For almost 20 years, the Las Vegas Lounge has been a safe place for the trans community — until a recent act of violence reminded them that safety is never a sure thing
Callie Lou-Bee Haywood is known for her love of shoes. Her friends never see her out without her wearing something with a heel. This particular February evening, she slid her feet into a pair of chocolate boots with six-inch heels before leaving her apartment for a night out.
As on many nights, she ended up at the Las Vegas Lounge. This was not uncommon. She not only performed there, but she frequently patronized the only bar in Las Vegas that appeals specifically to transgender customers.
The first bullet buzzed by her head at around 5 a.m., the exact moment she reached for her jacket. “Everyone just started to scream and run,” Haywood says.
An unidentified man had opened fire from outside, shattering the glass windows in the front and side of the bar. A bullet pierced Haywood’s left leg, through her boot. “I just remember laying there thinking I was dead,” she says. “It was so painful that you almost couldn’t feel it.”
The February 23 shooting barely registered in the media or the larger community.
The shooting is still an ongoing investigation. Though it’s undetermined whether this was a hate crime targeting the transgender patrons, many have reason to suspect it was. There were no deaths, but that night caused more damage than most people realize.
For starters, it wounded Haywood physically and emotionally. It also took something else. For almost 20 years, the Las Vegas Lounge has been the only real haven for many transgender patrons. Those who frequent it are still shaken, as the shooting served as a stark reminder of the obstacles and violence trans people have to deal with: higher rates of unemployment and homelessness, an increase in legislative “bathroom bills” targeting their ability to use public accommodations, the Trump Administration’s stance on trans people serving in the military. A rise in hate crimes makes it difficult for some to believe this wasn’t hate-motivated. In 2016, at least 23 transgender people (that we know of) were killed in the United States. That number increased to 28 in 2017, plus, of course, hundreds around the globe. “When people tell me being transgender is a choice, it makes my blood boil,” says Jennifer Hallie, general manager of the Las Vegas Lounge. “Let me dispel that myth. Who would choose to become essentially unemployable and potentially become alienated from their entire family? Nobody makes that choice.”
Las Vegas Lounge sits on the outskirts of the Commercial Center District — that’s the Trans Pride Flag (two blue stripes, two pink stripes, and a white one in the middle) hanging outside the door. Inside, the space is deceivingly big, with a scattering of high-top tables in front of the U-shaped bar. Like so many other local establishments, video poker machines are embedded along the counter space of the bar. But unlike most places, the lounge also features a small stage on which transgender drag performers entertain the audience with performances featuring songs from favored pop princesses and divas.
Part of the healing process means making the Las Vegas Lounge feel secure again. "This was a safe space for us. We won't give that up," says General Manager Jennifer Hallie. Photography by Brent Holmes.
Whether or not it was the intention when the bar opened 19 years ago (the original owner couldn’t be reached for an interview), Las Vegas Lounge became a place where transgender people could escape a world that mistreated them, where they could hang out with one another. Employees and customers have been coming to the bar for years.
“I didn’t really know any other trans women,” Hallie says. She began to transition when she was 17 and came to the bar when she was 22, after it had been open for a few months. Working in the beauty industry, her primary interactions were with gay men. She heard through the grapevine that the lounge would be a spot specifically for transgender people. It wasn’t long before she started working there, too. “I remember making the joke about wanting to work there,” she says. By the next day, her offhand comment to the owner turned into an employment opportunity. She became a go-go dancer. Hallie liked dancing, but she really wanted to be a bartender. After one of the girls was fired in 2006, she started the next night.
For years she has worked alongside Morgan Hipkins, who’s been employed at the bar almost since it opened. “I also said I wanted to be a dancer,” she says. “The manager told me the dress code was a thong and pasties. I already had a thong on, so he handed me some pasties and I started right then.”
Hipkins has lived in Las Vegas for 35 years, since she was 18. Prior to it being the Las Vegas Lounge, she had come to the space in its previous incarnations as a restaurant, a bar, and another bar before finally the Las Vegas Lounge stuck.
During her first 10 months, Hipkins just go-go danced. When a bartending job opened, like Hallie, she began serving. “I still would dance, though,” she says. Some nights, she would work a dancing shift for four hours, change and then work behind the bar another four.
On their nights off, at some point in the evening they would end up at the Las Vegas Lounge, even if it was for one last drink before going home. “We essentially lived here,” Hallie says.
Eventually, the Las Vegas Lounge got rid of go-go dancers, but now features performers such as Haywood. She remembers when she first started hanging out at the bar about five years ago. “It wasn’t as friendly back then,” she says. She went a few times, but then gave up after continued rude service. “I remember one time the air went out during the summer and they didn’t replace it for months,” Hipkins says.
