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A safe bet

TRAVEL: Las Vegas doubles down as an LGBT destination

Of course, any city whose population is disproportionately made up of waiters, chefs, flight attendants, front desk staff, PR flacks, event planners, massage therapists, interior decorators, strippers and Cirque du Soleil performers is deeply and undeniably gay. Cinema’s most evocative love letter to the city, 1995’s Showgirls, is camptastically queer, quoted by queens from memory almost two decades later. Like Vegas itself, Showgirls’ sleazy lesbian love story is right where its heart should be.

But standing on the famed Strip, watching the 20-something, stumbling straight boys guzzle beer out of oversized plastic cups, the endless parade of bachelorette parties in their tiaras and sashes, and the hundreds of people handing out cards advertising Girls Direct to Your Room, it’s easy for gay and lesbian people to feel like a drop in a very straight champagne bucket. Wedding chapels are everywhere, but they’re not for you. Then again, oh, what a very big bucket Las Vegas is. When you stay someplace like the MGM Grand (mgmgrand.com), the second biggest hotel in the world, with 6,852 rooms, and log into a location-based meet-up app, the first question is not, “How hung?” but, “What floor are you on?”

Las Vegas’s current challenge is making its LGBT scene more visible amidst all the flashing-neon heterosexuality. Seeds of inclusivity are being planted in the most exclusive spots. Shortly after it opened in 2010, The Cosmopolitan caught flack for expelling a trans woman from the women’s washroom. The response was swift.

The Cosmopolitan, easily The Strip’s most artful and sophisticated venue, issued an earnest apology and instituted LGBT sensitivity training for staff. This June, the Cosmopolitan launched a new gay club night. When the town hottie wants to kiss and make up, it’s hard to say no.

The Krave Massive juggernaut is another piece of the city’s more open gay sensibility, but the natives are getting restless at Drink and Drag (drinkanddrag.com). The kitsch bowling alley/drag bar in downtown Las Vegas is packed to the rafters, functioning, for the moment, as the holding pen for curious clubbers wanting a first peek at Krave Massive (kravemassive.com) upstairs. Taking over what used to be an 11-screen megaplex in the Neonopolis mall, Krave Massive promises to be the biggest gay club in the world. In fact, if plans for the entire 80,000 square feet come to fruition, Krave Massive would be the biggest club in the world of any orientation, outflanking São Paulo’s gay mecca The Week (64,000 square feet) and Ibiza’s record-holding Privilege (65,000 square feet).

“They’re still setting up the lobby,” snaps one local, sipping cocktails at 11pm. “What are they going to do, turn people away?”

When the doors finally open around midnight, the crowd streams in to find only the lobby and one of the theatres ready for prime time. The sound system pumps out dance hits and shirtless go-go boys police the bottle-service booths. Though the locals bitch over the minimalist decor—“Is this it?” chides one queen—they are also relieved that the place is finally open. Krave Massive is a dramatic turning point in the gayificiation of Las Vegas, the city’s doubling-down as an LGBT destination.

About a 15-minute walk from Krave Massive (Walk? That’s a joke. Nobody walks in Vegas—it’s a two-minute limo ride) is The Center, Las Vegas’s sparkling new LGBT hub (thecenterlv.com). Founded in 1992, The Center moved into its flashy new digs last April after a $4-million reno of an old hardware store. With a café, lending library, children’s play area, sexual health clinic and multi-use rooms available to community groups, to a Toronto eye, it’s The 519 Church Street Community Centre, Hassle Free Clinic, Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, and a dash of the Sherbourne Health Centre all blended up, Vegas-style, in one sprawling complex with ample parking and a basketball court that’s busy all day.

Since the move, the 12 paid staff and 200 volunteers have seen use of the centre increase by as much as 50 per cent. The lobby’s sponsorship signage is a testament to community support. Top-end donors include Caesars, MGM and hotel magnate Steve Wynn, but even those who gave as little as $10 get their names etched in very fine print onto the donor wall. In a city that’s driven by boozy partying, it’s no surprise that 12-step programs are key customers. “It can be hard to get away from drinking in Las Vegas,” says Ryan Marquardt, The Center’s director of communications. “People really like having a place they can come and not drink.”

Another short limo ride away, there are other efforts afoot to nurture Vegas’s soul. In a dramatic departure from all the crystal and glitz, the Emergency Arts building (emergencyartslv.com), on an emerging stretch of downtown’s Fremont Street, comes across as grungily counterculture. The brainchild of gallery guru Jennifer Harrington and impresario Michael Cornthwaite, the creative collective aims to give artists space to make and exhibit their work for as little as $200 a month. The renos of the former medical clinic were minimal, so it’s intriguing to wander around the maze of small rooms filled with often eccentric work. It’s as grassroots as Vegas gets and a breath of fresh air when you get tired of your hotel’s custom scent.

Back on The Strip, Sunday’s Temptation party at the gay-friendly Luxor (luxor.com/lgbt) is heating up—literally and figuratively. Hunky Jaymes Vaughan, the Chippendales dancer who made Amazing Race fans swoon last year, is recruiting contestants for his Tempter model search competition. Although there is no shortage of hot men lolling around the pool, there’s also a diversity of age and body type. A bear from Minnesota, on his free day after a nursing convention, doesn’t seem out of place among the twinks and muscle dudes. Unlike, say, Miami or West Hollywood, Las Vegas is a resort town first, a “scene” second. Demographics melt down so that, beyond your bachelor party or business meeting, there is no “usual” to mesh into. That’s what makes Vegas so unhinged and liberating. Everybody’s making it up as they go along. As something of a balm to locals—who do have to get up in the morning—they often get cover charge discounts. Even in a place as surreal and money-driven as Vegas, there’s a core of hometown Pride.

