For most of his 24 years, Emmanuelle Leal was, as best as anyone knew, straight. Partly because of his cultural background (born in Mexico), but mostly because Vegas lacked social outlets for young gays, he stayed closeted. Until 18 months ago. He felt free.
“If there were avenues in art, lecture, debates, academics, recreation, social life and nightlife to express that I was queer, who knows,” says Leal. “We had Neon Fest, [Las Vegas] Pride and other events, but our conference incorporates everything: queer academic dialogue, queer artistic dialogue, queer social spaces, queer research, journalism, poetry. You name it.”
“Toward a Queer Homeland: Bridging Communities and Resisting Hate,” a collaborative effort of UNLV’s Women’s Studies Department, student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudantil Chicano de Aztlan) and the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies’ Joto Caucus, runs Friday and Saturday at UNLV.
If academic and social venues are hallmarks of a well-rounded community, UNLV women’s studies professor Anita Revilla says Vegas needs to catch up. “We need feminist spaces, spaces for people of color, for LGBTs (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and other marginalized communities, so Las Vegas can reach its true potential. There are outlets here [Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Las Vegas], but there needs to be more, much more.”
Vegas’ treatment of the LGBT community is a mixed bag, says Steve Friess, publisher of the Gay Vegas guidebook and a Weekly columnist. Casinos offer same-sex benefits to employees, support causes, promote well and feature openly gay entertainers and same-sex weddings in their chapels. Gays also hold prominent posts in education. “There’s a strong live-and-let-live aesthetic in general.”
But on some important issues, the gay community is often a silent minority: “The Vegas gay community does not come together in effective political or cultural ways very often. There aren’t any gay ghettos, and as a minority we often have a hard time mobilizing in the face of threats like the same-sex marriage ban that passed in 2004,” Friess says. And being gay and ethnic is like having two strikes against you: “If there are groups that are worse off than others, it would certainly be GLBT people of color in Las Vegas, for whom there is even less in the way of services and organizations.”
Vegas has made tangible strides, Leal says, particularly in social outlets for young gays. The Gay and Lesbian Center runs R.U.1.2., a group for 13-19-year-old LGBTs. “When I grew up, there were few spaces for queers and no spaces for people of color who were queer. Everything happened in LA, New York and San Francisco,” he says. “But now they’re starting to happen here.”