The other gay community
Local women talk about living as lesbians in Northern Nevada
The first thing you’ll notice as you turn off of West Fourth Street onto the curving narrow driveway of the Blue Cactus Bar & Nightclub is the little wooden cactus cutouts, wrapped in Christmas lights, lighting up your way. And that’s just the first sign of the renovations that revamped the former Summit Saloon into what many are calling Reno’s only lesbian bar since Bad Dolly’s closed years ago.
The inside is just as inviting, as the old bar’s dirty, rural image has been updated into hip, Southwestern chic. Tiny spotlights hang warehouse-style from thin metal cords over the long bar, where the video poker screens have been replaced with shiny copper panels. The signs on the bathroom doors read “Pricks” and “Prickless"—a vulgarity softened by the cleverness of the play on the cactus theme.
But, of course, the most dramatic change you’ll notice when you cross the threshold is the women. Lots of women. Except for one talkative old guy at the bar, all of the patrons at the Blue Cactus on one recent night were women. And, as the night wore on, more women arrived in pairs and small groups until the place was fairly jumping.
This is somewhat of an anomaly in the gay nightlife scene; although many say that The Patio is friendly to both men and women, men predominantly frequent the half-dozen other gay bars in town.
And the imbalance isn’t limited to bars. A glance at SierraVoice.com, an online gay publication, reveals that men’s social clubs in the area far outnumber those for women. The Silver Dollar Court, self-described as “Reno’s oldest gay and lesbian social and philanthropic organization,” has almost exclusively elected men as its annual Emperor and Empress. The pages of Reno’s two gay print publications, Reno Informer and Reno Tahoe Outlands, are packed with pictures of gay men.
So where are all the lesbians in Reno? According to Jeannie and Kim, two “30-something” lesbians who asked that their last names not be used (and they’re just friends, by the way), the lesbian community is all around you—it’s just a little harder to find.
Jeannie might strike you as a shy person at first, with her soft, lisping voice and her initial reserved demeanor—until you get her talking. A truck driver by day, Jeannie has lived in Northern Nevada for 19 years and came out of the closet while in high school in Carson City.
“You could just say that I came out with a bang—a big bang,” Jeannie says. “I went to the prom with my best friend in tuxedos, because our girlfriends wouldn’t go with us. … Everybody knew that we were gay. Some people had a problem with it; some people didn’t have the balls to say anything, and other people really didn’t care. The hardest part for me was my family.”
Jeannie says her family took the news that she was gay very hard, but none more so than her twin brother.
“He was like, ‘Oh, well, because you are [gay], it affects me.’
"'How does it affect you?'” Jeannie asks, imagining her response to him. “My mom and I have gone a long way in the past 11 years, but my twin brother? No. He just assumed that if I let him hook me up with a man, it would all be better. Because that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
“And he’ll be happy, and you won’t,” interjects Kim, whose blond, sun-bleached hair and athletic build invokes images of soccer star Brandy Chastain.
“Exactly,” Jeannie continues. “Because it’s all about what people want to see. Here he’s got this perfect little family, and then his sister’s gay. His sister brings her girlfriend to all the functions, not a boyfriend. It’s like, what do you think, people are going to look down upon you? It has nothing to do with you. It has nothing to do with you. You can’t control who I love, and I can’t control who you love.
“But from then to now, my family has come a long way to support me in my decision and to stand behind me. Even though they may not like it, they accept it. To me, that’s all that matters. As long as I know that my family’s there for me.”
Kim says she’s received the same type of mixed reactions from her family.
“My mom’s my best friend,” Kim says. “I could talk to her about anything. She’s a part of my life. But at the same time, she scorns me. Both my mom and my dad.”
Lesbians at large
Jeannie says Reno simply isn’t ready for a lesbian community on par with, say, San Francisco’s.
“I don’t think Reno’s ready for it, to be honest. The gay community, I don’t think they’re ready for it,” she says. “It’s not just within the community; it’s outside the community. I don’t think they’re ready for it.
“I agree that Reno’s come pretty far from when I first came out. They’ve taken the steps in the right direction. But by any means, being anywhere close to open-minded like the San Francisco area, it’s not going to happen. Not for a long time.”
But then again, Jeannie says, there are some advantages to living in Reno that San Francisco doesn’t have.
“I went down there about a year ago, and I went out to the clubs down there … I mean, there were a lot of lesbians there, but I didn’t enjoy the atmosphere,” Jeannie says. “I want someplace where I’m going to be comfortable—not be, like, bumper to bumper people. I didn’t feel comfortable at all.”
Jeannie says that the Reno gay community is much more laid-back.
“Here, you don’t have to act a certain way or dress a certain way to represent who you are or to make a statement,” she says. “We’re not here to make a statement. We’re here to live our lives just like everybody else. The only difference is we love someone of the same sex. That’s the only difference. Let us be, and we’ll let you be.”
Love Reno style
In Reno, it’s often joked that everyone knows everyone, but that statement becomes closer to fact when talking about the local lesbian community. Jeannie and Kim laugh knowingly when asked about the dating pool.
“Well, like I said, I’ve lived here pretty much my whole life, with my lifestyle, and basically, everybody that you do get involved with knows everybody else,” Jeannie says.
“Or has been with everybody else,” Kim adds.
“So it’s a challenge,” Jeannie says. “If someone gives you a bad name, you’re pretty much screwed. It’s going to be harder for you to find someone to date.”
Where would a lesbian looking for love find such a thing around here?
“Well, you see, I’m pretty much open to everybody,” Kim says. “I go out to straight bars. I have a lot of straight friends. I meet [lesbians] here [at the Blue Cactus], I meet them at Bully’s [sports bar]. … Or even just being out on the road, going places. It doesn’t matter. They are out there. Sometimes you don’t realize they’re out there until there’s some big function going on, and you’re like, ‘Where’d they come from?’ “
“They crawl out of the woodwork,” Jeannie says.
While Jeannie is currently in a relationship, Kim says she’s taking it slow.
“I haven’t really dated too much since I’ve been here—I’ve been here four years—and I don’t know. I’m to that point now where I’m not looking for a relationship,” she says. “I’m looking for friends. And eventually, the way I look at it is, if it rolls into something, that’s fine. But I want to get to know the person first, because like [Jeannie] said, everybody knows everybody, and you hear a lot of stories from other people about those people. And it’s like, well, let me find out for myself, and you just kind of go from there. It’s touch and go. … I’m sure it’s like that with any lifestyle.”
Looking to the future
Talking with Jeannie and Kim, it’s evident that the Blue Cactus is already a home away from home for both of them. Kim says she’s tried to find this atmosphere at other gay bars in town, but until the Blue Cactus opened, she couldn’t find what she was looking for.
“Like I said, I didn’t know too many people, but once I came into this bar, I kind of opened myself up,” she says. “It’s a new atmosphere. It’s time to start making some friends. And I have so many friends here now, it’s great.”
But it’s not just about having a good time—it’s about being safe.
“There’s no sense of security, you know? You’ve got a lot of gay bashers out there who will easily walk into a bar, and they don’t care. They’ll hurt you. They’ll make fun of you. But here, everybody seems to know everybody. So when someone walks through that door, we all get a sense of whether that person’s safe or not. Because we all seem to look out for each other."