Loving and loathing in Las Vegas: gays and lesbians are streaming into Vegas to start new lives. But are they really happy with what they find?
TOMMY FONTENOT’S TYPICAL DAY begins in the dead of night. The gay 36-year-old works the late shift as a blackjack dealer, handling $25,000 bets at one of Las Vegas’s most glamorous casinos. When noon rolls around, Fontenot gets in his truck and drives to his brand-new 1,800-square foot house in southwest Vegas. The Louisiana native and former paramedic has lived in Sin City for four years, and it’s finally starting to grow on him. “I didn’t like Vegas at first,” he says. “If you’re looking for a place just to be gay, this isn’t the place. But that’s not why I moved here.”
Thousands of gay people like Fontenot are escaping burned-out factory towns and priced-out megalopolises for a better life in America’s 21st-century boomtown. Some are scooping mashed potatoes at the Stratosphere buffet, others are squeezing Cher into a bustier for her upcoming show at Caesars Palace; all are helping fuel Las Vegas’s $80 billion economy and turning the formerly red state of Nevada purple.
Just like transplants proliferating in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, many people in Las Vegas are not from Las Vegas–the city was only incorporated in 1911, when it had about 800 residents. But the gays streaming into southern Nevada have little in common with the urban pioneers who descended on the Castro or the Village 40 years ago. Seeking safety and freedom, young gays crashed these coastal cities, helping forge the identities of their neighborhoods, art scenes, and political dynasties. The gays moving to today’s Las Vegas arrive with less lofty but no less valid goals–finding a job and enjoying a decent standard of living.
“People tended to move to these gay urban meccas in order to ‘become’ gay,” says Jay Groth, a 36-year-old Las Vegan. “It just seems the people I meet in Las Vegas are so beyond that.” Groth, a flight attendant who’s lived in the city for 10 years, shares a spacious home with his partner in the Green Valley neighborhood. Groth loves his adopted city for its ethnic diversity, affordable housing, and shopping and dining options but holds no illusions about its gay community.
“People come here expecting the gay scene to be on the same level as San Francisco, L.A., Chicago, New York,” he says. “They’re not going to get it. They’re just not. We don’t have the established community that those other cities have. It’s still very much in its infancy. But [residents] are becoming less transient and are a little more willing to invest in the community.”
Among U.S. cities, off-the- Strip Las Vegas most resembles Los Angeles or Phoenix–it’s a sprawling suburban-style city built in the 20th century. But while Los Angeles and Phoenix have pockets of urbanity, Vegas–with a metropolitan-area population of over 2 million–does not. Most residents live in enormous subdivisions and drive to work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, according to author Richard Florida, who in his book The Rise of the Creative Class says successful cities are ones that attract a young, educated work force, including a healthy number of gays and lesbians. These people typically work in “creative” fields like architecture, theater, and engineering.
“A downtown core is not the key element of success in the creative economy,” Florida writes in an e-mail. “The most important factor in attracting and retaining quality young talent is creating a sense of place and community.”
As part of his urban studies, Florida rates American cities on indexes of creativity, tolerance, and gay-friendliness. Las Vegas scored among the lowest in creative positions but slightly better in tolerance and gay-friendliness.
“Las Vegas is significantly behind the U.S. national average in terms of creative workers,” says Florida. “The creative class is the core force of economic growth in our future economy. Without a focus on all three T’s–technology, talent, and tolerance–Las Vegas’s growth will be unsustainable.”
The closest thing Las Vegas has to a “gayborhood” is a forlorn intersection called the “Fruit Loop” that houses a few bars, a few clubs, and a gay bookstore in a strip mall. But that’s not evidence of any deficiency, says Candice Nichols, the feisty executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada [see page 39].
“I think in the same way ethnic populations have assimilated in Vegas, so has the gay community,” says Nichols. “[Gayborhoods in New York and Los Angeles] started for safety issues. We don’t have that here.”
