Reinventing queer Las Vegas: a gayborhood grows downtown

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Tuesday December 26, 2023
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Cowboy Blue Jackson at the Venetian (photo: Jim Gladstone), <br>downtown Las Vegas, Kylie Minogue at The Venetian
Cowboy Blue Jackson at the Venetian (photo: Jim Gladstone),
downtown Las Vegas, Kylie Minogue at The Venetian

For two to four nights a month, from now through May, the Venetian Hotel's Voltaire nightclub may be the gayest place in Las Vegas. That's where Kylie Minogue has been the showgirl in residence since November.

The room holds 1,000. That's assuming you can get a ticket to the largely sold-out shows. Elsewhere at the Venetian, Cowboy Blue Jackson sings about analingus five nights a week in the queer-friendly Atomic Saloon show.

But if Blue sounds too, well, blue for you, and you can't spare the $1000 bucks it can cost for admission and drinks at Kylie's show, you can still have a great gay adventure in Vegas this winter. Just step off the Strip and discover Sin City's emerging queer downtown.

The Writers' Block bookstore (photo: Jim Gladstone)  

Discovery amidst decay
Early last month, I went wandering through an area of Las Vegas I'd never visited before. Just north of the Strip, the vibe takes an abrupt shift from glitter to rubble, from gleaming contemporary crass to what mid-century modern might have looked like after being excavated on the Planet of the Apes.

An edgy aura emanates from the blocks surrounding the two-mile stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard between the Strat casino tower and the downtown Fremont Experience, a streetscape of ratchet motor lodges, plasma donation centers, pawnbrokers, pot dispensaries, and adult toy emporiums right next door to wedding chapels (many of which now promote same-sex ceremonies).

It feels safe to walk here in the bright desert daylight, so long as you don't feel undone by the occasional schizophrenic soliloquy or ragtag jaywalking wraith. "Real" wraiths, too, can be encountered for a price at neighborhood landmark Zak Bagans' Haunted Museum, with a collection that mixes horror movie memorabilia with objects once owned by bonafide serial killers, including Charles Manson and Ed Gein.

Given the environs, I was surprised to come upon a sleek glass box at the intersection of Sixth Street and Bonneville Avenue. The Writers' Block is described as "a book shop, coffee shop, young writers' workshop and artificial bird sanctuary" by its married owners, Drew Cohen and Scott Seeley (Seeley was a cofounder of 826NYC, the Brooklyn branch of Bay Area author/philanthropist Dave Eggers' literary foundation).

This spectacular and utterly unexpected 3,800-square-foot literary wonderland is festooned, as promised, with plush avian decoration and features over 18,000 artfully displayed titles in a labyrinth of cozy showrooms. A prominent display of LGBTQ titles featured a sign promoting the shop's "Queer as Book" club.

I approached the young woman at the register, which is tucked into a giant architectural birdcage, in a mild state of shock.

"What's going on here?" I half-joked. "I thought I was in the middle of a wasteland!"

"You are," she cracked back, light glinting off her nostril piercing. "But we're here, too!"

Bent Inn & Pub  

Queer pioneers
Cohen and Seeley are not the only queer pioneers helping bring new life to the quirky, emerging patch of Las Vegas situated between the casino-driven hubs of the Strip and Fremont Street.

Just last month, Mark Hunter and Greg Kafka, who formerly owned Escape Resort Palm Springs, opened Bent Inn & Pub, Las Vegas' only hotel specifically targeted to queer clientele.

Located in a less edgy part of downtown just a ten-minute walk from Fremont Street, the Bent complex includes a restored-from-the-studs 33-room motel; a large outdoor patio area with a pool and 20-man hot tub; and a brand new building that serves as a reception area, pub and cocktail lounge which, in just the several weeks since opening, has become a magnetic gathering place for the local queer community.

The lounge, like the guest rooms, is decorated with colorful artwork inspired by the covers of gay pulp fiction from the 1950s. Hunter and Kafka commissioned the original pieces, which set a cheeky, sexy, good-humored tone (Gays and books seem to be recurring signs of civilization in this part of town).

Bent Inn & Pub owners Greg Kafka and Mark Hunter  

On a recent night, in addition to overnight guests from the Bay Area, Colorado, and southern California, I met several locals at the lounge who noted that, while Las Vegas has always had its share of divey gay bars and late night queer dance clubs, the Bent Inn was addressing a previously unmet need for residents and visitors.

