Untold stories from Reno LGBT bars
Newspapers are sometimes called “the first draft of history.” If you want to know what people were talking about 20 or 50 or 100 years ago, one good way to find out is to search through old papers. News stories, commentary, letters to the editor and ads from the past hold clues about the prevailing attitudes from each era.
In the case of Reno’s LGBTQ community, though, the media records are sparse. Since 2014, when same-sex marriage got the green light in Nevada, it’s been easy to find wedding photos and headlines proclaiming civil rights victories. But the further back in time you look, the more invisible the queer community becomes in the media. Queer identities and acts were harshly stigmatized for well over a century—and that stigma was backed up by law. Nevada’s sodomy law—put on the books in 1861 and strengthened in 1914—wasn’t overturned until 1993. Prison sentences were all too common for all too long. Being an out and proud gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person could have gotten you legally fired all the way up until 1999. And locals over 40 or so remember that a bartender at Phase Two, a Sparks gay bar, was murdered behind the bar in 1991—and that that’s just one of countless threats and attacks.
So, it’s not hard to see why people would stay in the closet—or at least out of the public eye. But queer people have been residents of the Silver State since long before it even became a state. This summer, as Northern Nevada Pride approaches, we took a look back at Reno’s queer history. We didn’t set out to tell a complete history—or even a well-balanced survey. Instead, we asked people for their best LGBTQ bar stories.
Scholar Jeff Auer, who wrote the chapter on Reno for the book LGBTQ America, found written accounts from California in the 1700s about Native American two-spirit—or transgender—people’s interactions with colonists and missionaries. Dennis McBride, author of Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State, found documentation of LGBTQ residents—much of it in the form of court records, arrest records and tales of harsh persecution—going back to the 1860s.
We don’t know a lot about LGBTQ nightlife in Reno up through the 1940s, but we do know that cross-dressing performers were big in the cabaret scenes in larger cities, and that, in 1935, nationally famous gender-boundary-pushing performer Ray/Rae Bourbon performed at Belle Livingston’s Cowshed, a bar with a raucous reputation on Virginia Street, just south of Plumb Lane.
An Associated Press columnist from 1954 casually listed “homosexuals” as suspected national security threats, along with “Communists … drunks, liars, blabbermouths and mental cases.”
Local historian Neal Cobb reasoned back then that a bar that catered to people who could be so casually marginalized for their orientations might well sympathize with his own plight: He was 16, not old enough to legally buy a drink.
“When I was going to high school in the 1950s, there was a place called The Seas, way out South Virginia Street,” Cobb said. He doesn’t remember the exact address. It was likely somewhere near Longley Lane.
The bar was in a small farmhouse, Cobb recalled, with an inconspicuous sign outside and a small barroom inside, with just four tables or so.
One day, he and his buddies—all of them straight—went to The Seas.
“We figured, well, hell, underage? We can get served over there, no problem at all,” he recalled. “Well, there was four of us that went out there. We walk in like we own the place. We sit down at a table.”
No one came over to take their order, so Cobb went up to the bar.
The bartender was a stout woman with “a butch haircut, this nice haircut, and she’s got this ski sweater.”
“I sit at the bar,” Cobb said. “She walks up to me and says, ’What do you want?’” He doesn’t remember what he ordered, but the bartender’s response still rings clear in his mind after 60-odd years: “She reached down inside that ski sweater, and she had a Derringer on the end of her necklace. She pulled that out, and she goes, like so, right between my eyes, and she goes, ’This is a special bar for special people. Hit the fucking door.’ Well, I’ll tell ya—I hit that door. I was halfway back to Reno by the time the guys caught up with me.”
‘The world opened up’—1960s
Keith Ann Libby, 78, grew up in Boston’s Charlestown neighborhood, which, during his youth, was not yet characterized by brewpubs and Asian fusion. “It was a slum—I was carrying a razor when I was 17 years old,” he said.
He remembers the exact date he and his partner moved to Reno: Jan. 11, 1964. A few Reno gay bars had opened and closed before Libby’s time, but when he arrived, there was just one, Reno Bar, at 424 E. Fourth St., where Abby’s Highway 40 is now. A straight couple owned the place, and people of every orientation went there during the day. “At night, it was strictly gay,” Libby said. “Straights didn’t want to be bothered with them queens.”
The word “gay” was just coming into use at the time, Libby said. Before then, people said “queer.” And, while “queer” is now used proudly to express a range of identities, in 1964 it was strictly derogatory. And it wasn’t just the terminology that was changing. The ’60s, Libby said, were when “the world opened up.” He said that people were getting used to the idea that the LGBTQ community existed.