While Nichols claims queers are generally free of physical danger in Clark County, she doesn’t contend they’re showered with support. Her community center, located in a seedy shopping plaza between a bathhouse and a straight sex club, receives zero money from the state, county, or city and instead relies on donors for much of its $350,000 2008 budget (the Los Angeles Gay and Lesbian Center, by comparison, receives substantial funding from all levels of government and has a 2008 budget of $43 million). Las Vegas’s Democratic mayor, Oscar Goodman, widely seen as a jovial, liberal cheerleader for the city, didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment.
Nichols insists that even without bureaucratic support, Vegas gays are growing more cohesive by their own volition. It’s taken a while because it’s opportunity, not orientation, that brings people to Las Vegas. “Gay people come here because there are jobs–construction, entertainment, etc.,” Nichols says. “And it’s more affordable than other places. So our community is everything from show kids to doctors to lawyers.”
Nathan Frye and his partner, Allen McMullen, are theatrical stage managers who came to Las Vegas for work 13 years ago and never left. “We love Las Vegas,” the 44-year-old Frye says. As far as Vegas’s lack of a gay village, Frye backs up Nichols’s assertion, saying gays and lesbians are spread throughout the city.
“We’re involved in the Human Rights Campaign,” Frye says. “We know a lot of [gay] people, but we don’t limit ourselves to that…. It seems sometimes when you do have the West Hollywoods or the Villages, you are limiting yourself to who you socialize with and who you expose yourself toy Groth puts it more simply: “We’re just comfortable here. We don’t miss any of that stuff we had in the large cities.” Frye also points out that he represents the demographic of many gay Vegas transplants: settled, typically coupled, over 35, and their idea of fun is Saks Fifth Avenue and Wolfgang Puck, not Krave–the city’s preeminent gay dance club.
“There’s a whole huge population in Las Vegas that never goes to the gay clubs,” Frye says, pointing out that restaurants and stores are orientation-neutral. “The casinos cater to locals, and they make us feel welcome as couples. We can gamble, go to the shows, go to dinner. We’re never made to feel like, Why are you here? You know, they want our money just as much as anybody else.”
Single life in Vegas is apparently less rosy. “It’s so transient,” says Fontenot, the single dealer. “When I went out [to a bay] the first weekend I moved here, I met about 12 guys and nine were from out of town. I thought, Oh, crap, my chances of meeting a local guy here aren’t good.”
Frye concedes Vegas life would be different if he didn’t have his partner. “While Las Vegas is the fastest-growing city, it’s also the ‘fastest-exiting’ city,” he says. “People come here to make a living, can’t make a living, and leave. So I’m sure being single and young and trying to meet people is hard.”
Many Las Vegans like Fontenot also don’t work 9 to 5: Spotting a guy at happy hour or bumping into a pretty girl at Starbucks doesn’t occur organically when you’re dealing cards all night and sleeping during the day. To make matters even more difficult, Fontenot says, “Everything is straight. When you look at billboards and advertising, it’s very. heterosexual.”
More than other cities, Vegas’s degree of gay-friendliness is difficult to gauge. For one thing, the city is invariably teeming with tourists from locations as diverse as Paris, France, and Paris, Texas. Southern Nevada is also steadily outgrowing its Mormon roots (members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were among the region’s earliest settlers; it’s now estimated 8% of Clark County is Mormon) and moving politically left thanks to a burgeoning Latino population, a strong labor movement, and to a lesser extent, a growing queer populace. While Las Vegans generally agree their city is maturing at a rapid pace, not all are convinced it’s making enough progress when it comes to homophobia.
“In one of my first jobs here, I would hear [antigay] comments from people,” says Fontenot. “I’d hear that stuff more at work here than back in Louisiana. And it was from people who live here, not tourists.”
Fontenot says he’s had zero problems at his current job and insists the city is a much different place than when he moved here. “It’s not as bad as it was four years ago,” he says. “Four years can really make a difference.” In no other place in America is that truer than Las Vegas, a city growing like an adolescent on steroids. Presumably, Las Vegas 2012 wilt look and feel vastly different from Vegas 2008–due in no small part to the thousands of gays moving in. For people like Groth, Las Vegas remains a place of opportunity; it is, he says, the “kind of place where the American Dream can still be had.”
COPYRIGHT 2008 LPI Media
COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning