Has Nevada lost its nerve?

The state that once invented its industries backs off

Two years after Nevada made casino gambling legal, Reno’s Northern Club casino opened. Here, customers and dealers posed for a photo.

Two years after Nevada made casino gambling legal, Reno’s Northern Club casino opened. Here, customers and dealers posed for a photo.


The promoter had an event he wanted to stage—a boxing match. But California and Texas would not permit it to be held, so he turned to Nevada, which welcomed it with open arms.

The year was 1897, the promoter was Dan Stuart, and the heavyweight championship fight was held in Carson City on St. Patrick’s Day after the Nevada Legislature quickly made prizefighting legal. A Cleveland Methodist minister denounced Nevada as “this deserted mining camp [which] revives brutality by an exhibition that must make its Indians and Chinamen wonder at Christianity,” and a Chicago newspaper proposed revoking Nevada’s statehood. But the fight went forward.

That was Nevada’s first experience with legislating economic activity into existence, but it would not be the last. Time and again it returned to that well, often offending the nation’s sensibilities.

But it’s questionable whether the state would do that today. For the last 60 years it has avoided adding to its questionable image in order to enhance its appeal in economic development. The state has allowed two different lines of business to get away. Colorado has leaped ahead of Nevada as a marijuana Mecca, and Nevada outlawed gay marriage with ballot Question 2 in 2002.

Respectability now seems to be a bigger concern for Nevada than it once was. In 1984 when Gov. Richard Bryan called the Nevada Legislature into special session to change banking laws and ease the way for a Citibank credit card facility to be built, he said that an association between Nevada and major corporations like Citibank would help give the state legitimacy.

“If they came here to Las Vegas, that would give us instant credibility as a potential location” for large corporations, Bryan recalled last week.

Not long before that, Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Paul Laxalt told the Nevada Legislature the state should do nothing to enhance its “outlaw state” image.

As often as not, Nevada’s embrace of businesses that were unacceptable elsewhere helped give those activities respectability and they spread to other states. Now, Nevada waits on other states.

Nevada’s record of offending the nation is pretty impressive—after boxing it got into a quickie divorce industry—ultimately lowering the residency required for a divorce to six weeks (1931)—and legal gambling (also 1931). It legalized prostitution in rural areas (1971), acupuncture (1973), medical marijuana (1979, repealed 1987, reinstated 2001), a supposed youth drug called Gerovital (1977) and an alleged cancer remedy called laetrile (1977).

Historian Guy Louis Rocha argues that the notion of unconventional commerce driving off mainstream corporations is a scare tactic.

“Who’s defining respectable?” he asked. “No one has proved to me that Citibank doesn’t come here because there’s a brothel on Interstate 80. There’s legalized gambling in 39 states. Are banks going to go to one of the 11 states because they don’t like gambling?”

Of course, gambling has been mainstreamed. Marijuana has not, nor has prostitution. But Rocha argues the state should not wait on that process, that it should be the catalyst for mainstreaming as it was for boxing and gambling.

“Why be intimidated by what is now social convention?” he said. “Before, we bucked that social convention. I want someone who has done the analysis and can quantify it and can say specifically who did not come to Nevada for those reasons. ‘If Nevada does this, we don’t come.’ It’s a scare tactic. … If Microsoft has an economic reason to be here, brothels in the small counties aren’t going to change it.”

But former governor Bryan defended caution in economic development. “Those are legitimate policy considerations,” he said, noting that some stigmas have taken the place of those Nevada defied.

He said in the 1950s and ’60s—a period when gambling still bore a heavy stigma—the state lived in fear that Congress would enact gambling taxation measures that would effectively shut down the casino industry, measures blocked by senators like Patrick McCarran of Nevada. The caution of that time was legitimate, he argued, and similar caution on other issues can be reasonable now.

“There was a time, my God, when we didn’t think we could get a legitimate convention in Las Vegas because of the gambling,” he said. “That is a non-issue today, it seems to me.”

But today, he said, there are other stigmas—though at least one of them, gay marriage, is fading fast.

“In my lifetime, public opinion has changed dramatically on that issue,” he said. But others still remain stigmatized.

He agrees with Rocha that unconventional economic activity is not the threat to economic development that it used to be.

“I mean, education issues, health care, those kind of things, I think are today more of an issue for us in terms of attracting these industries than the fact that Nevada happens to have gaming and that prostitution is permitted [in the small counties].”

After New York made gay marriage legal last month, Las Vegas tourism figures said they were considering going after the market for gay honeymoons. That information made headlines across the nation—but virtually every story included the information that Nevada had outlawed gay marriage. An Associated Press story that was published and posted widely began, “Same-sex couples can’t get married in Nevada, but Las Vegas tourism officials are still looking for a way to cash in on the growing gay wedding industry.”

There was a uniformly unfavorable reaction in the gay community.

Columnist Gary Barlow wrote in Gay Chicago: “Vegas wants those honeymooners, of course, like a lot of other places. … Well, unless you’re gay, that is—Nevada passed a constitutional amendment banning recognition of gay and lesbian marriages in 2002, though they turned around and passed ‘domestic partnerships’ in 2009, which gives couples many rights of marriage but not all. So here’s my suggestion: If you and your honey get married or civil-unioned, take your honeymoon in a place that gives your relationship full recognition.”

One Clark County gay figure said, “BS, really—why would you want to visit and spend money in a state where your marriage is not recognized, particularly if something tragic were to happen where the legality of your relationship became an issue? No—Nevada is not safe for gay people in that way.”

Being shunned by any group is a Nevada tourism official’s nightmare.

In the late 1970s San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt called a boycott of Nevada by gays because of state policies adverse to the gay community, but it got little attention. The gay community—in and out of Nevada—was not then as organized or visible as it is now. A more successful boycott came when, also during the late ’70s, the National Organization for Women called a boycott of the state over the Nevada Legislature’s defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment. Hundreds of national organizations signed onto the boycott, and there was one memorable week when not one convention met in the Las Vegas Convention Center. Attorney General Robert List sued NOW on March 3, 1978, to try to stop the boycott but the case was thrown out in 1981.

The District of Columbia and six states now permit marriage for all, jurisdictions that make up 11.15 percent of the nation’s population.

Interestingly, OutServe—a support organization for gays in the military—is planning a Las Vegas convention in Las Vegas the weekend of Oct. 13-16, 2011, though because “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell” remains on the lawbooks, some soldiers are nervous about attending. In a comment posted on OutServe’s website, one reader wrote, “I’d go, but not until DADT is actually certified and repealed, otherwise the summit is just a barrel for the DOD [Department of Defense] to shoot fish out of.”