Gay Tourists Abandon The Strip?

By Advocate.com Editors

Originally published on Advocate.com May 20 2009 11:00 PM ET

For years, Harrah's Entertainment, MGM Mirage, and a number of other Nevada companies have courted gay and lesbian tourists -- but if Nevada governor Jim Gibbons sticks to his promise to veto a domestic-partner benefits bill that is making its way to his desk, will Silver State tourism suffer the loss of the almighty gay dollar?

On Tuesday, Harrah's Entertainment senior vice president Jan Jones wrote an impassioned letter to state lawmakers that stressed the importance of gay tourism to Nevada's economy. The letter urged that gay tourists could abandon Nevada's casinos, clubs, and restaurants in droves if the legislation fails.

"Our state cannot afford to lose any more revenue to other destinations because of a reputation as a place which is not socially or politically the right place to do business or to vacation," Jones stated in the letter, dated Tuesday.

"Most of the legislators have answered," Jones told The Advocate on Wednesday. "Some have said 'We're with you,' and some have said, 'Nice to hear from you.' We just believe we have to keep the pressure up. There's no reason not to support it, it doesn't mandate employers provide certain benefits."

Harrah's -- which owns casinos on the Strip including Caesars Palace, Bally's, the Flamingo, and Paris, and the popular Strip-adjacent Rio -- is one of Nevada's largest employers, and the company provides health care benefits to partners of its employees.

The Nevada legislature already passed the domestic-partnership bill, which would give committed unmarried couples -- both gay and straight -- the same rights and responsibilities as heterosexual married couples. The bill specifies that domestic partnerships, or civil unions, are not the same as marriages as defined in the Nevada constitution.

But Gibbons has vowed to veto the bill, with his communications director saying the governor believes the bill is not necessary because any couple already can secure rights pertaining to wills, inheritance, and hospital decisions by executing private contracts. Jones says this is a basically a lie; gay couples would have to personally execute dozens of contracts, at their own expense, to accomplish what this bill automatically would.

"This should be a very simple vote," Jones said. "It's the right thing to do. It allows people to preserve their rights and their family's rights."

MGM Mirage's senior vice president of public affairs Alan Feldman said Jones' letter is "completely consistent with what Harrah's and what Jan would do." MGM Mirage, which has also offered domestic-partner benefits to all of its employees for many years, is preparing for a potential veto by the governor, but Feldman said he hopes that eventually "cooler heads will prevail."

"It is a challenge," he said. "We make a very real, concerted effort on a lot of these issues, and to have the sense that you're fighting against your own state is very frustrating."

Jones says if the governor does vote the bill it could have a longterm impact.

"I don't think the governor is thinking at all... I think there's going to be longterm ramifications for many of the governor's decisions."

In opposing the DP bill, Gibbons has also stated that he doesn't want to get involved in residents' personal lives , although he supported the state's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage in 2002. To this, Jones says, "How does [the DP bill] get into people's private lives? It allows them to have a private life. If he really believes that than he should be an ardent supporter."

Jones knows LGBT tourists have funneled millions, if not billions, into Nevada's economy. "These are customers who we actively recruited, that we've spent millions on convincing them Las Vegas should be their city of choice for vacations... How can we say to them, 'We want your business, but we don't care about your rights?"

There's no organized boycott of Nevada as of yet, and the bill may pass through a legislative override of the veto. But if enough votes aren't found, gay tourists could take their money away from Las Vegas and Reno.

"Las Vegas is the number two gay destination in the country" after New York, Thomas Brock of Community Marketing Inc. told the Las Vegas Review-Journal . "It would be very dangerous for the state to send out a signal like that. If you don't want to take care of your own citizens, why should we support you?"