Hidden history

A new book tells the tale of gay Nevada

Author Dennis McBride’s new book, <i>Out of the Neon Closet</i>, was published earlier this month.

Author Dennis McBride’s new book, Out of the Neon Closet, was published earlier this month.

Dennis McBride’s book is available at Sundance Books. An interview with him can be read at our 15 Minutes feature.

Tom Ogg was a leading Nevadan in 1979.

He headed curriculum development for the Washoe County School District. In that position, he had expanded foreign language instruction into summer sessions, upgraded academically talented courses, set up alcohol and drug education, and coordinated Joint Arts in Education programs with the Sierra Arts Foundation.

He also chaired the Nevada Council on the Arts, which oversaw a million-dollar grants budget. He had been president of the Washoe Community Concerts Association.

He had grown up in Reno, participated in student oratorical contests, was an SAE at the University of Nevada.

Then, in 1979, he made a pass at an undercover cop in a park, and his life was annihilated. He was prosecuted, forced out of his schools job and all his volunteer posts. He may have left the state. We have been unable to learn what happened to him. Just like that, the good works a fine man could give were lost to Nevada.

It has been ever thus until recently in the Silver State.

Fred Alward was almost the perfect Nevada success story for the Depression years. An Australian who immigrated to the United States, became an attorney, traveled to Nevada to work on the Boulder Dam project when times were hard—he put down roots. In 1930, he was elected to the Nevada Assembly, named as speaker in his second term. In 1934, he was elected lieutenant governor, reportedly the first Clark County resident elected to statewide office. His intelligence, soft Australian accent, and friendly demeanor made him an appealing candidate, and he seemed destined to become governor. Then he left politics, blackmailed out. For good measure, he was prosecuted by his enemies for refusing to abide by the State Bar of Nevada’s shady price-fixing scheme for the divorce trade. He drifted away, settling in a small South Dakota town.

A few years later, an instructor at the University of Nevada in Reno was critical of some campus policies. He was threatened by a high administration official with outing. It wasn’t the only reason he left Nevada, but it was a factor.

Nevada has steadily lost talent and skills this way. But in recent years, the gay community has stood its ground and claimed its place in the state. How Nevada got from there to here is told in a new book that was released this month, Out of the Neon Closet by Dennis McBride.

Lost history

The history of gay Nevadans is not easy to find. Most of it is not in the usual places—diaries, say—but in criminal proceedings. Those who wrote it did not wish its subjects well. What little they recorded, and what little survived, historians must read with an awareness of the hostility that colors it, the same difficulty they face when researching black or tribal history.

McBride plowed through those obstacles and found some revealing things, including early indications of how ignorance can drive policy.

Anti-gay laws were present from the start. An “infamous crime against nature” statute was enacted by the first legislature of the Territory of Nevada in 1861. Who some people are was basically made illegal. One early case showed how it could be misused—in a shooting dispute between consensual lovers, one was charged with sodomy because the other accused him of rape. Years in prison for the innocent man would pass before the accuser admitted there had been consent, and his victim was released.

Though there were occasional signs of enlightenment, more common were comments like this, written by an Elko prosecutor in 1915: “The physical appearance of this defendant Gorsuch is evidence of depravity and of perversion.” Or this, from a Clark County district attorney: “When examining Hommel in the office concerning his past life, he informed me that he served several years in the Navy. This might account for his present biological tendencies.”

Oddly, the state tolerated some gays in some circumstances. Couples like Elizabeth Babcock and Hannah Clapp in the 1800s, and Charles Clegg and Lucius Beebe in the 1900s, were well known as gay but served their communities and were even honored for their services. Babcock and Clapp ran a school, and Clapp taught at Nevada State University, training teachers in a state that needed them. Clegg and Beebe drew moneyed easterners like themselves to the tiny and mostly forgotten mining camp of Virginia City in the 1940s, eventually reviving the Territorial Enterprise and mailing it worldwide, further publicizing the town.

Even the trappings of gay life could be tolerated, such as a Las Vegas drag club during World War II. “When the Kit Kat opened is lost in time, but drag revues were being advertised there as early as 1943,” McBride writes. “That the Kit Kat was gay was made absolutely clear in double-entendre advertisements for its 1944 revue, the Kit Kat Follies, where the club was noted as ’Nevada’s Gayest Night Club’ and ’Nevada’s Gayest Nite Spot’.”

But at any given time, tolerance could give way to danger and tragedy. The gay bashing murder of William Metz in 1994 by a Reno skinhead who mutilated the body shook the community (“When hate comes to town,” RN&R, Aug. 20, 2015). As late as 1996, a Las Vegas school principal killed himself by hanging after the Las Vegas Review-Journal outed him.

