About the Las Vegas, Nevada Outhistory Project
(c) Dennis McBride, 2009
Gay History in Nevada and Las Vegas
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.
Dennis McBride, Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas
Crystal Van Dee, Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas
Paul Ershler, Lambda Business and Professional Association
List of Articles
Below is a list of the articles we have submitted to the Since Stonewall Out History Project.
- Nevada Timeline: A timeline of events since the Stonewall Riots, 1969 - 2009
- Las Vegas, Nevada OutHistory Image Gallery: A collection of all of the images used throughout our articles.
- Kenny Kerr: Entertainer Kenny Kerr shares memories of the 1969 Stonewall Riots.
- Le Café : Established in 1970, Le Café was the base of operations for the emerging gay community in southern Nevada.
- Metropolitan Community Church: An article from March 1974 in the Las Vegas Review-Journal notes that Rev. Clonnie Lambert is pastor of a Las Vegas chapter of the Metropolitan Community Church(MCC).
- ACLU-Las Vegas: In 1975, The American Civil Liberties Union [ACLU] opened an office in Las Vegas with a $5,000 grant from the national office. ACLU involvement in Las Vegas eventually led to the gay community's first newspaper.
- Reno Gay Rodeo (RGR): This rodeo, which officially began in 1977, raised the profile of the state’s gay people and went far toward establishing community and national recognition.
- Boylesque: Female impersonation in Las Vegas, with a focus on Boylesque, which began its long run in 1977.
- Nevadans for Human Rights: Founded in 1978, Nevadans for Human Rights was the first gay rights organization in Las Vegas.
- Gay Academic Union: Closely associated with Las Vegas' first Gay Pride Celebration, UNLV's Gay Academic Union held its first meeting at in 1982.
- Las Vegas' first Gay Pride Celebration: Las Vegas held its first Gay Pride Celebration in 1983.
- AIDS in Southern Nevada: In 1983, A 32-year-old man, resident in Las Vegas for just six months, was Southern Nevada's first AIDS death.
- Stonewall Park: In 1984, Reno gay activist Fred Schoonmaker and his husband, Alfred Parkinson, initiated a series of efforts to establish a gay town in Nevada known as Stonewall Park.
- Women United of Nevada: Founded in 1987, Women United of Nevada [WUN], was the first separately founded, lesbian-identified organization in Las Vegas.
- Bright Pink Literature (Get Booked): Bright Pink Literature (later becoming Get Booked), opened in 1987. While more famous bookstores across the country, such as A Different Light and the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, have closed as LGBT literature has gone “mainstream,” Bright Pink Literature (Get Booked) has survived for more than 20 years.
- Community Counseling Center: In 1990 the Community Counseling Center opened at 1006-1008 East Sahara Avenue. Within a short time Community Counseling becomes one of the gay community's greatest resources.
- Senate Bill 466: Until the 1993 passage of Senate Bill 466, the history of Gay people in Nevada was largely one of criminal prosecution.
- Question 2: The fight for equal rights suffered a severe blow with the 2002 amendment to the Nevada constitution that denied same-sex partners the right to marry.
- Las Vegas Transgender: 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. But by 2009, Las Vegas held its first annual Transgender Health Fair and participated in the National Transgender Day of Remembrance.
- SB 283: Despite a veto by Governor Jim Gibbons, SB 283, Nevada's Domestic Partnership Act, was passed in 2009.
- 1977 eyewitness account of Le Café
- Judy Corbisiero's recollections of women's music in the 1970s
- Eyewitness accounts of Gay Pride in Las Vegas
- 1991 eyewitness account of Boylesque
- Dennis McBride's account of being fired from the Nevada Gay Times
- 1998 eyewitness account of a mass wedding in Las Vegas
- an eyewitness account of the 2000 MCC chapel dedication
- June 2000 reaction to the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage
- August 2000 Equal Rights Nevada fundraiser
- Equal Rights Nevada's first press conference in the fall of 2000
- October 2000 journal entry about stealing signs posted by CPM
- reaction to the 2002 amendment to the Nevada Constitution