History, betrayal, progress and Dennis McBride

The political and the personal come together in the life of the local historian

While researching the history of gay life in Las Vegas, historian Dennis McBride (photographed in 2001) also looked for an identity as a gay man.
Photo: Steve Marcus

I’m gay, he told his mother. it was 1977, and Dennis McBride, then 22, sat across the lunch table from her at the Boulder City Hotel.

The moment rolled out themes for his life. He’d grown up in tiny Boulder City, and in a few years he would become Boulder City’s chief historian, publishing books about the dam, the hotel and Lake Mead, and championing the city and Boulder Dam Hotel museum. And then, several more years later, he’d feel that many in the town betrayed him—by signing petitions to ban gay marriage.

McBride’s life is a weave of hometown history and progressive politics. As he began his career as a historian studying at UNLV in the late 1970s, he also began searching for an identity as a gay man in Las Vegas.

“It was very difficult,” he said. “I had no gay friends. I realized I was gay, and there was nothing in Boulder City.” The Las Vegas gay community was also slight, he said, based mostly in bars and without a central political or support group. But soon after he’d come out, a fledgling group called Nevadans for Human Rights started, led by recent transplants from New York. Like a lot of gay people who presume that Las Vegas—known for its lifestyle freedoms—will be gay-friendly, “they came here expecting a lot more than they found,” McBride says.

Not dismayed, the group—with McBride as the only native Nevadan—began organizing the gay community. McBride became its historian, stealing away newspaper articles and bar flyers and rally photos. One of McBride’s 1983 Gay Pride photos, taken at Sunset Park, shows a few people and a microphone and a sign—a smidge less hoopla than 2010 holds in store, which is exactly the kind of cultural change McBride is inclined to document.

“It’s in my nature to be an archivist,” he says. “And it was my way of figuring out what I was.”

At the same time, McBride built his professional life around his hometown. He published several books, including In the Beginning: A History of Boulder City, Nevada, Building Hoover Dam: An Oral History of the Great Depression, and Midnight on Arizona Street: The Secret Life of the Boulder Dam Hotel; he worked at the Boulder City Library, UNLV’s Special Collections Department and Boulder City Museum and Historical Association.

The two biggest victories for the gay community in the last 30 years, as McBride sees it, were abolishing the same-sex-only sodomy law in 1993 (Nevada was one of five states that had homosexuals-only sodomy laws, punishable by up to six years in prison) and establishing domestic partnerships in 2009.

The low point was 2002’s Question 2, an initiative petition to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

Question 2 passed after a particularly heated election cycle. The setback bothered McBride so much that he became obsessed with knowing who had signed the petitions. So when the petitions were moved to the state archives, he began sorting through them, one by one: 50,000 pages in boxes. “I Xeroxed every single Boulder City signature,” he said.

“It changed my life for the worse. I was absolutely crushed. I was destroyed by it. The people who knew me and worked with me, the people who came to admire my work in Boulder City, so many had signed it ...

“It was close friends, board members [of the Boulder City Hotel Museum], coworkers, donors, it was such an array of people in my personal and professional life. I cannot describe what I went through. I would be bereft and crying every night ...

“My loyalty was with Boulder City. It really was. And to find out that these same people who knew me said, ‘You don’t deserve to be equal.’

“All of these people I thought better of—how can you forgive that? I had always said, ‘Be out, live your life openly and honestly.’ I felt betrayed.”

Since 2007 McBride has been the curator of History and Collections for the Nevada State Museum, Las Vegas.

Now 54, he has been working on a book titled Out of the Neon Closet: A History of Gay Las Vegas for more than 12 years. His professional and private lives have combined, much in the way they did that day in 1977 when he sat in the historic Boulder City Hotel and came out to his mother, unintentionally marking dual themes for his life.

On the eve of Pride 2010, he assesses the scene from a distinct perspective.

“We’re still far behind a lot of communities,” McBride says. “But if you look back—the Stonewall Riots didn’t even make the papers in Las Vegas in 1969. We’ve made a lot of progress. It’s a tremendous leap in 30 years or so.”

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