Again, much history is not recorded, but there is no reason to assume Nevada was different from other states. Through much of the 20th century, gays were entrapped and brutalized by police, brutalized by young thugs, rejected or discharged from the military (and brutalized if discovered before discharge), adjudged to suffer from a “disorder” by professional mental health societies, denied the right to marry or adopt, and portrayed as threats to society. A U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1950 described gays as a threat to national security.

Gay power

In law, gays weren’t even supposed to exist. When they formed organizations, those groups were raided and broken up by police.

When outed, gays were seen only as gay. If an engineer was arrested in a police raid of a bar, he would thereafter be thought of gay—not, say, as a moviegoer, a Baptist, a Kiwanian, or an engineer. How many straights are defined by society solely by their sex lives? Demonizing and fearing someone is a lot easier if that person is just one thing. “Until recently, many straight people could not separate gay from sex, so that the notion of a gay identity, a gay sensibility, or a gay community was impossible for them to understand outside a sexual context,” McBride wrote. The way some people could not look beyond that factor sometimes reached the absurd, as when a state attorney general denied a driver license to a gay man. Before the term gay evolved, nearly every label applied to homosexuals—including homosexual—became an expletive. Some readers may find McBride’s own free use of the term queer jarring, rather like a black person using the term nigger.

It would be nice to be able to report that when change came, it was a result of good people coming to an understanding of the issues, a spreading enlightenment, and human progress. In fact, the biggest changes came because gays acted for themselves and sustained the fight for many years.

McBride, a resident of Las Vegas, knows that part of the state best and carefully tracks the way gays built a presence in Clark County, through bookstores, bars, baths and other commercial activities. Washoe County’s gay community, with its reputation for being more heavily closeted, was less visible and thus made the author’s research more difficult, though some readers will find things they did not know about Northern Nevada.

Some Nevadans think of the state as libertarian because of its history of making activities that were illegal elsewhere legal in Nevada—prizefighting, gambling, quick divorce, prostitution.

But the state has never been particularly libertarian. It usually made exotic activities legal because the state is resource poor and needed businesses. Prizefighting was made legal during the long economic depression in the state after the Comstock boom declined. Gambling and shorter divorce residencies were made legal during the Depression. As most libertarians would argue, there is a difference between acting from economic desperation and acting from principle. Nevada was the first state to enact an anti-drug law, which is hardly libertarian, and waited until other states embraced marijuana to act itself.

Lt. Gov. Fred Alward (left) was blackmailed out of Nevada politics. Four decades later, one of his successors, Lt. Gov. Myron Leavitt, described gays as “queers … unnatural and abnormal … sick.” Paradoxically, Leavitt presided over a 1979 ceremony in the Nevada Senate honoring Alward.

The small counties tend to be more libertarian than the large counties, and when change came, it tended to be in the large urban counties, which contain most voters and are more liberal than libertarian. Nevada is also heavily influenced by what California does. The Golden State has long been the Silver State’s biggest market for its tourism industry. There are overlapping commerce, media and culture between the two states.

There was one piece of assistance the gay community received from anti-gay bigots. It was to prove an essential blunder by powerful enemies of gays.

Just as gays like Clapp and Beebe had something to offer Nevada when it was having hard times, gays helped keep the state’s biggest industry alive in the later years of the 20th century.

In 1977, San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt had threatened a gay boycott against Nevada because of enhanced penalties enacted at the Nevada Legislature against gays. (This was contained in a notorious measure that was sloppily drafted and also accidentally increased the penalty for marijuana.) The state had lost millions in a 1970s boycott that sought to punish its failure to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, and the casino industry wanted no part of another boycott. In 1981, Lt. Gov. Myron Leavitt’s crude denunciation of the National Gay Rodeo held in Reno exacerbated feelings. The rodeo, which brought 8,000 tourists to the city, eventually left Nevada. Soon, tribal gambling in California was undercutting the strength of the casino industry in Nevada.

It was in this climate of tumult over the gay community that the casino industry began cultivating a gay customer base and the Nevada Legislature changed its ways.

In 1993, Clark County’s first term Sen. Lori Lipman Brown sponsored a measure to make gay people legal. “It was a simple bill—by merely dropping the phrase ’infamous crime against nature’ and its same-sex definition, successful passage of [Senate Bill] 466 would end a century of institutionalized repression in Nevada,” McBride writes.

The right wing came out in force to stop the measure. Assemblymember John Bonaventura had a purple-and-white “No Special Rights for Sodomites” bumper strip on his Assembly hall desk. It was key to their argument that gays would get special treatment under the bill. In fact, both gays and straights perform sodomy, but straights had been removed from risk in the statutes many years earlier. So now it was only gays who were being singled out for sodomy penalties. The bill would make the treatment of gays and straights the same.

As usual, opposition to gays used language as a weapon. Every lurid and unpleasant term was hauled out and used in testimony or on picket signs. But this time it did not work. The measure was enacted.

