Las Vegas announces its fabulousness on the giant welcome sign that ushers visitors to the Nevada desert’s most popular oasis.
Vegas is the reigning drag queen of American cities, with a wardrobe to die for and body built for sashaying down catwalks. Sin City’s very history is infused with an anything goes attitude. Sure, that was initially about gambling, drinking, and debauchery. But just as New Orleans’s laissez faire attitude provided an environment where LGBTQ+ people could exist and even thrive, so did Vegas. And as the destination matured from a gaming town into the “Entertainment Capital of the World,” the queer community boomed with it.
One could even argue that the thriving queer community made Vegas what is today, rather than the other way around. Liberace and Siegfried and Roy are prime examples of gay celebrities whose flamboyance became synonymous with Vegas.
From the 1950s to the ’70s, while Liberace had his residency in Vegas, he was the highest-paid entertainer in the world. Just as Vegas is known for tearing down its past to build bigger and glitzier casinos, Liberace kept upping his game, wearing increasingly exotic costumes, draping himself in ostrich feathers and mink capes — and creating more spectacle in his shows, from being chauffeured onstage in a Rolls-Royce to incorporating chorus girls, animal acts, and even flying (via a secured cable) into his choreography.
Other lesser-known LGBTQ+ artists joined the big shows in town, from Cirque du Soleil to Broadway tours, to showgirls, male revues, and drag cabarets. Jahna Steele, a Vegas showgirl with the Riviera Casino’s Crazy Girls revue in the late 1980s, was voted “Sexiest Showgirl on the Strip” in 1991. The following year, she was outed as a trans woman on national TV (on A Current Affair). LGBTQ+ people have been putting the Vegas in Vegas even back when audience members didn’t realize the dazzle was brought to them courtesy of the city’s queer and trans folks.
The city’s former motto, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” played up the accepting atmosphere of the adult playground, where travelers could try anything, or be anyone for a night or a week, and then return to their relatively sedate lives back home. In other words, straight tourists go to Vegas to give themselves permission to go a little queer, even if it’s just for the duration of their stay.
This year the destination is embracing its unspoken queerness, with a marketing campaign that nods to LGBTQ+ visitors while encouraging all travelers to “Let out the Vegas in you.” The city wants visitors to open their inner closets and let out the parts of themselves they might usually shun. That permissiveness continues to draw queers of all stripes – even those that only let their hair down while in the glittering desert oasis.