On my first visit to Las Vegas, I met a transgender prostitute while waiting in line for Studio 54. She was in “deep stealth,” keeping her trans status covert to everyone except the johns she catered to (and me, of course, as she realized I was gay once my mouth opened). She had to be very careful about looking for clients at the flashy yet aggressively hetero club; if a man took her back to his room thinking she was something she was not, bad things could definitely happen.
On my second trip to Las Vegas, I was called a faggot. As I walking down the Strip with my boyfriend, wearing a sleeveless black top with cheap studs likely glued on by a Taiwanese child, someone objected to my appearance (I can’t really blame them now — see below — but I obviously object to their choice of words). It was so crowded and loud, with those people smacking those hooker postcards in your face, that it was barely audible — but there was no doubt it was verbalized. My fella rushed us along the boulevard, fearful for our lives, he later admitted.
In the 12 years since, I’ve been back to Sin City more times than I count. An increasingly troubling addiction to blackjack, a dear friend who lives there, and my liberal streak have all contributed to frequent visits. My latest trip there just concluded, and I was floored by how much has changed. Sure, I witnessed the transformation when I campaigned for Obama this summer in Vegas, knocking on doors in 110-degree heat and getting queers registered at the Pride festival. It was evident then that the city was filling with Latinos, California expats, and young people working in the shows, bars, and clubs that fill the city. I attended a viewing party for the Democratic National Convention at a spacious house in northwest LV, watching as blue-haired ladies cheered at Barack and Michelle like they were Donny and Marie. Nevada, facing an economy as tattered as bachelorette’s makeup at 4 a.m., voted Obama in last year — with larger numbers than in 2008. Aside from recently legalizing civil unions and transgender protections, the state also dumped its shockingly awful governor Jim Gibbons in 2010 and traded him in for Brian Sandoval, a much saner model.
But this latest trip from which I just returned was even more eye-opening, and it said less about Vegas and more about the 40 million people who descend upon this oasis of neon and debauchery every year. My trip was sponsored by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, a group that bends over backward to encourage LGBT travelers to come to the city and spend money. As the editor in chief of Out Traveler, I was there to see all the latest sights, including the opening of the world’s largest gay nightclub, Krave Massive. I was joined by about 10 other gay travel writers and publicists as I wended my way from Mandalay Bay to Caesars Palace to the Hard Rock Hotel and everywhere in between. We were plied with copious amounts of champagne, wine, and even an absinthe drink at the Cosmopolitan that left your mouth numb and head spinning.
All that drinking led to much bonding — and flirting — among the gays, who called Canada, Mexico, Britain, and the U.S. home. I could never tell which was higher, the comfort level or the camp level. I howled at the Mirage as the group belted out Taylor Swift’s “I Knew You Were Trouble”; that would have been bad enough had everyone not replaced the last word in the chorus with “a bottom.” Bad behavior? Maybe. But nothing worse than the roving gangs of bros cat-calling women or grown ladies falling down drunk and shoeless. But even though the gays screamed and laughed like we were walking down Castro Street, no one paid us any mind. No epithets were unleashed, and I can’t even remember receiving a nasty look (I can notice a glare from a mile away and sober as a nun). We were loud and crude and gay, but just another splash of color that is Vegas. I’ve never felt so free to whoop it up outside a ghetto.
On my last night in Vegas, I saw the musical version of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Venetian, a casino owned by archconservative Sheldon Adelson, who you may know as the man Sarah Silverman offered to scissor if he donated money to Obama’s 2012 campaign (no, he never partook in what Silverman referred to as “traditional lesbian sex”). The Venetian theater was filled to the brim, with gays, straights, whites, blacks, young people, and seniors. Everyone laughed their asses off.
Waiting for my car in the valet, I caught sight of an enormous trans woman in a snug leopard-print dress. She was tall, curvy, and striking; definitely over six feet. Some people peered at her while they smoked cigarettes or waited for cabs. Usually it was a quick peek and then back down at their phones. I saw a man snap a picture, but in more of an amused manner than a mocking one (besides, with a dress like that, I think she wanted her picture taken). How revolutionary, I thought: straight people and LGBTs having fun together in the same place with no one getting humiliated or fearing for their lives. Hopefully, what happens in Vegas doesn’t have to stay there.