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Las Vegas Transgender

(c) Dennis McBride, 2010

Background of the Transgender Community in Las Vegas

Transgender people have long been part of Las Vegas history, even though they have usually been left out of the social and political development of the gay community, and have been far slower in establishing a community of their own.

Entertainment

Nowhere in Las Vegas has the presence of transgender people been felt more than in entertainment. Christine Jorgensen, the glamorous transgender entertainer whose story rocked the world during the Cold War, first appeared on the Las Vegas Strip in the Sahara’s Congo Room on November 3, 1953. Christine opened to SRO crowds and kept the room filled for two weeks. Despite her success, the Clark County Sheriff threatened to arrest Christine if she appeared on the streets of Las Vegas in women’s clothing, a threat never carried through. Christine returned to Las Vegas in 1955 in the Silver Slipper’s What Is It? revue.[1]

Another internationally renowned transgender entertainer who worked Las Vegas was Jennifer Fox, who underwent genital surgery in 1968. Fox opened at the Gay 90s Club in North Las Vegas on October 5, 1970. The advertisements were sensational and exploited Jennifer’s surgery—which was a marketing ploy Fox herself approved: "I didn't let the public know about it at first. I continued to build my name as a stripper. ... We decided to advertise [my surgery] as a special attraction. And it worked. It's been good for business." Two years later, Jennifer opened at the Hippodrome Theatre in Circus Circus in Ann Corio’s Best of Burlesque.[2]

One of the most beloved transgender persons associated with Las Vegas, however, was no longer performing by the time she got here. Hedy Jo Bucinskas, also known as Hedy Jo Star, was one of Las Vegas's greatest costume designers. Born Carl Hammonds in 1920, Hedy ran away from home as a teenager to live as a woman, working in burlesque shows as a kootch dancer, and in carnival sideshows as a half man/half woman. Hedy also wrote two books: I Changed My Sex!and Sequel to I Changed My Sex!, both of which today are extremely rare and valuable. When Hedy quit performing, she married, and began a new career as a costume designer in Boston where one of her first clients was Kenny Kerr, whose career as a female impersonator was just beginning. In Las Vegas, Hedy and her husband owned Hedy Jo Star Theatrical Costumes where Hedy offered costumes "custom made to order only" from 1981-86. Hedy Jo died in 1999 when the silicone she’d had implanted to feminize her contours migrated to her lungs and suffocated her.[3]

In 1992, popular Las Vegas performer Jahna Reis Steele [born John Steele], a star of the Riviera Hotel's Crazy Girls Revue for five years, revealed herself as transgender on national television. Crazy Girls producer Norbert Aleman refused to renew Jahna's contract then rehired her six weeks later when it was clear the publicity was good for the show — he even joined her for her second appearance on Maury Povich. Steele had been performing in Las Vegas since the early 1980s, and as late as 2004 hosted "The World's Most Beautiful Transsexual Contest" at the Riviera Hotel in Las Vegas. Steele died on January 24, 2008.[4]

Activists

Not all notable transgender people in Las Vegas were entertainers. Celeste Tate, born William F. Evans, was founder of the nationally-recognized charity food bank, Gleaners, Inc. Celeste was outed in August 1990 when the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a three-part exposé of the Gleaners. Celeste died in 1995 after a series of strokes.[5] Andrea Hackett, fired from her job as an exotic dancer at the Deja Vu Showgirls strip club and then blacklisted when she outed herself as transgender in a 2003 interview with Las Vegas City Life, is proudly socialist. Hackett founded the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance and has had several well documented confrontations with the Las Vegas political establishment over her union activities and liberal politics.[6] After being repeatedly discriminated against, transgender veteran Tamara Pickett, born Terry Lee, successfully fought the Veterans Administration and its local medical establishment for decent and dignified treatment.[7]

