebration of how far society has come, and few who attend will think twice about being seen there.
 

It wasn't always this way. Just a few decades ago, those willing to be publicly identified as gay or lesbian around here could be counted in the dozens. Even on the Strip, prominent entertainers left their orientation nebulous and certainly never worked towards legal advances. The idea of politicians appearing at Pride to court voters was as absurd then as it is routine now.

Several people stepped out on behalf of others before it was safe to do so, and Desert Companion gathered six of them in August to discuss how we got here. Here are highlights of that conversation.

DC: The earliest recollections would be yours, Dennis. What existed at the time you realized you were gay?

McBride: There were a few gay bars in the very early 1970s. Marge Jacques opened Le Café about 1970. There was Maxine's, way out on Nellis and Charleston, which opened in the early 1950s. There was 1610 down on Charleston and The Confederacy, opened in 1976. But there really was no community in the sense of a bunch of gay people getting together to do any kind of self-realization or build organizations or anything like that. It was strictly bars. You just grew up, as I did, knowing Maxine's was gay, and Le Café was here, and that's where you went.

DC: Were these back-alley places people snuck into?

McBride: Most were pretty much open. Le Café had a nice big neon sign, the Red Barn had a neon sign that's been saved now down at the Neon Museum at the Fremont Street Experience. But being gay itself was still very underground, kind of deliciously naughty. The first adult bookstore I went to was Talk of the Town at Eastern and Charleston. I saved a little coffee can of quarters so that when I turned 21, I went to Talk of the Town and went to every single booth to see all of the movies. That was mysterious and strange and fascinating.

DC: Weren't there police raids, too?

Schlegel: There were, but in general it was self-enforced. For instance, show kids from the Strip would come to The Gypsy to put on a show at 2 in the morning after work even the early '90s, but it always had to have this heterosexual flavor because the Gaming Control Board could come down on a club that had a show with guy-on-guy dancing.

DC: At gay bars?

McBride: Yes. There were also anti-cross-dressing laws where a man could not be caught wearing more than one article of clothing belonging to the opposite sex. It even sounds stupid trying to explain it. But, that meant no drag shows. They raided Village Station bar in 1980 and shut it down.

'He got away with it.
Many others didn't'
DC: What would happen in a raid?

Schlegel: They would block every door to the club, make the DJ turn the music off, turn the lights on and the cops would take everybody's name, address, phone number and where they worked, all of their identification, their driver's license numbers and all that stuff. But then they wouldn't really do anything with it.

DC: Were any of you present for a raid?

Plotkin: Yeah, at the Gypsy. It was exactly as Rob described. At least when I was there, they would have everybody line up at the bar and ask questions. It was never really for any purpose, other than to intimidate. Then the police would leave. The OSI (Office of Special Investigations), the Air Force investigative unit, would go through the parking lots looking for Nellis stickers on car bumpers, and that would be enough for them to be discharged.

Schlegel: There were two women from Nellis who had a commitment ceremony at the Metropolitan Community Church on Main Street one Saturday afternoon in the 1980s, and OSI set up cameras and took pictures of people coming. The women got kicked out of the military over that.

McBride: I had a boyfriend for a while from Nellis. We met at Le Café. Two or three times, he took me right onto the base and I spent the night with him in the officers' quarters. Somehow, he got away with it. Many others didn't.

'It was powerful to
declare yourself'
DC: When did a gay "community" emerge?

McBride: I date the beginning to Nevadans for Human Rights in 1978. Lamont Downs and Steve Hinkson, who moved from Rochester, N.Y., started it in their kitchen. They associated themselves with the ACLU, which gave them legitimacy and a platform, and they published the first issue of Vegas Gay Times in 1979. That lasted until 1980, went moribund, and re-emerged in 1982. But that period from '79 to '80, was very important because a whole bunch of activists moved here from other places. The Gay Academic Union at UNLV was established in 1980, and also there was a gay bowling league and Dignity, the gay Catholic group.

Wilsey: Actually, the last publication of Vegas Gay Times was in June of 1981, and I picked it up right when we arrived in town. From that I learned about a Dignity meeting organized by Ron Lawrence.  And we restarted the newspaper, which we called Nevada Gay Times, at our house in 1982.

Schlegel: I always think it's funny, the first real facility for the church was at 510 Garces Avenue, which is Showgirl Adult Video now. Sort of funny.

DC: What was the gay agenda of that era?

Schlegel: Being visible so people knew we were there and so people didn't have to hide so much.

McBride: It was powerful to declare yourself, to standing up with a sign: "I am gay, look at me, deal with it." That had not been done before, and that was important, because visibility really begins a dialogue.

DC: When did Las Vegas have its first gay pride event?

