Women United of Nevada
(c) Dennis McBride, 2010
An Organization for Women
The first separately founded, lesbian-identified organization in Las Vegas was Women United of Nevada [WUN], established in February 1987 in part from the remnants of a short-lived lesbian organization called Friends.
A few months earlier, in April 1986, Pisces Murphy from Las Vegas attended the second annual Desert and Mountain States Lesbian and Gay Conference in Phoenix, Arizona and came home with stories from conference participants about lesbian social organizations in their home towns. Pisces and her lover, Ann Occhi, and their friends, lovers Pennie Kubla and Judy Brandt, decided to start such an organization in Las Vegas with several women who had been members of Friends, and part of the Women’s Concerns Group of the defunct political organization, Nevadans for Human Rights.
Women United’s first organizational meeting was held on Wednesday, February 4, 1987. Even though it was founded by lesbians for lesbians, WUN's documents and literature were "cleansed of the 'L' word" in deference to its closeted members. Nowhere in the newsletters or founding papers does the word "lesbian" appear; in fact, Article II in the organization's first bylaws notes that "The primary goal of WUN is to enrich the quality of life not only for women, but for all persons regardless of ethnic background, religion, gender or sexual orientation." To this end, among the first advisors of the group was a gay man, Michael Loewy, founder of the Desert and Mountain States conferences and president of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas's Lesbian Gay Academic Union. Despite Mike Loewy’s advisory role, men were not allowed to join WUN or attend its meetings. Even when confronted with a male-to-female transgendered person who wanted to join, Pennie Kubla recalls, “Members were uncomfortable and kept her out.” As far its public face went, WUN's lesbian identity remained hidden nearly to the end of its existence. Even in the local gay press, WUN was described as "an organization for women interested in alternative social situations." Nevertheless, Women United of Nevada provided an important vehicle of connection and communication for the Las Vegas lesbian community.
Social Events & Music
WUN was founded to be a social organization, sponsoring a softball team, camping trips, dances, potlucks, programs, and lectures. The organization found its social home at the Gipsy nightclub, owned by WUN member Sue Melfi and her husband, Chuck. When WUN was having trouble finding meeting space Bohemian Bugle publisher Rob Schlegel arranged room for the women first at a coffeehouse across from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas called the Newsroom; then upstairs of a beauty shop on Las Vegas Boulevard called Z's Head of Tangles; and finally in the Metropolitan Community Church sanctuary on Main Street. Former member Rose Pry, today a noted novelist, recalls the women removing the cross from the sanctuary for the duration of their meetings. “We didn’t wanna have any religious affiliation at all," she says. "Most of us have an aversion to it."
Women United was also the organization which first introduced women's music to Las Vegas. Born as a largely underground movement in feminist and lesbian-feminist political culture of the 1970s, women's music grew into an important means of lesbian expression. The movement, however, had passed Las Vegas by. Women United member Judy Corbisiero, who had produced women's music in upstate New York before she moved to Las Vegas in 1983 to be with her lover, Gudrun Fonfa, was the person who worked to bring that movement to southern Nevada. Judy had been shocked by the absence of women’s music or culture in Las Vegas, and it was Gudrun who encouraged her to renew her East Coast contacts, and provided seed money for Judy to begin producing WUN’s musical events. The first concert Judy produced in Las Vegas as WUN Productions was a performance by the Fabulous Dyketones at WUN's "Christmas, Solstice, Hannukah, Season's Greetings" party at the Sahara Hotel on December 11, 1988. The party was a success when more than 200 women attended. Because the budget was so tight, the Dyketones crashed at Judy’s and Gudrun’s house (Read Judy Corbisiero's recollections of women's music in the 1970s).
Over the next two years Judy and Gudrun brought some of the most famous artists in women's music to Las Vegas for WUN events. These included Alix Dobkin, Debbie Fier, Deidre McCalla, Chris Williamson and Tret Fure, Lucy Blue Tremblay, Dianne Davidson, and local duo Cashmere and Silk. Judy recalls that Las Vegas women’s audiences weren’t as receptive to the more political performers, but loved the comedians she brought to town, such as Monica Grant and Lyn Lavner. Unfortunately, these women’s concerts weren’t profitable, and while they were important vehicles for establishing women’s culture in Las Vegas, Women United soon stopped sponsoring concerts altogether and returned to its cozy social roots of picnics and dances and parties at Lake Mead.
There had been contention brewing at Women United for some time between those who wanted to keep the organization social and those who wanted it to be more politically active and feminist-identified. On April 26, 1989, for instance, political activist members of WUN were among 100 pro-choice advocates defending the Birth Control Care Center at 917 South Decatur Boulevard against nearly 200 Operation Rescue fanatics who tried to destroy the facility. This and other political actions angered the more socially oriented members of Women United, and as more feminist-minded women moved into Las Vegas and joined WUN, the membership split. Several women, led by Judy Corbisiero, left Women United to found the Women’s Herstorical Society whose purpose was to buy a building in which to establish a women’s center, open a women’s bar and music production facility, establish a library and coffee house, and offer a job-training service.