At one point, having had enough of a particular manager, Hallie quit. That’s when she learned firsthand how hard it can be for a trans woman to find employment. “I applied for 75 jobs and got three call backs,” Hallie said. “Two of them, when they figured out where I had my experience from, all of a sudden I didn’t pass a background check.” Only one interviewer was honest about not hiring her. “He said, ‘I’ve had some dealings with trans women before, and you guys can sometimes bring an unwanted element,’” Hallie says. That’s why Hipkins didn’t leave the lounge: “There was always a fear you wouldn’t be able to find anything else.” Hallie eventually came back in 2015. She helped the current owner purchase the place and turn it around. That also meant bringing back clients like Haywood.
No matter the changes and the faces that would come and go and come back again, one thing remained constant. “For that generation, this was the place you could come to build confidence,” Hallie says. “I was able to learn so much from the older girls at the bar.” Over the years, it was home for a lot of people. “It means a lot for them to have a place to come and be themselves and not be harassed or feel threatened,” Hipkins says.
Though Las Vegas Lounge doesn’t have many jobs to offer, for some it was the only place that would hire transgender people. Hallie says she’ll hire more if she can. “Even today as we create more laws (to protect trans people from employment discrimination) it’s not being enforced,” she adds.
The lounge hasn’t been without incident. Hipkins still has a scar on her temple from the time a rowdy customer failed to get her attention and chucked a glass over the counter at her. Patrons wrestled the man to the ground, the police were called, and the man was arrested.
But, Hallie says, there had never been anything like the shooting. During the gunfire, one of the employees called Hallie, who was asleep at the time. “She just kept saying, ‘Jen, they’re shooting at us,’” she says.
Hallie made the 25-minute drive to the bar. When she walked through the doors, not an hour after the shooting, she wasn’t prepared for the scene. Shattered glass covered the floor. Bullet holes were scattered along the walls and the mirror behind the stage. Her staff, and remaining customers, visibly shaken, were back in the pool room waiting for the police to interview them. “(One of the workers) who I’ve known 20 plus years, I didn’t even recognize her because I was in shock when I walked in,” Hallie says. “I knew what had happened, but to walk in to see it, I was not prepared.”
In all her years there, her bar — in some sense her home — had never looked like that. “That’s why it was so unnerving,” she says. “This was a safe space for us. We won’t give that up.”
Las Vegas Lounge was back in business the day of the shooting. Hallie got the windows fixed, sealed the holes in the wall, and cleaned the carpet all in a few hours. Because there was so little media coverage, most customers that night didn’t know what had happened.
In the days after the shooting, Hallie says, a lot of misinformation went around, from the number of people shot to rumors of altercations beforehand. “People would ask, ‘Did someone do something to piss (the suspect) off?’” Hipkins says. “We didn’t do anything to cause this. All we did was exist.”
Months later, there is still a bullet hole in one of the signs in the back. Otherwise, the only thing that remains is the trauma caused by the shooting.
Hallie still tears up talking about it. At one point, someone walked by the window, causing her to jump and turn around quickly. Remnants like that will linger for a while.
“Two months and six days,” Haywood says one April afternoon. On her left foot, a high-heeled shoe has been replaced with a gray leg brace. If the PTSD or nonstop nightmares weren’t enough of a reminder, the cast and steel rod in her leg fill in the gaps.
She has gone back to Las Vegas Lounge twice. The first time was less than two weeks later, when the lounge hosted a benefit for her medical and living expenses.
It’s not just the pain in her leg bothering Haywood. Everything about the shooting has been hurtful. For one, being a dancer wasn’t just about making money. “Dancing was always an outlet for me, and I don’t have that anymore,” she says. She had to move out of her third-floor apartment because it was too hard to get up the stairs.
Haywood says she even faced mistreatment from healthcare professionals because she was trans. According to a survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality, about 30 percent of participants reported postponing medical care when sick or injured because of discrimination. Another 20 percent reported refusal of care, something that was reported higher among transgender people of color. Haywood is worried about how she will heal because of her encounters with medical professionals.
If that wasn’t enough, Haywood says the response, or lack thereof, from the LGBT community is frustrating. “The (equal rights) movement was built on the backs of trans people,” she says. “And now, the LGB part of the community mostly ignores us.” She adds that other gay bars didn’t reach out to offer support. (Hallie says The Phoenix did host a fundraiser.)
It still bothers Haywood that she doesn’t know who did this or why. “I want justice,” she says. “Not just from the man who did this, but from the medical physicians who didn’t care for me.”
If there is any silver lining, Hallie says, it’s what transpired afterward. For workers at the bar, that night is a reminder of the work the trans community still needs to do. In the aftermath, Hallie says she’s been reaching out to other organizations, both trans-specific or larger LGBT nonprofits. In the past, trans people, especially those who come to the bar, have been isolated from the larger queer community. Hallie hopes this might change that. “There is a lot of healing that needs to be done in our communities,” Hipkins says.
Since the shooting, Hallie has had some people from the queer and trans communities come in to pass out literature on anything from how to go about changing gender markers on documents to simple “know your rights” pamphlets. Haywood hopes this shows people, especially those in the queer community, just what’s at stake for people who are transgender.
Haywood continues the long road to recovery, mentally and emotionally. The doctors told her she wouldn’t wear those heels again. She is determined to prove them wrong. “There is power in every step,” she says.