Cassandra Keenan

Vegas still casts desert mirage of equality

Filed By Cassandra Keenan | November 09, 2009 5:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: domestic partnership, employment discrimination, Las Vegas, Nevada

It's the sex and gambling capital of the world - a place where anything goes, right? Wrong.

LasVegasSign.jpgAs far as I'm concerned, Las Vegas generally has a bogus reputation for being socially liberal, including when it comes to LGBTQ liberties, specifically regarding trans individuals. This widespread belief is likely due to the image of carnal excess and indulgence that our tourism industry and the media pound into the heads of consumers around the country and beyond.

But if you look more carefully (which I personally have done over the five years I've been living here), you will notice that what's perceived as a relaxed attitude toward sex and gender is not what it seems.

Advertising trends offer one way to gauge the local social climate. As an observer, you'll spot hotel and casino billboards that are heavily heterosexually oriented. You'll see ads in print media and on television promoting weekend getaways for couples, offers that are generally represented by a man and a woman in the accompanying promotional image. You'll probably also occasionally catch steamy, hetero male-endorsed girl-on-girl ads.

Or maybe you'll see an ad for a drag show headlining at a casino; drag is about as open-minded and mature as we get when it comes to trans awareness and acceptance at the local cultural level. Some of our most popular queer nightclubs are guilty of this, too, capitalizing on a stereotype that paints a one-dimensional image of the trans community. And the queer media does the same thing, sadly.

When you look still closer at life in Las Vegas, Southern Nevada and Nevada as a whole, you'll realize that trans individuals still lack basic protections as far as anti-discrimination laws are concerned. One of the most glaring examples of this is that there are no laws banning employment discrimination against Nevadans based on their gender identity and expression. We also are wide open targets of discrimination when it comes to public accommodations.

However, there are some signs that the tide might be slowly changing. For starters, our Legislature passed a same-sex domestic partnership law last summer -- not specifically trans-related progress, but a step ahead as far as queer rights in general. To boot, the tourism industry applied some pressure so that the law would pass, albeit the lobbying was a financially-driven move, as far as I could see, with tourism concerned it would lose the business of queer customers.

Also, local activists seem to have a renewed commitment to forging social and political change. For instance, they just recently held Southern Nevada's first transgender health fair, which was deemed a success by organizers and a way of raising awareness regarding the challenges and obstacles trans patients encounter when transitioning to the opposite sex.

But perhaps more notably, activists are currently seeking to enact laws with trans protections. There was an attempt last year to have a bill passed (AB 184) that would have prohibited workplace discrimination based on gender identity and expression, but it died at the Assembly committee level. Also, there were efforts to add a trans-inclusive amendment to a public accommodations bill introduced at the Senate level (SB 207), but it ultimately was enacted with sexual orientation protections only.

Activists are still determined to pass trans-inclusive employment and public accommodations measures, namely when the Legislature convenes for the 2011 session, said Las Vegas-area psychotherapist Jane Heenan, who is helping spearhead the effort. Future goals also include changing the way the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles interprets its existing administrative code so that trans individuals will be able to switch their gender markers on their driver's licenses without sex reassignment surgery. Efforts also are being directed, albeit to a lesser degree, toward change at the county and city levels with regard to protection from discrimination for trans individuals, Heenan said.

Overall, it seems that thanks to Las Vegas, Nevada in general is in an advantaged position to usher in such progressive social changes. People everywhere already expect it of us. Heck, part of the reason why they love Vegas so much is because they perceive it to be very open and free with regard to gender and sexuality. We already have supportive public opinion on our side. I don't know what's been taking us so long to grab the ball and run with it.


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I always had the impression that vegas was LA-style liberal: yeah, go crazy on the weekends, but during the week it's back to suburbia.

Except the weekend never ends on the strip....

My interpretation of Vegas has never been that it was all that liberal.

Indeed, liberal is pretty much the last term I would have ever associated with Vegas, lol.

Part of the reason for this is that liberality s, typically, bad for business, in the sense and understanding of the kinds of businesses that are widely seen as linked to Vegas.

