Last edited: August 08, 2004


Author Is Compiling Facts on Gays in Nevada

Las Vegas Sun, August 19, 2000
Box 4275, Las Vegas, NV 89107
Fax: 702-383-7264
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By Kristen Peterson, Las Vegas Sun

When Dennis McBride mentions his latest project, the response is usually preceded by bewilderment.

"First of all, their eyes kind of glaze over," the Boulder City historian said. "Then they crinkle their nose and say, ‘What do you mean, gay history?’ "

McBride, 45, has dedicated much of his life to digging up and recounting Nevada history. He has written books on Hoover Dam, Boulder City and Lake Mead. His thorough collections have made him a valuable source for documentaries, newspapers and schools. Currently he is working as an independent contractor at the Boulder Dam Hotel, setting up a library and research facility for its museum.

But he says his work in progress, a book titled "Life in the Neon Closet: A History of Gay Las Vegas," has been an endeavor more personal and challenging than his other books.

"It’s a tremendously important undertaking, not just for me, but for the whole community," he said. "Nothing like this has been done before."

Many people say they didn’t know there was such a thing as gay history, and a lot of gays "don’t know beyond when the last bar opened," he said. "I had to show them that they’ve had a long, long history here."

But in a town where few people — gay or straight — have roots, finding that history has been a daunting task.

"Trying to find information on the gay history in Southern Nevada before the 1970s is very difficult," McBride said. "Gay history is so ephemeral, it just evaporates if not recorded — especially outside of big cities."

Because of the stigma surrounding homosexuality, primary resources such as letters and diaries don’t reveal gay accounts — except for well-known people. But even those have been sanitized, he said.

"That’s why it’s taking so long. I’ve had to create the archive before I could even compile the information."

Archive created

Although he began the task in earnest four years ago, McBride began creating the archive in 1977 when he came out as a gay man at age 22. A collector, researcher and writer, he began saving bar or event fliers, newspaper clippings, photographs and articles reflecting gay life or issues "trying to understand myself by what was going on around me."

McBride kept journals on his escapades. His photo collection of clubs, bookstores and people spans four decades.

In 1984 he donated his memorabilia — more than 150 pieces — to establish the gay archives at UNLV’s Special Collections, then later added to it.

Yet it had never occurred to him to write a book, he said. "I was content collecting the stuff."

After a friend suggested the book, McBride spent two years finding and indexing articles in both the gay and straight media.

The Vegas Gay Times, which debuted in 1978, gave him "a nice window into what was going on in the gay community all those years," he said. The Vegas Gay Times later became the Nevada Gay Times, which today is the Las Vegas Bugle.

His research in the "straight press" gave him accounts of police raids, the progression of AIDS and political issues. He searched the New York Times and Los Angeles Times for national issues that would affect Las Vegas.

The book begins in 1911 — the year sodomy was made illegal in Nevada. The years since include accounts of gay politics, gay-owned and -operated business, bars, bathhouses, churches and organizations.

Until 1969 most gay documentation consisted of prison records of men serving time for having sex with other men.


There were other breakthroughs, however. A magazine advertisement for the screening of "The Picture of Dorian Gray" was found. The movie, based on the novel by Oscar Wilde, a gay literary icon who had been imprisoned on sodomy charges, was shown at the Majestic Theatre of Fremont Street in 1915.

Also uncovered was information on a group of gay enlistees in the Civilian Conservation Corps Camp near Moapa in 1938.

During the 1930s, female impersonator Billy Richards performed at the Green Shack, a popular Las Vegas restaurant.

"Evidently he was well known at the time," McBride said. "He came out of New Orleans to Las Vegas. Then he disappeared.

"Then there was a drag act that performed at the Roadhouse on Boulder Highway in the 1940s," McBride said.

During World War II, a gay bar called the Kit Kat Club at the intersection of Fremont Street and Charleston Boulevard ran ads in local newspapers, he said.

"If there was anything before that, I haven’t been able to find it," he said.

Accounts of gay life in the following decades were easier to find as the gay community emerged.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Maxine Perron ran a gay bar during the time gays were being weeded out of public office and employment — along with the communists.

"And there was Maxine, running Max and Mary’s, which was a safe haven for many people," he said. The bar stayed open throughout the 1970s.

Not only were gay clubs safe havens, many were the origin of what would evolve into a more cohesive and active community.


"As it happens, the political consciousness of the gay community happened in a bar," McBride said. Marge Jacques, a lesbian who came to Southern Nevada in the 1950s, opened Le Cafe in 1970 on Paradise Road and Tropicana Avenue. Jacques and her bartenders became delegates to the state Democratic convention in Northern Nevada to fight any anti-gay platform planks.

The bar’s Gay Notes from Le Cafe, a "bar rag" that provided gossip and news, was the first gay publication in Las Vegas, McBride said. Jacques, who lives in Florida, was part of McBride’s oral history project.

"Oral histories are best for the story behind the story," he said. "You have their very detailed personal accounts. The repeal of sodomy was in the papers, but what actually happened with the people behind that?

"There’s a tremendous amount of fabulous history that these people are walking around with that will be recorded that scholars and historians can use to research in the future."

Former state Sen. Lori Lipman Brown was also interviewed. She wrote the legislation to repeal the sodomy law, supported gay civil-rights issues and debated Richard Ziser, head of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage.

Support over the years from other politicians — former Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones and former Gov. Bob Miller — will be included. So will political rallies and historic moments such as the first mass wedding on the steps of the Foley Federal Building in 1998 and the opening of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center in 1993.

Religious interaction

Conflicts and alliances with religious groups — gay churches and support groups, as well as therapy groups meant to reverse homosexual behavior — will have a chapter in the book.

McBride planned to end the book with the repeal of the sodomy law in 1993. But the recent petition drive to include a ban on gay marriage in Nevada’s Constitution, which has qualified for the November ballot, has led McBride to delay the book’s publication to include present-day politics.

"This is where it gets very personal and very difficult for me," he said. "I’m 45 and telling people in my hometown, ‘Don’t take my civil rights away.’ It’s pretty humiliating.

"And yes, I will have a sex chapter," McBride said. "That’s part of the community. You can’t talk about AIDS without talking about sex."

"In the 1980s, with AIDS, the Las Vegas gay community fell apart," he said. "It wasn’t until the early ‘90s that it exploded. "But even today, what I find is that there is not a single cohesive gay community in Las Vegas, because Las Vegas itself is not a cohesive community.

With a few exceptions the fragmented society has been low key, McBride said.

Once his book is finished, those voices that have been there during the community’s struggles and victories will be a part of history, Las Vegas Bugle Publisher Rob Schlegel said. Installments have run in the Bugle.

"It (the book) is an incredibly important piece of work," Schlegel said. "It shows what’s happened before and that we’re not alone. It’s kind of like your family tree in a roundabout way."

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