“I loved Reno, because it was quiet and had the casinos and nobody bothered you,” Libby said. He said that he was harassed for being gay more in San Francisco than in Reno—but it did sometimes happen here.
“Just every once in a while, there’d be some shit stirred,” he said. “They’d be usually sorry when they started it. Every now and then, one of the university crowd would come in and get their ass beat. They didn’t think the gays would fight. I loved a fight.” He said he put the assailants in the hospital more than once. “I didn’t mind breaking their arm back then,” he said.
Libby is not a large, imposing man. He remembers being 135 pounds. He credits growing up in Charlestown with teaching him how to fight. “I knew I was queer by the time I was 7, 8 years old,” he said. “People picked on me—I cut them. Oh, I loved a fist fight when I was a kid.”
As an adult in the 1960s, he’d sometimes get hassled for performing in drag. “I put on a show—I was young and full of hell,” he said. He didn’t care what type of music was playing—Country & Western on the jukebox, top-40 dance hits, whatever. He just wanted to put on a dress and perform. “People loved it,” he said—though police officers would stop him for being in drag.
“As long as I had on men’s underwear and carried a male ID, they couldn’t do anything,” he said. ”Most of the cops at that time didn’t know it. They had to look it up.” (According to Libby’s recollection, that was a Nevada law. Others remember it as a City of Reno law or an “unofficial law.”)
“The cops back then were basically straight,” Libby said. “I knew five cops who were gay, but they could never say.”
Libby enjoyed his role in the community. He owned a beauty salon on Mill Street. As a drag performer, he held fundraisers—“for whoever needed help,” he said. He also played a mentor role. “I was big in helping the gay community come out, in saying, “It’s none of your damn business what I do in bed,” he said. “It was about—you are who you are. Don’t hide it. It’s nobody else’s business but yours.”
Libby said that, during the ’60s, drugs weren’t part of the bar scene. By the ’70s, though, in many establishments, they were central to the entertainment.
The property at 3001 W. Fourth St. used to be home to Urban Roots farm and is now listed for sale. From 1966 to 1988, it was Dave’s VIP Lounge, a motel/resort with a pool, a dance floor, and a reputation for being a revved-up party spot.
Jeff Auer mentioned in LGBTQ America that Dave’s was “part of the growth of gay tourist destinations in the West in general” and also Nevada’s longest running gay bar. Later, the same property housed three other LGBTQ bars, Visions, Reflections and Blue Cactus.
“I remember when I was, like, 20, and I probably looked like I was 12,” said a congenial man in his 60s, fresh from the office in a button-down shirt. People in the LGBTQ community know him as Bubbles, and he agreed to tell some stories but did not want to mention his legal name.
“I wasn’t living here then,” he said. “I was in the Bay Area, and I would just drive over and hang out in the parking lot. That was in the late ’70s.”
“Dave’s VIP was a dance bar,” said Bubbles. Inside, there was a huge mural of the Marlboro Man.
“The most memorable story about Dave’s VIP is the bottle of poppers in a Perrier bottle—and disco. The dance floor would be packed. They would just pass around the bottle of poppers. … It was open 24 hours. People would just do whatever, pass out at the pool.”
‘A lesbian Cheers’—1990s
Shelly Palmer is a realtor and property owner who lives in North Carolina. In 1992, she opened Bad Dolly’s at 535 E. Fourth St., one door west of the Reno Bike Project’s former building.
A 1992 Reno Gazette Journal bar guide listed Bad Dolly’s in the “alternative lifestyles” category and mentioned its $1 Bud drafts, two disco balls, shuffleboard, dartboard and “gay literature on hand,” calling the place “not as rough as its name would suggest. In fact, not rough at all.”
“We catered to a lesbian clientele, even though everyone was welcome,” Palmer said. “Dolly’s was big. It was 3,000-plus square feet, really open. It was a dance-club vibe, then it had a DJ booth in the corner.” Thursday nights were country music nights, which drew a mixed crowd. On weekends, the mostly female clientele enjoyed go-go dancers and wet T-shirt contests.
“During the week, it was slower,” Palmer said. “It was a regular neighborhood crowd. … I think back then, in the ’90s, we didn’t have social media, and people were a lot more closeted. And I don’t think it was really mainstream or cool to be gay.”
Queer people were routinely harassed in public then, Palmer said, especially men. And, during the Dolly’s days, people could be fired from their jobs for being out. Nevada law didn’t prohibit job discrimination based on sexual orientation until 1999.
