The state of LGBT community engagement in Las Vegas

Dan Mathews and Jack Ryan kiss at the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign after their wedding in 2014.

Leave it to a Facebook post to stir things up. In 2011, then-local news anchor and LGBT community member Chris Saldaña shared a link about the first active-duty military ever to march in San Diego’s Pride Parade. A lively, if largely cynical discussion about Vegas’ event and general LGBT engagement followed, with Saldaña asking commenters what they were doing to better Las Vegas Pride or help LGBT-advocacy groups like Golden Rainbow. You could almost hear the exasperation when he finally wrote, “I ask you again, have you done something to get involved?” Only one commenter chimed in, to say he hadn’t.

The episode was in keeping with what I’d always heard and observed: Most aren’t moved to action. But local apathy is hardly confined to the LGBT community, and it might be anecdotally exaggerated, according to those working toward elevating the gay experience here. If people are less engaged with the community and its causes, one reason could be occupational realities. We’re a 24-hour town. Many LGBT professionals are in hospitality, gaming and entertainment and are sweating through their shifts during the evening parades and galas.

“Let’s be real; when I was a restaurant manager, 80 percent of my staff was gay, and they all worked,” says Ernie Yuen, executive director of Southern Nevada Association of Pride, Inc., which produces Las Vegas Pride every September. “They never went to these gay events.” But they might’ve gone to a gay nightclub or bar, where LGBT community members—especially gay men—are most visible.

Not everyone connects through nightlife. But, according to Yuen, one might attend Pride-related bingo or a hiking excursion, or keep up with the community through social media. There’s also the possibility that some people just don’t feel the need to celebrate Pride or get involved with causes. Alienation has united LGBT people elsewhere, but those in Las Vegas—especially without their own “gayborhood”—are well-integrated in the mainstream. “We pretty much blend in,” Yuen says.

Inaction might be more about not knowing how to initiate involvement, or not getting a response when they reach out. This is a particular concern of Chris Alexander, volunteer coordinator for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada. As a native Las Vegan, he feels the LGBT community is generally well-intentioned but less engaged, largely because Vegas is so transient. But at the Center, the obvious hub of activity, he sees one or two volunteer applications a day—highly uncommon for a nonprofit, he says. “Everyone wants to help out at the Center—seniors, youth, the trans community, straight allies, and the financial companies and casinos want to send groups of people. We have the resources, and they’re coming in. It’s just putting them to the best use.”

Though he can rattle off reasons many local LGBT people seem absent, Yuen believes they’re actually very engaged, especially when it comes to charity galas, transgender causes, family events and certain fights that touch the whole community. Marriage equality drove activism. But its triumphant settlement begs the question: What should the community—active or not—focus on now?

Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada Associate Director Laura Martin says there’s more to improving the lives of LGBT Las Vegans than “safe issues” regarding marriage and the workplace. “It’s health care; having a safe place to live; not being harassed by police. It’s about being a resident in Nevada and being able to live with dignity.”

Beyond fundamentals, Martin, Alexander and Yuen agree that the transgender rights movement is one of the biggest concerns, if not the biggest. Not because celebrity has drawn the spotlight. Because trans people face higher occurrences of violence, discrimination and harassment. “People don’t understand what it’s like to be transgender,” Martin says. And that includes gay and lesbian people. Parts of the community not acknowledging or understanding the others is a problem not unique to Vegas, nor is the imbalance of the concerns of individuals taking precedence over those of the community, though Alexander thinks the city’s lack of a “gay ghetto” has impeded LGBT cohesion. “It’s cliche, but everyone [must] get together and realize that within our differences there are commonalities. It takes more awareness of each different group and what their needs are.”

“You ask what’s next. It’s like pick-up sticks,” Yuen says. “You pick the things you want to do and stick with that. I’m going to help the trans community, or I’m gonna help the gay youth and get them off the streets. My mom said it best: You need to pick your battles.”

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