"How did Kate Bornstein put it?" Las Vegas advocate and therapist Jane Heenan asks. "To try and identify who is trans [is] like trying to apply the laws of solids to the state of fluids. Trans identity is fluid but it exists in a way that is visibly different, changing from day to day, week to week, year to year. Maybe community isn't about definitions of who share[s] this characteristic or that. Community is persons who are willing to extend a hand and to celebrate your success and to be there in your struggle."[8]

Organizations

The earliest written record of a home-grown organization for transgender people in Las Vegas is a short article announcing formation in 1985 of the Transition Club "for Transapiens who are Transvestites, Post-op Transsexual, and Cross-dressers. This club will assist with attitude, makeup, proper clothing (get away from high drag), and meeting others with special qualities."[9] Other organizations have included the Turnabouts [ca. 1991]; Silk, Satin, and Lace Girls [1993]; Theta Upsilon Gamma [the Las Vegas chapter of Tri-Ess—the Society for the Second Self (1995)]; the Nevada Gender League [1997]; Transgender Support and Advocacy of Nevada [TSAN (1998)]; and the Coquette Society of Las Vegas [1999]. There have been many informal private social groups, as well, such as Escape, Ginger's Girls, Jennie's Friends, Orb and Scepter, and Tanya's Trops.[10] On October 16, 1999, the Desert Winds Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality sponsored the first transgender perspective conference ever held in Nevada on the University of Nevada, Las Vegas campus.[11] Both the First Annual Transgender Health Fair on October 31, 2009 and the Las Vegas observance of the national Transgender Day of Remembrance on November 20, 2009 were both well attended and showed promise for growth of a transgender community in southern Nevada.[12]

Other instances of transgender community have included retail establishments such as the Glamour Boutique [2001-2003] and Leona’s Hidden Woman [2002], which sponsored weekly transgender fashion shows at Sasha’s nightclub.[13] On New Year's Eve 1999 Gary Stringer, also known as Debbie, opened the formerly gay Las Vegas Lounge at 900 East Karen Avenue as a transgender nightclub, which remains open at the time of this writing. The transgender club Zinger's, however, lasted only a few months at 1000 East Sahara Avenue.[14] Jane Heenan wrote a column for Lesbian Visions called "Trans News & Notes," [and performed one of the starring roles in the Center Stage, Inc. production of Kate Bornstein's Hidden: A Gender, the first transgender play ever performed in Las Vegas.[15] Transgender activist Randy Lloyd for two years wrote a column for the Las Vegas Bugle, taking up where Jane Heenan left off.[16]

Political Disappointments

But it has been a series of political disappointments that’s done more to unite the Las Vegas transgender community than anything else. Where Nevada’s gay and lesbian community has benefited from repeal of the state’s sodomy law, anti-discrimination legislation, and a domestic partnership law, transgender people have been deliberately left out. In 1999, when then-Nevada State Assemblyman David Parks introduced the employment non-discrimination bill AB 311, Jane Heenan publicly opposed it because it addressed only sexual orientation and not gender expression, which Parks and others felt would have made the bill politically unpalatable among legislators whose votes they needed. Parks was probably correct; AB 311 passed.[17] Ten years later, Parks, now a state senator, had introduced in the Assembly AB 184, which would have added gender identity and gender expression to the state’s employment non-discrimination law, and SB 207, a bill forbidding Nevada businesses to discriminate against gay people, which was to have included an amendment with language giving protection to trans people, as well. AB 184 died in committee, while SB 207 lost its transgender amendment in the legislative process before successful passage.[18]

Future

Whether a transgender community will blossom in Las Vegas in the same sense a gay and lesbian community has bloomed remains a point of debate. And the debate is leaning in the direction of more transgender educational and political action. In 2009 Jane Heenan and a group of her associates aligned themselves with Equality Nevada to work toward more inclusive state legislation.[19]

“It’s one thing to pass a law,” Heenan says. “It’s another thing to educate the people it’s supposed to protect. There’s always a lot of work to do.”