McBride: In 1983, we held the first human rights seminar at UNLV. It was a joint project of MCC, Nevadans for Human Rights and the Gay Academic Union. That was our Gay Pride event. And since it was the first one, it got a lot of play in the local media. Terry was on the news as well as a straight woman ally because they couldn't find any lesbians willing to go on television.

Wilsey: I counted, and there were 193 people in the room for (The Advocate publisher) David Goodstein's keynote speech.

DC: Was there fallout for being on the news, Terry?

Wilsey: Interestingly, no. And we even had the Nevadans for Human Rights listed in the phone book with our street address …

Mulford: Oh, Lord…

Wilsey: … and we never even got trashed.

DC: Was there a sense that the community was starting to coalesce?

Schlegel: Well, after I took over the gay paper in 1986, I took an ad in the Yellow Pages. It was just one line under "Newspapers" that said, "Gay and Lesbian Newspaper for Nevada" and that got me more calls than you can imagine.

Mulford: Negative?

Schlegel: No, good calls. I mean, I got a few weird calls, but mostly it was from people wanting to come out and asking what to do. My number became the gay switchboard. And then I opened my bookstore, Bright Pink Literature - we wanted to make it different from an adult bookstore so we used the word "literature" - and we moved the phone number for the newspaper to the bookstore so somebody could answer it full time. And that is still the number of the bookstore, which is now called Get Booked and is owned by other people.

DC: How did Pride transition from an academic event?

McBride: In 1984, we moved to Sunset Park. It went well for a while, but AIDS really hurt and demoralized the community. Attendance just fell off. By 1991, it looked like Gay Pride was about to die out, and that's when we put one huge thing together, saying this is make-or-break Pride. If it doesn't happen this time, it's just going to be over; we're done, we're finished. But it happened, it worked, and it revived.

Schlegel: I was kind of the bookkeeper at The Gypsy, so I had all these deals with some suppliers, and put the whole thing on the owner's credit line, but he didn't know it, to buy the beer, secure the park, get the permits, buy the ice and cups, and pay for the soda up front. And I put in every dime I had. It would've bankrupted me if it hadn't worked, and the owner would've killed me.

Plotkin: That was a turning point for me, too. That was when I started getting involved. Somebody from Pride asked me for money to take out an ad in the R-J and I said, "Well, why would you pay for an ad? Just send them a press release and I'm sure they'll run a story on it." So I did a press release and within a couple hours I was doing interviews at Bright Pink Literature.

DC: So that Pride was a success?

McBride: Oh, yes. It was the first time any elected official came. It was (then-County Commissioner) Thalia Dondero. To see this person speaking on our behalf and in our favor was magnificent. She got terrible hate mail, and the newspapers had awful letters to the editor. She didn't care.

DC: There were all of these gay Strip entertainers. Were any of them out?

Wilsey: Kenny Kerr.

Plotkin: Breck Wall.

Mulford: Jimmy Emerson.

McBride: Yeah, there were a few big names, like Johnny Mathis and Rusty Warren, and another, Johnny Ray. These were pretty big names. They weren't out, but afterwards, they went out to the gay bars and were very open in the community.

DC: Johnny Mathis was?

McBride: Yes, and Liberace of course.

Wilsey: Well, Siegfried and Roy, too.

Mulford: They never participated in anything.

Wilsey: Yeah, but I did encounter Roy over at the-

Mulford: I'm sure you did. (Laughter)

Schlegel: I recall one comedian - and I'll leave his name out - who, if you looked at him sideways at a gay bar or gave him any recognition, he would throw his beer bottle at you. He got 86'd from some of the bars.

Plotkin: Why do you have to leave his name out?

Schlegel: Well, it was Rip Taylor.

Mulford: Who cares anymore?

McBride: And there was Waylon Flowers …

Wilsey: …and Madame. He was probably the most out because (his puppet) Madame was always talking about being queer.

'You act like that's
going to hurt me'
DC: Were there gay-bashings in Vegas back then?

McBride: My car was vandalized with some windows smashed in and a note thrown in that said "AIDS Faggot" in the early 1990s.

Plotkin: It was like a weekly occurrence if you were at Gypsy in the Fruit Loop area. Everybody would be screaming "Faggot" from cars. I guess it was the thing to do.

Mulford: I had some friends visiting from out of town when I first got here, and we went down to Fremont Street, and people yelled  "Dyke" at us.

Schlegel: (Now-State Sen.) David Parks and I, in my first case of discrimination, were not allowed to become aides for Sen. Chic Hecht, the Republican who defeated Howard Cannon, because it was perceived we were gay. We both worked Hecht's campaign, and that was the first time I ever experienced discrimination for being gay.

