Desert Companion

'You've Got to Fight'

Dennis McBride on the history — and future — of Pride in Southern Nevada
 

When the City of Henderson dropped its sponsorship of Henderson Pride Fest over differing definitions of “family friendly,” the decision stirred questions over who Pride is for and how to celebrate. Dennis McBride, historian and author of Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State, reflects on Las Vegas’ first Pride event and how cultural shifts may affect Pride events in years to come.
 

How did you first become involved with what you describe in your book as the first Gay Pride event in Las Vegas back in 1983?

Las Vegas had not had a Gay Pride celebration before, and they’d been going on in the rest of the country, in big cities, for a decade. So we all decided to pool resources and do something …  We weren’t going to call it a Gay Pride celebration, because when you say “gay,” you scare people, and when you say “Gay Pride,” you terrify them. So, we decided we were going to have it at the university (UNLV) because they were very gay-friendly. We set up what we called a Human Rights Seminar, which sounds safe, but nearly all of the seminars that we had and workshops were gay-oriented. From that point onward, we’ve always had Las Vegas Gay Pride, with various sponsors and various names and so on. It might have grown much bigger earlier, except that was the outset of the AIDS pandemic.

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Tell me more about the line that Pride has walked between celebration and political action regarding issues such as public health.

The gay communities were not founded here on political issues. It was social. Nevadans for Human Rights was the first political organization that was established here, but by people who had been involved in politics in other places. When they came here and saw the state of the community, they determined they were going to make a political presence and bring us along. They learned quite early on that the best way to approach the Las Vegas gay community, if you wanted to build a political presence, was socially. So they established potlucks, where we’d meet once a month. It’d be social, and then it would also be political, because they would discuss issues and topics. Pride, of course, especially early on, was meant to be a political statement. In other places, that political statement morphed into more of a social thing with politics attached rather than politics with social things attached.
 

In a radio interview with KNPR’s State of Nevada earlier this year, you said the aim of the 1983 Human Rights Seminar was “more a matter of persuasion than confrontation.” Do you think that compromise is still necessary when it comes to planning Pride events in 2022?

I think Las Vegas changed enough that you could be nonconfrontational, because now, standing up and saying, “I’m gay,” is not confrontational. If we did it in Nye County, absolutely. It’s going to be confrontational ...

Just to illustrate that: (Republican Gov.)Ron DeSantis in Florida and the (so-called) “Don’t Say Gay” law … That party controls the entire state apparatus in Florida, including the courts. So, whatever recourse you might have, to bring a lawsuit and fight it through the courts, has been taken away. What are you going to do if you want change? There’s not much recourse left except confrontation of some nature.
 

Is there a responsibility for people in Nevada to speak out, or act politically on behalf of queer people nationally?

When you are safe in your space, that does suggest a responsibility to make sure that others are also safe in their space. Stonewall started out as a reaction to something happening not just in New York, but on that very street in that one spot. As the weeks and the months went by afterwards it spread into a shared sense of responsibility for gay communities across the country. Nobody thought, at the moment they were heaving bricks at the cops, “This is the inaugural event, the inaugural fight we’re going to face,” but it became that … Commiseration is a great thing; just talking to people is a great thing, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to fight in some way. It’s hard to say just which way things are going to go from this point, but always be ready for the worst, because the worst is what they’ll give you. Φ
 

Las Vegas Pride Night Parade begins at 6 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, in Downtown Las Vegas. Visit lasvegaspride.org for more.

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