The other part of the reason is the way that Vegas is marketed: Sin City. Here you can indulge in all the sins you wish, and then leave it all behind. It is a realm of debauchery and vice, where anything can be had for a price.

Best summed up in the more recent ads: what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. In short, we will keep your secret, we will keep your sins.

To have that kind of outlook, to see the very things that way in order to actually market them as such, you have to have a mindset that says they are such things.

That tells me, when added into the busness equation, that they see themselves as conservative, and that it is, in general, a conservative city, where the freedom and ease to do as one will is what's valued. The importance of a large pool of service based talent is an important function as well, as it provides the very base on which those things are built on.

And I say all of this knowing that I'll be there in a week, lol.

You are more savvy than I was, then. :) I was among the duped masses when I first moved here. And I think it’s pretty common, too, specifically among trans individuals.

I say that because I have heard many of them say they wished they lived here so they could be more open about who they are, or so they’d have a place to transition to the opposite sex in a community where that type of thing was fully accepted.

There is this widespread, incorrect notion that Vegas is notably trans-friendly. But I eventually discovered that it is actually trans-hostile -- in a number of capacities.

and I guess that makes Vegas no different than most other parts of the country.

I expect Las Vegas to be libertine but not necessarily liberal. It's great to have a place that's sex positive, but that seems to be as far as its positivity goes. Even though Vegas is supposed to let you break taboos, it seems to be only certain taboos that you're allowed to break -- as you say, heterosexual ones.

Nevada is, after all, in the desert West, and those states have not had a lot of blue in them for a long time. I'm glad to read that things might be changing though.

Thanks for opening our eyes to this--you're so right! I look forward to hearing more about what the rest of us can do to help the Nevada trans and greater LGBT community before 2011! Keep on posting!

I recently spoke on a transpanel for a gender and sexuality class on campus (Humboldt State) and two older transwomen expressed their feelings about drag being related to the trans community. They were adamant that drag did not represent transwomen in the slightest, possibly being a huge misconception in heterosexual and non-trans communities. I think there are some men that do drag that probably become transwomen, but mostly it seems to be performance for entertainment, and I can understand their objections. Cross-referencing trans people with drag is quite problematic in this sense. Transsexuality is a difficult and tormenting personal journey that many of us go through (I know this myself). It would be traumatic for me to dress up as a woman, since I felt forced to do that for the better part of 20 years.

A few years ago, I went to Las Vegas to work for ten days, and I found out exactly what Cassandra is talking about. Vegas is, at its heart, a middle-class working town; instead of factories, it has resorts. I coined a term at the time, describing it to my friends as "Detroit with sequins".
I was there to serve the wider TG community as a makeup artist and stand-in manager at the only store in town that sells products to the entire spectrum of trans people during an event called "Diva Las Vegas". DLV is a yearly weeklong party for the most private and secretive end of the community(Crossdressers) to live completely en femme and go to events around town.
There is a certain "What stays in Vegas..." tolerance displayed by businesses(money has no sexual orientation or gender identity) but I was keenly aware that many people who go to Vegas were not fond of us, and the reception was even cooler as you drove further out from the strip.I was expecting a glittering, wicked section of town with scandalous gay bars, and found a lonely trio of bars(known, eerily, as the "pink triangle") on Flamingo next to good place to get a bowl of Pho. Vegas has(or had, before the economy tanked) lots of developments built around large Churches and one got the sense of a "we like to keep this a nice place to raise our kids, ma'am" social conservatism in place.
I'm a member of the recovery community as well, and a 12-step meeting I liked met on the second floor of an office building on the backside of Vegas' most notorious Tranny pickup bar a mile or so off The Strip(Honey, that's what it is; don't get all PC on telling me to call it something else). After an hour of inspiring experience, strength and hope from fabulous gay men and women who worked as dancers and dealers, I was solicited nearly every time I went to my car; I have to say, I felt a twinge of fear, even at 6'3", so I can imagine how my more diminutive sisters must feel. The point, if there is one, is that cross-gender behavior and same-sex attraction are viewed as a commodities in Vegas to be tightly controlled, just like everything else.