Hurley: I remember one time, there was a group who probably just got dropped off accidentally in the Fruit Loop when Lace was open, so these couples were coming in. I think we were doing New Year's or something. And they're like, "No, no, we want to come in there!" They're totally wasted. So I come out, I'm in a tuxedo, and they start looking around and they're like, "You're a fag. A fag! A big fag!" And I'm just looking at them like, "Yes, I am, thank you very much! You act like that's going to hurt me." It was funny because my parents were there and my mom walks up, and she's like, "Yeah, and that fag's my daughter!" You know, it was, like, the weirdest circumstance, like, this kid, it totally deflated him from being so angry, like, "I have no idea what to say at this point." He was literally going to fight us, he was so angry, and it just totally took it away from him.

DC: Strutt, when you arrived in the early 90s, what surprised you?

Hurley: It felt very separate. In Detroit, men and women worked together, all the bars worked together. We had a bar guild. And I mean, this was, like, 50, 60 bars. And here, there were, like, a handful. I thought, "How weird. Why are they fighting with each other?"

Plotkin: One consideration, not a defense, but Las Vegas is a very young city, whereas Midwestern cities are 200 years old, so they had a little bit more practice.

Hurley: No, I totally get it, but that felt really strange to me.

Mulford: It's like a bunch of high school girls that are fighting with each other. And it seems like it's been that way at least since I got here, not that I brought it with me. It's like this overriding feeling that there isn't enough to go around. There isn't enough spotlight. There aren't enough advertisers. There aren't enough patrons for the bars. So I'm going to have mine, and don't dip into my pot. And it seems like it still persists.

Wilsey: We tried to organize a bar guild a number of times, and they wouldn't even talk to each other.

Plotkin: On the upside politically, Nevada does have some watershed moments. The critical one was in 1993, the repeal of Nevada's same-sex sodomy law.

'Who is this straight woman?'
DC: Talk about that political effort. How did that happen?

Schlegel: It was led by a naïve straight woman who didn't ask our permission, and she went and did it, and we were shocked.

McBride: And the gay community stopped fighting itself long enough to make something good happen.

Mulford: We were the most unified then, in the 20 years that I've been here, men and women working together, and happily.

Plotkin: At the time, Kevin Kelly, a local attorney, was mounting a legal challenge to the sodomy law at the same time state Sen. Lori Lipman Brown put forward her bill in the Legislature.

DC: So this wasn't an organized political action. It was something that popped up?

McBride: Not initially. In 1992, some of us got together and formed an organization.

Schlegel: The plan was to wait until the last few hours of the Legislature and just pass this thing quietly.

McBride: As Lee said, another group we derisively call "The A Gays" because they have money and political influence, were working on their own little effort, too, through the courts. Then came Lori Lipman Brown, a freshman, who didn't even know any of that was going on. She just wrote and introduced this bill and threw the community into a tizzy. We were very scared and upset. "Who's this straight woman who's looking out for our interests? Shame on her."

Schlegel: We thought she had torpedoed all of our efforts.

McBride: But then (prominent AIDS doctor) Jerry Cade said, "Hey, what's happened has happened. Let's make the best of it."

Schlegel: A bunch of us met in my office and formed Nevadans for Constitutional Equality, raised about $12,000, hired a lobbyist and helped Lori. The first time we ever pooled our resources.

McBride: We really made a huge difference when we learned to stop sniping at each other, and to coordinate and cooperate. And that was the first time that the straight community, through Lori Lipman-Brown, really came to our aid.

'They're standing
on our shoulders'
DC: What do current gay leaders need to know about the history of this? Do you think the kids fighting for marriage today understand what it took to get here?

Mulford: I don't think they take any interest in it whatsoever. They're standing on our shoulders, and we stood on and are standing on somebody else's shoulders. Do you think (party promoter) Eduardo Cordova has any kind of challenge squeezing money out of the Mirage or wherever he has his parties? It's a breeze! He's never come up against somebody who has said, "I can't publicly support you. I can't give you any money. I can't advertise."
 
Hurley: It's all technology now. Where we had to beat the path to get the word out to tell everybody what was going on, now it's just "text to number, bloop, bloop, bloop."

Schlegel: It was never about recognition for what any of us did, but by the same token, it'd be nice to say, "Oh, you guys won the war," or whatever. It just sort of hurts a little bit when nobody recognizes or pays attention to you.

McBride: Well, you know, on one hand, I think they don't appreciate what we went through and what we put up with. But on the other hand, I think how successful we were, because they take so much for granted now. They just take it for granted.

Schlegel: They have no inkling.

McBride: I hope they never find out. 

The Las Vegas Pride festival and parade takes place Sept. 16-17. For information, visit
www.lasvegaspride.org. 

 

 


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