“We tried to schedule events there, any type of event anyone wanted to schedule, because it was a large venue, and it was so open, and you could get a few hundred people in there,” Palmer said. One such event occurred in 1994.
“A group [from Oregon] was trying to ban gay people [in Nevada] from being teachers, doctors, lawyers,” said Paco La Choy, editor and publisher of Reno Gay Page. Then-Gov. Bob Miller and his Democratic primary opponent, then-Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones, spoke at the bar in opposition to the group.
Palmer’s strongest memories of 1994 are more about working hard to keep Bad Dolly’s and her other bars operating smoothly than about organizing for political change, but others remember Miller’s visit as an important moment.
“Bad Dolly’s has the historical significance of being the only gay bar in the U.S. that the sitting governor came and gave a political speech at,” La Choy said proudly.
Kai Howard was a customer at Bad Dolly’s. “It was like the lesbian Cheers for me,” she said fondly. The bartenders knew to start her off with her a Captain Morgan and Coke or a Corona. She didn’t even have to ask.
“Dolly’s was a dive,” Howard said. “It was dark, and the bathrooms didn’t always work, but the bartenders were awesome, and the drink specials were good, and it was just a comfortable place to be yourself. … It was just like any other after-work bar. There’d be women in there sitting in their suits and nice dresses, sitting next to somebody who’d obviously just come off a landscape crew.”
Sometimes, the party got wilder. “I could tell you stories, but you couldn’t print most of ’em,” Howard said, laughing. “There was some toplessness. There was some maybe drinking and dancing on the bar.”
Howard said the bar’s clients were open-minded, for the most part, about the occasional straight male visitor. But one night, four or five inebriated straight men arrived who hit on the women there more aggressively than they would have liked.
“They didn’t speak English,” Howard said. “They spoke Spanish. We were trying to explain to them they were in a lesbian bar. They were pretty drunk. Finally, somebody came in that spoke Spanish and explained to the guys. And we put them in a cab and sent them to the Spice House.”
Bad Dolly’s closed in 1999. “It had kind of run its course,” said Palmer, pointing out that bars tend to have a limited lifespan. Howard was sad when she heard the news. “For me, it was like—I marched in parades, and I had friends die from AIDS,” she said. “That’s when I was coming out. That’s my life. … I didn’t have a place to hang with my friends. Just that little part of the gay and lesbian community was gone, and that was sad. … It’s hard to replace the soul of a bar.”
‘Power of the gay dollar’—July, 2018
On a recent Wednesday night, about 30 people convened at the Loving Cup for “Guerrilla Gay Bar,” a monthly mixer hosted by Our Center Vice President Meredith Tanzer. Some people refer to the Loving Cup as a “quasi gay bar” or “really, really gay friendly,” but the mixer could have been anywhere. The group is sometimes as small as 15, sometimes as large as 50, and it’s convened at Our Bar, Flowing Tide, Press Start and other venues.
“Well, there aren’t as many gay bars anymore, so we’re going to regular bars,” Tanzer said.
There are a few reasons there aren’t as many gay bars anymore. Christopher Daniels, managing director at Good Luck Macbeth Theatre Co., wrote a play on this very subject two years ago. He explained that gay bars were many people’s only safe haven or gathering space for a long time. “Gay bars also used to be the central foreground for organizing,” Daniels said. “Drag queens were essential figures in political mobilization, HIV awareness and condom usage.” Those needs are now filled in different ways, though.
“With political victories over the years, perhaps there is a belief that the younger generation doesn’t need to do this,” Daniels said. “Also, sexual and gender identity has evolved so much over the years. People say, ’I’m gay, but that’s not who I am’ and aren’t finding strong connections within the community.”
When Tanzer and her colleagues gather at mainstream bars, they have a specific goal.
“Bars need to realize that we’re significant part of their revenue stream,” Tanzer said. “We wanted to demonstrate the power of the gay dollar. … So, our thought was, we’re not going to go to any gay bars. We’ll pick an off night. And we will go [to a bar for] two hours and just cash-bomb the place. We’ve spent anywhere from $250 to $575.”
“Gay men have a great reputation for tipping,” she added, with characteristic enthusiasm. “Don’t you want all those dudes in there? The bartenders sure do. You should want our business.”
At around 6 p.m., she estimated that without her crew, there would have been five customers at the Loving Cup. She gestured toward her friends.
“They’re all going to tip,” she said. “The bar’s gonna feel great about it.”