The Herstorical Society sponsored several events to raise money, including a concert by musician/storytellers Caryl and Ardy in November 1989, performances by Monica Grant and Teresa Trull, and a Lesbian Prom Night in the Royal Pavilion of the Four Queens Hotel on Fremont Street in 1990. While none of these events was particularly successful, it was failure of the prom that killed the Herstorical Society--Judy Corbisiero lost $1500 of her own money and realized there wasn't enough interest in the lesbian community to found a women's center. The Herstorical Society died and its members drifted back into WUN.
Women United, however, never recovered from its political fractures. There were other women's groups forming in the community which drained away WUN members and much of its purpose. It was also victim to burnout which afflicts most organizations eventually. In addition, there was a religious element some felt worked toward the demise of Women United when overzealous members of the Metropolitan Community Church [MCC], who belonged to WUN, proselytized the other women, urging them to join MCC.
Women United lingered on through 1993 when the group rewrote its bylaws to at last state clearly that it was an organization "formed by and for lesbians." Nevertheless, participation dwindled steadily until December 1993 when Rose Pry wrote, "Some of those who are still active in the group are reluctant to call it the end. Others say we should let the longest lasting lesbian organization in Las Vegas history go with dignity. I say W. U. N. isn't dead, but she sure is breathing funny."
Women United of Nevada came to an end on February 12, 1994. There was enough money left in the treasury to throw a Valentine's Day dance at the Gipsy where the group's first Valentine's Day dance had been held six year’s before. In a gracious last gesture to the community, Women United of Nevada gave its coveted membership list to the newly-founded Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.
- Bohemian Bugle (July 1986), 2; (August 1986), 1; (September 1986), 20; (November 1986)
- Pennie Kubla, interview by Dennis McBride, September 11, 2008 [author’s transcript]; Gudrun Fonfa, interview by Dennis McBride, June 15 and 22, 2008 [author’s transcript].
- Kubla interview; Fonfa interview.
- Bohemian Bugle (February 1987), 15; (May 1987), 18; Las Vegas Bugle (December 1993), 28-30; Women United of Nevada bylaws, April 13, 1987 [author’s collection]; Women United of Nevada Newsletter [heareafter noted as Newsletter (February 1989)], 1; Women United of Nevada brochure, c. 1989-93 [author’s collection]; Judy Corbisiero, interview by Dennis McBride, September 5, 2003; May 21, 2004; July 2, 2004; December 10, 2004 [author's transcript]; Kubla interview.
- Susan Carratelli, interview by Dennis McBride, June 24 and 26, 1999 [author’s transcript]; Sally MacEachern, interview by Dennis McBride, February 24 and March 11, 2002 [author’s transcript]; Deborah Cameron, interview by Dennis McBride, August 17, 2006 [author’s transcript].
- Las Vegas Bugle (December 1993), 28-30; Rose Pry, interview by Dennis McBride, August 24, 2008 [author’s transcript]; Rob Schlegel interview, March 9-11, 21-22 and April 11, 1998 [author's transcript].
- Carratelli interview
- Bohemian Bugle (October 1988), 9; Las Vegas Bugle (December 1988), 6; (January 1989), 11; (December 1993), 28-30; Corbisiero interview; Fonfa interview.
- Bohemian Bugle (October 1988), 9; Las Vegas Bugle (January 1989), 1, 11; (February 1989), 1, 11; (March 1989), 17; (June 1989), 1, 9-10; (July 1989), 1, 4; (September 1989), 3, 5, 6; (October 1989), 3, 5, 11; (February 1990), 1, 6, 7; (March 1990), 1, 10; (October/November 1990), 1, 22; (November/December 1990), 3; (December 1993), 28-30; Nevada Territory (August 1989), 23; Newsletter(February 1989), 2; (March 1989), 1; Women United of Nevada ephemera [author’s collection]; Carratelli interview; Corbisiero interview; Pry interview.
- Las Vegas Bugle (May 1989), 1, 4; Las Vegas Review-Journal (April 27, 1989), 1A, 4A.
- Las Vegas Bugle (December 1993), 28-30; Newsletter (February 1989), 1-2; (April 1989), 5; (June 1989), 1; Carratelli interview; Corbisiero interview; Fonfa interview; Kubla interview; MacEachern interview; Pry interview.
- Las Vegas Bugle (November 1989), 6; (March 1990), 1, 3, 10; (April 1990), 19, 25; (May 1990), 12, 18; (June 1990), 1-2, 5; Carratelli interview; Corbisiero interview.
- Las Vegas Bugle (March 1991), 31; (May 1991), 21; (July 1991), 17; (November 1992), 5; (September/October 1993), 57; (December 1993), 28-30; Cameron interview; Carratelli interview; Fonfa interview; Kubla interview; MacEachern interview.
- Women United of Nevada bylaws, 1993 [author’s collection]; Las Vegas Bugle (December 1993), 28-30; cf. Carratelli interview; Corbisiero interview; Fonfa interview.
- Bohemian Bugle (February 1988), 14; Las Vegas Bugle (January 1994), 30.