Taking Pride: The LGBT community’s biggest weekend expands to create a destination event

Pride’s Downtown parade in 2015.
Photo: Mikayla Whitmore

If there’s one local LGBT tradition as enduring as Pride, it’s complaining about Pride—how it’s not big enough, not good enough, not cool enough (literally and figuratively). Speedbumps like inertia, stigmatization, limited funding and community infighting have hindered the 23-year-old event, though breakthrough years have helped Pride gradually build its attendance from 200 people for its first edition to tens of thousands last year.

Dennis McBride, local LGBT historian and director and curator of photography at Nevada State Museum, recalls 1991 being a particularly pivotal year. “Pride was on the verge of dying,” he says. But after years of small gatherings in assorted locations, community leaders doubled down in every way possible, and the ramped-up event ended up surpassing 1990’s barely-300 attendance by more than 1,000—a triumph back then for gay Las Vegas. “That was a resetting of Pride, and it sounds like this is what they’re doing this year,” McBride adds.

That is indeed the core message being imparted by the Southern Nevada Association of Pride Inc, headed by returning president and former Nevada Assemblyman James Healey. “This is a year of rebuilding,” he says on more than one occasion, and the enlarged scope of Pride events indicates 2016 could surpass 2015 in attendance—and 1991 in relevance.

Healey reprised his role in late 2015 after SNAPI endured another year of declining attendance numbers and negative community feedback, hoping to inspire a shift. The first move he and SNAPI made was on the calendar, on which Pride has played hopscotch over the years. Now, the whole operation takes place during the third week of October, partly for the cooler temperatures but also to coincide with the International Gay Rodeo Association’s World Gay Rodeo Finals, which celebrates its 30th edition October 21-23 at South Point.

The strategic partnership overlaps with SNAPI’s goal to make Las Vegas Pride the massive, international event it is in other metropolitan cities—a no-brainer given our tourism infrastructure. “There’s no reason we’re not a destination pride,” Healey says. “Even Salt Lake City’s Pride is five times the size of ours, and that’s in the middle of Mormon country. If they can have a festival that gets 50,000 to 70,000, there’s no reason we can’t have 100,000.”

While the Friday nighttime march (which takes place 7-10 p.m. on Fourth Street between Charleston Boulevard and Stewart Avenue) remains mostly unchanged, the Pride festival has been radically modified. It now takes place Saturday (noon-10 p.m.) and Sunday (noon-6 p.m.) and moves from the Clark County Amphitheater in Downtown Las Vegas to Sunset Park, tripling the festival’s footprint and returning Pride back to the site of its very first outdoor rally, in 1984.

That means SNAPI can manifest its wish list of offerings to make the festival as inclusive and appealing as possible, like a bigger, more diverse food-vendor program; a first-ever Pride softball tournament; a sobriety-friendly dry area; two stages for live entertainment headlined by comedian Alec Mapa and Vegas-based dance-pop singer Kristine W; a range of family activities including the formerly separate Pride Pets event; a dance pavilion complete with zumba classes and Drai’s Beachclub & Nightclub DJs; and a participatory art project honoring the Orlando nightclub shooting victims.

Weekend afterparties abound, as do casino-hosted concerts that aren’t official Pride events but feature LGBT or LGBT-friendly performers, such as the Pet Shop Boys, Against Me! and Melanie Martinez. “That’s the exciting thing about progress,” says Healey, who also serves as a director of casino operations at New York-New York. “The gaming companies really value relationships with Pride and the LGBT community in general.”

On one hand, that’s one factor making Las Vegas Pride unique to conventional and larger Pride celebrations, which can make comparisons self-defeating. “Invariably, you’re gonna come up short comparing yourself to someone else,” McBride says. “Don’t do that.” On the other, it also highlights how SNAPI has successfully partnered with the hospitality industry, yet struggles to bring in resources and inspire participation from the larger community, especially working LGBT professionals. SNAPI even created a secondary, associate board for those limited by time and money—and ultimately responded to feedback from previous years with a weekend experience aimed to engage with everyone. “If we give them a Pride they can be proud of, they’ll get involved,” Healey says.

Historical precedence suggests Pride will nonetheless evolve—location, apathy and discord be damned. “It doesn’t matter where Pride is held except for logistical reasons [and] that they are having it and recalibrating,” McBride says. “That says something of the tenacity of the community and their dedication. They do this year after year, and I find it really laudable.”

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