When did the Québécois take over Sin City? Sure, you can have a gay ole time at Frank Marino’s female impersonator show at The Quad (thequadlv.com), but, chances are, if you’re shelling out for a Las Vegas show these days, a cut of the ticket price is heading right back across the border to Quebec.

Céline Dion, who has been performing in Vegas on and off for a decade, remains the 21st century Liberace. Last spring her residency at Caesars Colosseum (caesarspalace.com) was extended to 2019, though fans are waiting with bated breath to find out if there will be a new show or more of Celine, which she launched in 2011. With baby slides, a James Bond medley and a virtual duet with Stevie Wonder (and one with herself), the show is feeling a bit tired. Still, when she performs “My Heart Will Go On” from behind sheets of dancing water, you have to wonder at the singer’s ability to stay dry in a storm.

Not content with her own Vegas domination, Céline is also backing Véronic DiCaire’s show at Bally’s (ballyslasvegas.com). DiCaire’s gimmick is mimic: She performs in 50 different voices, including Lady Gaga, Madonna, Whitney, Pink and, um… what’s her name again?… Céline. Okay, she’s is Franco-Ontarian, but before DiCaire landed at Bally’s in June, her biggest success was in La Belle Province.

Meanwhile, Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil has eight—count ’em eight—Vegas shows (cirquedusoleil.com). Their Michael Jackson: One opened in June to generally positive reviews.
Whither this Vegas-Québécois synergy? In a 2008 academic paper, McGill prof Erin Hurley argues that Céline and Las Vegas share a narrative of transformation: “Vegas is the city where one goes to leave oneself behind…. Céline Dion traffics in similar transformational aesthetics. Suffice it to say that hers is a ‘smalltown girl goes global’ story.

[Moreover] she is a kind of model United States immigrant, who willingly assimilates, participates joyously in the American Dream and spreads its consumerist gospel of hope and happiness through her ever-expanding repertoire of branded products.”

Expect to see the HBO drama Behind the Poutine soon.


Each of MGM’s 11 Vegas properties has its own scent and Aria’s has been described as “green fig.” One of The Strip’s newest properties, its sleek design is the antithesis of Vegas kitsch. The massive LEED-certified building has high-tech rooms, a mammoth pool deck, 16 restaurants, 10 bars and clubs and, of course, a Cirque show and a casino.

One of The Strip’s most established properties—the pyramid could use a really good scrubbing, to be honest—is also one of the most gay friendly. The Luxor actually has an LGBT micro site (luxor.com/lgbt), unusual in a city where direct targeting is avoided. The price point is good, you’re close to the Temptation party and the elevators zip up at a 39-degree angle.

Right across Las Vegas Boulevard from the circus-like Fremont Experience, Park On Fremont (parkonfremont.com) is a pioneer in the artsy gentrification of the eastern end of the street. Though it just opened last spring, the resto-bar has a lived-in feeling that makes it seem like it’s been around forever. The trippy art elevates the yummy diner-inspired fare. Tater Tots are a must.

In a city full of celebrity-branded eateries, Kerry Simon (palms.com) has built his reputation as the rock n’ roll chef. His sunny pool-side bistro serves up “modern American”—which includes curry, sushi, burgers and a whole lot of steak. At brunch, you can have custom-made smoothies and even make your own Bloody Mary. Careful with the hot sauce.

Japanese food is hot in Vegas right now and nobody does it better than Nobu (noburestaurants.com), which has locations at the Hard Rock Café and Ceasar’s Palace. The décor is Vegas Asian surreal; the eats are astonishingly innovative. Load up your lazy Susan with hamachi with cilantro, jalapeno and yuzu citrus glaze, miso-glazed sea bass with grilled asparagus and yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno and squid pasta.

After the hot desert air and the smoky casinos, a serious re-hydration may be in order. Bucking the groupie-loving image of the Hard Rock brand, the Reliquary spa (hardrockhotel.com) is a refined, Romanesque environment with co-ed and separate-sex pools and a long list of massage services and other treatments. The clubby lounge is a great place to unwind after a big loss or win.

Why hide behind the candelabra when you can hide inside a chandelier? Perched like a tree house above a high-energy lounge, you can hear the entertainment waft up without feeling like part of the scene. The hotel’s (cosmopolitanlasvegas.com) mixologists have an in-house lab/kitchen where they produce their own syrups and assorted drink mixes.

If you want to meet the locals, this effervescent club (sharenightclub.com), two floors of glam, is a great place to do it. The young crowd, like most of Vegas, is here to have a blasty blast. Stripper alert. Private rooms. Bottle service. You never know what you’ll be sharing—likely some embarrassing photos on Facebook.

Vegas’s can’t-miss gay pool party, Luxor’s Temptation (luxor.com/lgbt) is a great place to meet fellow visitors and try to piece together what happened the night before.

Her heart will go on at Caesars (caesarspalace.com) until 2019. ’Nuff said