Local historian Dennis McBride talks about the struggles and triumphs of Vegas’ queer community
From annual Pride Month celebrations to a multitude of gay bars and dance clubs, it’s safe to say Las Vegas is a LGBTQ+ friendly city.
Over 4 percent of Las Vegas’ population identifies as gay, but the city nor the Silver State have always been receptive toward the LGBTQ+ community.
From Nevada’s early statehood up until the early 1990s, coming out as a gay man not only meant serious social stigma, but also could result in prison time.
As a gay man, local historian and former Nevada State Museum Director Dennis McBride very well knows the struggle that he and others who identify with the LGBTQ+ population faced over the past five decades.
“Life as a gay person in Nevada before 1993 was dreadful,” McBride said, referencing a harsh sodomy law that was primarily used to discriminate against and imprison gay men.
McBride was born in Boulder City—a small town about 26 miles southeast of Las Vegas— in 1955. He eventually made his way to Las Vegas after coming out in the late 1970s and became involved in the gay liberation movement.
Due to a lack of available resources, McBride began archiving his experiences with the state’s LGBTQ+ community, which eventually led him to publish his book “Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State.”
We caught up with McBride to learn more about the history of LGBTQ+ rights in Las Vegas and Nevada, and what challenges lay ahead.
What inspired you to document Nevada’s queer community?
When I started coming out in the early 1970s I was trying to find resources on the subject. I needed to find out who I was and what does it mean? And there was nothing. There was nothing at all. I just began keeping track of everything that was published in the local newspapers and books that I would buy through bookstores..
I had never intended to write any books about it. I was involved in a relationship with a man named Bruce Adams. He had read an article that had been written about me in the local gay press in 1994 and he wanted to meet me. He tracked me down and we became friends and he’s the one who said to me, ‘why don’t you write a book about this? Because no one else can do it.”
Then, I began utilizing the archive that I’ve been building and I started to write the book. And the book was finally published in 2017.
Although Nevada has become more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, that hasn’t always been the case. Can you elaborate on Nevada’s early history of gay rights?
When Nevada was pursuing statehood in 1860-62, it had to set up a series of laws to govern the eventual state, and what they simply did was initially adopt English Common Law. Well, in English Common Law, there was the proscription against what the English refer to as ‘buggery’. I mean buggery, strictly speaking at one time simply meant anal intercourse, but over the years, over the centuries of the definition of expanded to include male homosexuality.
So when Nevada adopted English Law, that included the buggery laws and that became Nevada’s sodomy law. That’s what the state followed in prosecuting and persecuting and blackmailing and in every way torturing gay men—not women—from 1864 when we were a state, up until 1993 when it was finally repealed.
And you would think that starting in the 60s-70s particularly after Stonewall—which was not covered in the local news. [The government] prosecuted gay people frequently. They used the threat of being prosecuted to keep the gay community, the queer community under control.
You could very well end up in jail as a felony [for being gay] which meant many, many years in prison and a very hefty financial fine.
Were gay men targeted more versus other LGBTQ identifying people?
Well [being] trans was in those days something so exotic and beyond the pale even for the queer community, that it really was not an issue. It wasn’t a subject. A person in Clark County for instance who might be transgender in those days could be arrested and jailed for cross-dressing for wearing an item of clothing that didn’t fit the gender you were born in.
So there were people who were arrested for crossdressing.
There were people who were arrested for crossdressing and they may have simply been crossdressers, they may have been transgender, but it wasn’t something that was really an issue yet.
The laws did not apply to gay women. There’s sociological reasons for that I suppose. Women are generally allowed—used to be—more expressions of affection toward other women, and it didn’t necessarily mean anything. So they just did not get involved with the sodomy statutes. It was always men that went to jail for it.
Do you find it odd that Las Vegas, even with its reputation as “Sin City” was hostile toward gay people?
It might have been promoted one way, but it was actually another. Las Vegas, in particular, could be very hostile toward gay people. I mean they were busting people right and left all the time. That’s just the way it always was.
There were always gay bars. Maxine’s opened in 1952 at Nellis and Charleston which became Max and Mary’s which is very famous.
It was outside the city limits. It was in the county but it was frequently busted. They would come in and people would take off out the back door, run out into the desert. [The police] would take down everybody’s name and demand to see their identification. They would routinely take license plate numbers of cars that they saw parked in front of Maxine’s and other gay bars. You had to be very, very careful in those days.
What was it like growing up gay in Nevada?
Growing up in Boulder City in the 60s, it was very far removed from Las Vegas. Gambling was [and still is] illegal. Liquor was illegal until 1969.
As a kid who was odd to begin with for lots of reasons besides being gay, it was difficult. But when I began to realize that I was gay and I was attracted to other guys in my classes without actually being told what you are is a sin, what you are as illegal, what you are is bad and wrong in every way, it was something that I had just asked assimilated into myself, my whole life. It was just there. And I knew that it was something that was really bad or really wrong and it was really hard coming out.
And as I said earlier…there were no books about it.There was nothing on the news about it. There were occasional news articles , but always in a pejorative tone. about such-and-such will have it. There were absolutely no role models.
While momentum started to pick up during the 70s-80s for gay rights, the AIDS pandemic disrupted and slowed down the movemet’s progress. Can you describe what this time period felt like in Las Vegas?
I came out in Las Vegas at just the moment that there started to be a political consciousness. The first [state] political organization was founded in 1977; The Nevadans for Human Rights, and the first community-wide publication, the Vegas Gay Times.
I found not only this social tribe, but then I saw the beginnings of this political movement too, and I thought, ‘okay, that’s great.’
We were having other organizations founded like the Metropolitan Community Church,Dignity, and our first gay pride event happened in 1983 at UNLV.
We were just on the cusp of starting to make a political noise that may have made a difference when the AIDS epidemic hit Las Vegas. At that moment it was just like somebody turned off the switch. Suddenly they were just fighting for our lives and we were being oppressed right and left because of AIDS because we were now looked at not only as moral filth but as physical filth and a danger to the population.
And nobody was helping us. So,our political consciousness really went nascent while we just spent [the 80s], that decade trying to take care of ourselves.
What we have learned during that decade, in terms of mutual support, serious regard of our political rights, self-sufficiency, that’s what really brought us all-together about 1992 and 1993 that propelled us forward into persuading the legislature to repeal the sodomy law.
So after 1993, we were still grappling with AIDS, but we weren’t likely now to be thrown in jail simply because of loving people of our own sex. That took a tremendous pressure off us, and all of the energy that we put into, just trying not to get arrested.
So for 130 years, we were threatened with jail, and so, 30 years later, here we are in Nevada, one of the most queer friendly states in the country. Safe at every level.
Do you feel hopeful about the future of our LGBTQ+ community?
Relative to what I grew up in, I mean the difference is astonishing. We’re not going to be arrested for having sex with each other, for loving each other. That alone is a tremendous stride forward and frees up a lot of political and social energy that you can put into something else. In a large sense, we are much better, I don’t know if we’ve won the war, but we’ve won a hell of a lot of battles. And that’s worth a lot.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Stay on VegasNews.com for more features on the LGBTQ+ community.