Notes

  1. Christine Jorgenson, Christine Jorgsensen: A Personal Autobiography, [New York, NY: Paul S. Erickssen, Inc., 1967], 209-211, 213-214, 216-221, 225, 227-231, 232, 237-239, 265-266, 272-274; Harry Eugene Baldwin, "I Am Woman: The Turbulent Life of Christine Jorgensen," in Frontiers, 6.22.01, 71-72, 74, 86; Fabulous Las Vegas (June 20, 1953), 15; (July 11, 1953), 3; (October 31, 1953), 2; (November 7, 1953), 3, 18, 27, 33, back cover; (December 14, 1953), 3, 18, 33; (November 5, 1955), 23, 30; (November 12, 1955), 42; (November 19, 1955), 25, 35; (November 26, 1955), 25, 37, 45; (December 10, 1955), 29, 49, 55; Las Vegas Review-Journal (May 29, 1953). 12; evening ed., (June 4, 1953), 6; morning ed., (June 5, 1953), 1, and evening ed., 9; (November 3, 1953), 6; (November 4, 1953), 2; (November 5, 1953), 17; (November 6, 1953), 12; (November 8, 1953), 2; (November 9, 1953), 5; (November 10, 1953), 8; (November 11, 1953), 19; (November 12, 1953), 13; (November 13, 1953), 6; (November 15, 1953), 8, 20; (November 16, 1953), 11; (November 18, 1955), 15; Los Angeles Times (May 29, 1953), section I, 4;Panorama (March 10, 1972), 18.
  2. Las Vegas Sun (October 9, 1970), 14; (January 9, 1972), 13; (January 14, 1972), 8, and "Scene," 14; (January 19, 1972), 13; Panorama (October 16, 1970), 2, 7; (October 24, 1970), 2, 21; (October 31, 1970), 2; (November 7, 1970), 2; (January 21, 1972), 1, 2, 4, 13; (January 28, 1972), 6; (February 4, 1972), 32; (February 5, 1972), 36; (February 11, 1972), 32; Las Vegas Review-Journal (October 9, 1970), 14; Fabulous Las Vegas (January 22, 1972), 14; (February 19, 1972), 15-16; University of Nevada, Las Vegas Lied Library Special Collections Department [hereafter noted as UNLVSC] MS #22; Laverne Cummings and Tony Midnight, interview by Dennis McBride, August 29, 2000 [author’s transcript].
  3. Las Vegas Sun (April 19, 1999), 4B; Las Vegas Review-Journal (April 20, 1999), 2B; cf. Las Vegas Review-Journal (April 3, 2004), 14A; Hedy Jo Star, I Changed My Sex! [Chicago, IL: Novel Books, Inc., 1963] and Sequel to I Changed My Sex! [Chicago, IL: Novel Books, Inc., 1964]; Joanne Meyerowitz, How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002], 198-199, 200, 218-219; Kenny Kerr, interview by Dennis McBride, May 29-30, 2001 [author’s transcript]; Cummings/Midnite interview.
  4. Las Vegas Mirror (March 9, 1984), 5, 13; What's On (March 13, 1984), 16; Bohemian Bugle(September 1986), 13; Las Vegas Sun (November 28, 1986), 6C; Las Vegas Sun Showbiz Magazine(August 28, 1988), 8; (June 9, 1992), 1E, 6E; Las Vegas Review-Journal (June 14, 1992), 1J, 5J; (July 22, 2004, 3A); (July 24, 2004), 3A; (January 29, 2008), 4B; Out Las Vegas (July 2004), 17; Las Vegas Weekly (July 22, 2004), 56; (July 29, 2004), 18-19; Las Vegas City Life (July 29, 2004), 13; (August 5, 2004), 6; QVegas (December 2005), 34.
  5. Newsweek (July 10, 1989), 56; Las Vegas Sun (October 10, 1989), 1B; (October 11, 1995), 2B; Las Vegas Review-Journal (August 12, 1990), 1A, 16A-18A; (August 13, 1990), 1A, 5A; (August 14, 1990), 1A, 4A; (June 21, 1991), 1B; (September 28, 1991), 1B-2B.
