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Lightning Strikes, Maybe Twice

Gipsy party host on stage in front of the bar
Tiffany Salerno
Tiffany Salerno Photography

The revival of pioneering club Gipsy enters a very different LGBTQ+ nightlife scene than the one it ushers in 43 years ago. But the more things change, the more they stay the same

Everyone is getting ready. The bartenders have lined the bar with carafes of orange juice for maximum mimosa consumption. The dancers are rehearsing their routines on the dance floor, unperturbed by the bussers rushing around them. A buffet is being arranged, table settings finished.

Manager Chris Adams oversees it all while also giving his guest a tour of the new Gipsy, a 43-year-old institution sitting in the same Paradise Road spot, but now in a new building. He points out updated amenities such as the sushi bar (“We didn’t want the club to smell like cooked food. And it gives an upscale vibe.”) and an enormous TV screen above the bar.

Then, he highlights the nods to history. French aesthetic touches pay tribute to the original “show kids” (that’s old Vegas code for “gay”) club, Le Cafe, that once stood just down the street on Paradise Road. Even the color scheme hearkens back to the older Gipsy, where Adams once thrilled patrons as a resident DJ.

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“It’s all come full circle,” he says for the first of many times that hour.

Gipsy’s importance to Las Vegas nightlife can’t be overstated. It opened in 1981, just two years before Las Vegas first experienced both Pride and HIV/ AIDS. Another show-kids venue, Gipsy drew partygoers of all stripes because of its stakes-raising entry into the local entertainment and hospitality scenes, as well as its glamour and celebrity allure.

“There was more of a sense of being out and open at Gipsy, which you really didn’t feel you could be in any of the other bars,” says local historian Dennis McBride, who patronized Gipsy in its earliest days and chronicled the history of the local LGBTQ+ scene in his book, Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State. “So, it was sort of the opening of the gay community in Las Vegas, because (Gipsy) was very well known in the straight community.”

Beyond its functionality and status as a community hub, what set it apart was how it allowed multiple generations of queer Las Vegans to come of age. And like so many other LGBTQ+ nightspots across the country, it was also where queer Las Vegas sought refuge from a very homophobic social environment, largely brought on by the moral-majority conservatism of the 1980s.

“Going to Gipsy was like stepping out of the closet for me,” McBride says. “And it was just a brighter and more welcoming space than had ever really existed in Las Vegas before for gay people. So, that’s partly why I enjoyed going there, because I could dance. I could do lots of other things. It just was a sense of nascent freedom in being gay.”

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Dancer at the Gipsy holds a #extra fan
Tiffany Salerno
Gipsy has survived lots of changes in the gay nightclub scene. Fans expect it be around for many more.

But it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the nightspot, which would become the anchor for Las Vegas’ unofficial gay district, or “Fruit Loop,” at Paradise Road and Naples Drive. Between arson, sting operations by police to out and arrest patrons, ownership changes, and legal episodes, there was never a dull moment. Competition both within the gay community and outside of it in the 2010s meant steadily decreasing patronage, and in 2020, the initial Gipsy nightclub met the wrecking ball.

It makes perfect sense that Gipsy would come full circle and be reborn. Its story fits into the general rhythm of Las Vegas queer nightlife — its people, places, and parties come and go, and sometimes they return. (To wit: Flex Cocktail Lounge relocated from west of Downtown to just southeast of it, and the recently shuttered Charlie’s Las Vegas has hinted at reappearing in a new location.)

And while it finds itself in a drastically different nightlife scene than it did 20 years ago, much less 43 years ago, Gipsy has learned from previous trials. For one, it’s embracing versatility — it’s a hangout, dance space, dining spot, and elegant meeting room for community organizations (as it was in the early 1980s). And it doesn’t seem to heed the narrative that dating/hookup apps like Grindr encourage people to cruise at home. Like many gay spaces, it’s betting on patrons’ desire to gather and share experiences in person.

And if there’s one safe bet Gipsy is going all-in on, it’s drag. “I think that drag plays a crucial part in queer culture, because it has been an integral part of our history — drag queens, drag kings, and performance in general,” says Julián Delgado Lopera, a Shearing Fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute and cofounder of Drag Queen Story Hour. Like so many locals, Lopera has gone to local queer spots to watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. The 15-year-old reality TV show has not only been a cultural groundbreaker, it’s also helped bring more people to LGBTQ+ bars and clubs across the country by having watch parties and/or booking the show’s stars to perform.

