On October 30, 1861, the Legislative Assembly of the Territory of Nevada passed a law which read, "The infamous crime against nature, either with man or beast, shall subject the offender to be punished by imprisonment in the Territorial prison for a term not less than five years, and which may extend to life." For more than a hundred years what became known as Nevada Revised Statute 201.190—Nevada's sodomy law—was used to terrify, blackmail, and persecute gay people. As a result, the queer history of Nevada until the last half of the 20th century is a history of unjust criminal prosecution.
Institutionalized repression isolated Nevada’s queer population from the rest of the country where there were stirrings of community through such organizations as the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and through such shared events as the Stonewall Riots in June 1969.
Stonewall, however, was ignored by Nevada’s media. Gay life in the Silver State was restricted to bars, tea rooms, and private parties. Police at both ends of the state routinely conducted sting operations to entrap gay people, while the legislature tweaked NRS 201.190 to broaden its reach and deepen its punishment. In addition, political repression with religious roots--principally from the state’s Mormons--at all levels of government in the state kept Nevada’s gay people fearful and closeted. The concept of community was alien.
There were activists in the state, however, who were unafraid to work openly. In Northern Nevada, Phil Ragsdale, who was Emperor I of the Silver Dollar Court, conceived of the Reno Gay Rodeo in 1975 as a fundraiser for the organization. The rodeo raised the profile of the state’s gay people and went far toward establishing community and national recognition.
In Southern Nevada, lesbian Marge Jacques, who owned Le Café in Las Vegas in the 1970s, spoke publicly in behalf of her community. She provided a defacto community center in her bar—until it was torched in 1978. By then, however, Marge’s first efforts toward building community inspired others to be open and proactive. As Nevada’s population boomed in the 1980s and ‘90s, gay people from throughout the country brought their ideas and energy to establish organizations, clubs, and events.
While Nevada’s queer community was late to develop, its rise was rapid, so that by 1993 it had the political clout necessary to have the state’s notorious sodomy law repealed. By 2009, the community had obtained a variety of equal protections in state law, including employment nondiscrimination, health decisions and hospital visitation, and domestic partnership.
Despite recent gains, however important and hard-won, Nevada’s queer community still has a long way to go before it reaches the constitutional promise of full equality. Nevertheless, the community’s growth in Nevada, together with its increasing social and political capital, has been a remarkable and encouraging evolution.