  6. Las Vegas City Life (April 17, 2003), cover, 18-20; (April 24, 2003), 6, 16; (August 28, 2003), 14-15; (November 20, 2003), 15; (November 27, 2003), 8, 11; (December 25, 2003), 20; Las Vegas Mercury(December 4, 2003), 14; Las Vegas Sun (February 11, 2005), 4B.
  7. Tamara Pickett, interview by Dennis McBride, November 1 and 8, 2002 [author’s transcript]; UNLVSC MS #2003-7.
  8. Jane Heenan, interview by Dennis McBride, June 21, June 28, and August 30, 2005 [author’s transcript].
  9. Nevada Gay Times (February 1985), 11.
  10. Las Vegas Bugle (April 1993), 27; (August/September 1993), 33-34; (December 1996/January 1997), 53; (August 1998), 16; (November 26, 1999), 17; Lesbian Visions of Southern Nevada (April 1994), 6;Las Vegas City Life (October 28, 1999), 32; Constitution of the Coquette Society [author’s collection]; UNLVSC MS #2003-7; Heenan interview; Pickett interview.
  11. Las Vegas Bugle (November 26, 1999), 17; Las Vegas City Life (October 28, 1999), 32.
  12. Night Beat (December 2009), 10, 14; ephemera [author’s collection]
  13. Lesbian Voice (September 2001), 27, 31; Las Vegas Bugle (December 7, 2001), 14; (September 12, 2003), 47; (October 24, 2003), 49; Out Las Vegas (September 2001), 39; (January 2002), 13, 34:1-2; Out Las Vegas Bugle (June 21, 2002), 31; (July 19, 2002), 42:3; (August 16, 2002), 32, 41:3; (September 13, 2002), 32.
  14. Las Vegas Bugle (February 1999), 30, 47; (December 10, 1999), 3; Out Las Vegas (January 2000), 6, 30, back cover; (February 2000), 4; (March 2000), 4, 22; (January 2001), 18, 22:3; Out Las Vegas Bugle(November 22, 2002), 30, 41, 48; Las Vegas City Life (February 3, 2000), 60; (January 6, 2005), 42; Las Vegas Weekly (August 19, 2004), 29-31; Night Beat (December 2004), 42:1; Las Vegas Sun (October 28, 2005), 7.
  15. Lesbian Voice (November 2000), 28; (January 2001), 20; (May 2001), 23; Las Vegas Bugle (August 2, 2000), 10, 11; (September 1, 2000), 32; Las Vegas Sun (September 1, 2000), 8E; Las Vegas City Life(September 14, 2000), 55; Las Vegas Weekly (September 14, 2000), 41; McBride journals, September 17, 2000 [author’s collection]; UNLVSC MS #2003-7; Alana Brown, interview by Dennis McBride, May 26, 2008 [author’s transcript]; Heenan interview.
  16. Out Las Vegas Bugle (September 13, 2002), 34-35; Las Vegas Bugle (April 25, 2003), 65; (March 12, 2004), 34-35; Las Vegas City Life (September 14, 2000), 55; Las Vegas Weekly (September 14, 2000), 41.
  17. Las Vegas Review-Journal (March 19, 1999), 2B; (March 22, 1999), 1B-2B; Las Vegas Sun (March 22, 1999), 3B; Las Vegas City Life (April 22, 1999), 7-8; (August 12, 1999), 31; (October 28, 1999), 32; Las Vegas Bugle (July 9, 1999), 14; (December 10, 1999), 18; Lesbian Voice (December 2000), 21, 27; Lori Brown, interviews by Dennis McBride, March 17, 1998 [UNLVSC F845.25 L57 L57 1998] and September 12, 2005 [author’s transcripts]; David Parks, interviews by Dennis McBride, February 16 and 21, 2000 and January 31, 2007 [author’s transcripts]; Heenan interview.
  18. AB 184 text; Assembly Daily Journal, February 17, 2009, 8; Las Vegas City Life (April 2, 2009), cover, 13; QVegas (January 2010), 22.
  19. QVegas (January 2010), 22-23.