Adams says Gipsy is booking a lot of drag performers and “bringing in almost every RuPaul’s Drag Race (performer) there is.” This is evident on both the venue’s late night and brunch calendars. For the latter: Gipsy has installed a roll-up glass overhead door to allow indoor/outdoor brunching and revelry, not unlike the setup at Miami Beach’s renowned Palace Bar (which is ironic, as former owner Paul San Filipo dismantled the venue’s infamous South Beach-themed rebranding by the TV show Bar Rescue in 2013.) And then there’s the giant TV, which Adams says is largely for the Drag Race viewings.

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Funny thing about televisions: They’re almost as important to queer bars as drag queens. Once used for ambiance, be it music videos or, in some cities, gay adult films, they’re now central to making bars the “third place” of the LGBTQ+ community. At the Garage, which is one of the few local gay spots where one can watch sports, you might swivel your head back and forth watching half the bar cheer on the Vegas Golden Knights and the other half screaming at a new Drag Race episode. The Phoenix — the only LGBTQ+-centric bar left west of I-15 — also airs both Drag Race and Golden Knights games, and even allows videogame play on one big screen.

A drag queen collects one dollar bills from the audience at the Gipsy
Tiffany Salerno
Tiffany Salerno Photography

The more queer nightlife evolves, the wider a net proprietors must. Kitchens help; both the Garage and the Phoenix have them, as well as various gaming offerings (for gambling and non-gambling activities). Over at the new Bent Inn & Pub in Downtown, a permanent food truck serves up grub for both patrons in the bar and those renting its rooms and using its pool — making it Vegas’ first all-queer (and queer-owned) resort. Another new Downtown LGBTQ+ bar, The Queen, which also hosts a nightclub named Qarma, offers both general and brunch menus.

If Gipsy holds the key to queer nightlife’s past and present, Downtown is its future. Where many LGBTQ+ gathering spots hew closely to traditional gay nightlife conventions — and are largely patronized by gay cisgender men — places like Oddfellows, Cheapshot, and Bent beckon a more diverse and expressive clientele. On a recent weekend night, more than half of Bent’s customers were lesbians. The Backdoor has long catered to Latinx revellers. And promoter Bodywork — whose parties are currently held at Cheapshot, as well as Area15 just west of the Strip — celebrates self-expression, authenticity, and “the intersection of queer and counterculture.” Lopera, who moved here from San Francisco, is accustomed to going to LGBTQ+ spots that prioritized art and literary events. “There’s so much in queer culture that it doesn’t have to be one thing,” they say.

LGBTQ+ folx — and those who want more from their hangouts — is the nearby Phoenix. “There (are) lots of trans women and people from a lot of different ethnicities … it feels very queer and very gay,” Lopera says. “If I feel trans people are around, I’ll feel safer going to the bathroom … Definitely the reason I go to gay bars is because I want to feel safer. And more relaxed. The Phoenix gives me that.”

Commentary on the state of American gay bars often asks if LGBTQ+ people need them anymore — given the cultural and political victories the community has amassed over the last couple decades — or presumes a high level of LGBTQ+ assimilation into American society. This point of view doesn’t take into account the current sociopolitical climate in smaller cities and conservative states, or the discrimination and violence that BIPOC and trans/nonbinary members of the community continually face. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The gay bar was necessary for Dennis McBride when he helped break in Gipsy in the 1980s, and it’s still necessary for Lopera in 2024.

“I came into my queerness through the bar,” Lopera says. “I’m a trans guy and very flamboyant. The public space is very hard for queer people and if you’re gender-different. So the queer bar offers a deep freedom on what we wear and how we act. I have to police myself less, because people there are like me or part of the queer community. It feels like an alternative world, where it feels more free."

Mike has been a producer for State of Nevada since 2019. He produces — and occasionally hosts — segments covering entertainment, gaming & tourism, sports, health, Nevada’s marijuana industry, and other areas of Nevada life.