The victory could hardly be savored when Lon Mabon, an Oregonian who had won enactment of some local anti-gay initiative petitions in some of that state’s towns, arrived in Nevada to try to expand his operation by filing a statewide anti-gay initiative petition.

For gays, it was almost a perfect storm. Mabon, not particularly skilled at public relations, was easily portrayed as an outsider invading Nevada. Effective gay rights organizations operated in both northern and southern Nevada. The casinos jumped into the dispute against Mabon, providing funds and facilities. The casinos gave politicians political cover. In Reno, there was a remarkable scene when Gov. Bob Miller and his Democratic primary opponent, Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones—both spoke at an anti-petition rally at Bad Dolly’s gay bar on Fourth Street. Some conservatives found that legal bigotry against gays really did not fit conservative principles. Businesses and labor unions came on board. The petition received less than half the required signatures and failed to gain ballot status.

Every attack in the 1990s seemed to generate greater gay political strength. The legislature approved enhanced penalties for murderous attacks motivated by hatred of gays. David Parks, a gay leader in Las Vegas, was elected to the Nevada Assembly. (Some of his own Democratic Party’s leaders had asked him to deny his sexual orientation!) An anti-discrimination law was approved.

Turning point

But anti-gay critics were nothing if not resilient, and at some point they changed issues. As the century and millennia changed in 2001, conservatives were taking a different tack. The gay community never particularly wanted a fight over gay marriage. In the Clinton years, they much preferred to fight for the right to serve in the military. But conservatives knew their base, and knew that marriage equality could be exploited much more effectively in direct mail fundraising. Not only was the military issue less useful to conservatives, but children could not be drawn into it as easily as the marriage issue, and pitching homosexuality as a threat to children had a long history of success.

The change would give the right a victory in Nevada but backfire everywhere in the long run.

When marriage equality became the issue, it helped fuel a striking change in the population. By any measure, including both public votes and opinion surveys, there was greater acceptance of gays. And it happened because of the determination and courage of gays themselves. In response to the marriage issue, the tactic of coming out became much more common. Gays began telling friends, families, business associates about themselves. Suddenly—or so it seemed, as it was actually gradual—everyone knew someone who was gay. Some discovered they were related to a gay person. Perhaps the most skilled technician or best salesman in the shop was gay. Who was prepared to turn his or her life upside down to eject the good people in it?

The issue came to Nevada and California in the same year—2000. This time, the casinos took no hand and without that cover, the politicians fell silent or switched sides. U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, who opposed the Mabon measure, voted against marriage equality in Congress and later endorsed an anti-gay marriage initiative petition, allowing her name to be carried on their letterhead.

In California, the marriage issue appeared on the statewide ballot twice, and those votes demonstrate how fast things change. In 2000, 61.4 percent voted against the gays. In 2008, when the issue appeared on the ballot again, that vote was down to 52.47 percent.

Nevada’s two votes did not unfold in the same fashion. An anti-marriage equality measure had to be approved by voters twice in successive elections to enter the state constitution, so there was not the same passage of time to provide a comparison. Still, during the two years between first and second round voting, the vote against gays declined by 2.42 percent. In 2000 it was 69.62 percent. In 2002 it was down to 67.20 percent. Since then, opinion surveys have shown Nevadans, like residents of other states, have been changing their minds about gays in amazing numbers.

By 2013, a Public Opinion Strategies poll commissioned by the Retail Association of Nevada found that removing the marriage equality ban from the Nevada Constitution would command 54 percent to 43 percent. It’s unlikely that Nevadans today would vote again as they did 13 years ago.

But when Nevada Republicans took a majority in the legislature in 2014, they took no chances. They killed a measure that would have sent the issue back to the voters and had already passed the legislature once. Twice is required, so the process will have to begin again this year.

Meanwhile, Las Vegas casinos have a thriving gay customer base.


David Parks was elected to the Assembly, and then the Senate, in part because he was seen as more than just a gay person—as a well-rounded leader with a base of support. “I cannot overemphasize the importance of self-definition before community-building can succeed and develop into political power,” McBride wrote.

In an interview (see page 31), McBride said, “I’ve been at this long enough in Nevada—born and raised here—that I have seen this inexorable movement forward toward inclusivity and respect and support, with significant steps backward from time to time. But I have more faith in Nevada than I did 10 years ago.”

But civilization is a thin veneer, and our worst instincts are often just beneath the surface where a skilled demagogue can tap them. Nor are we good at learning from history, often because we don’t know history. The history of Nevada’s tribes was not well recorded, just as the history of Nevada gays was neglected—two oppressed groups.

The Virginia City of the 1870s ignored opium until whites started smoking it, and then the city outlawed it. Las Vegas ignored AIDS as long as it was “only” killing gays. When Las Vegas woke up, it tended to harass those victims instead of helping them.

All of which makes reading history essential. McBride’s book is a good place to start.