"You can actually come here with friends to sit and talk," said Sean Stuart, a sales representative and sometime burlesque performer. "The music is at a volume where you can hear each other speak, and there's enough light to see each other, too. It's not just about either dancing or standing in a small packed space drinking."

Beginning in early January, chef Julianna Mendel, a proud transwoman, and her team will serve fresh-cooked snacks and casual meals in the lounge and poolside.

"We wanted to offer something completely different than any place else in Las Vegas," said co-owner Hunter. "Our hope is to offer an experience similar to what you find at gay resorts in Palm Springs: a place where guests can hang out, relax, socialize and get to know each other."

Taking another cue from Palm Springs, Bent Inn's pool, which is heated, will be open year-round, a major counterpoint to many more massive Strip resorts.

Las Vegas, alas, does not allow a "clothing-optional" policy at establishments with liquor licenses, but Hunter feels that even at the couple's southern California property, community always trumped nudity.

"Greg and I had so many loyal customers — couples and singles — who came back year after year because they met great people in a really comfortable and welcoming environment with personal service. There's not another resort in Las Vegas where you're going to meet the owners when you check in."

Queen nightclub  

Native knowledge
Though Hunter and Kafka are longtime hospitality pros, they knew that as recent Las Vegas transplants they'd need an in-house expert on all things local. That led them to hire Will Glenn as general manager.

A 25-year veteran of Vegas gay bars and lifelong city resident, Glenn has a wealth of inside information, and is ready to help guests who want to leave the chilled out confines of the Bent bubble for a night on the town find exactly the spots to suit their personal taste.

"People tend to ask, 'What's the best gay bar?' or 'Where's the best place to grab dinner nearby?'" noted Glenn. "But everyone really wants something different. I want to talk to our guests about what kind of scene they're looking for, what kind of food they like and send them someplace that's right for them in particular."

When guests are looking for a late night queer club scene, Glenn will surely let them know that in addition to the famous Strip-side "Fruit Loop" dance parties at Piranha and Freezone, there's a major new gay venue making a mark downtown.

Operated by veteran Vegas event promoter Eduardo Cordova, founder of the Luxor Hotel's long-running Temptation Sundays gay pool party, Queen currently open Wednesdays through Sundays (with plans to operate all week later in 2024).

In a front lounge, a giant disco ball serves as the DJ booth. Round booths and banquettes are crowded with revelers at weekend drag brunches that draw top talent from around the country. These are rowdy queer affairs, without the bachelorette party vibe found at many drag events on the Strip.

By midnight, a mirrored and illuminated tunnel opens into an enormous rear club room with a walloping sound and light system and the ability to be configured as both a seated showplace and a massive circuit party-style dance party, the current offering on most nights (and early mornings).

Downtown Container Park  

Setting a new scene
In 2019, Cordova helped establish The Garden, another downtown LGBTQ gathering place. While he's no longer associated with that business, it continues to thrive, helping to build the critical mass that many in the queer community hope will eventually help turn downtown into Las Vegas' first genuine mixed-use gayborhood.

With Bent Inn, Queen and the Garden, gay entrepreneurial energy is helping to pick up the long vaunted redevelopment of downtown Las Vegas initiated by the late Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh. His death in 2020, along with the pandemic, briefly slowed the area's re-emergence. But Hsieh's legacy includes several major projects whose presence continues to feed the downtown revival.

While not officially LGBTQ-focused, there's a major queer presence and urbane DIY vibe at spots like the Downtown Container Park, an architectural amalgam of shipping containers transformed into cafés, restaurants and small makers' boutiques; and the nearby Arts District's galleries, studios, micro-breweries and speakeasies.

At Ferguson's, just around the corner the Bent Inn, the Big Rig Jig — a sculpture made of two entangled 18-wheel trucks which was first displayed at Burning Man — welcomes visitors to this former motel, whose grounds have been transformed into a surprising oasis featuring a pocket park, small concert amphitheater, the funky Mothership Coffeehouse, and a collection of eccentric, crafty retail shops.

Hsieh's former home is across the street from the Bent Inn, surrounded by a community of tiny houses, many of which remain homes for employees of Zappos' headquarters, just blocks away.

Perhaps, suggested one of the enthusiastic gay employees at the Bent Inn, who consider the resort as providing them with a mission as well as a job, Zappos could sponsor a high-heel road race to benefit the nearby LGBTQ community center.

Downtown's growing gay scene is helping keep Hsieh's vision up and running, and helping queer Las Vegas sprint away from the Strip.

Bent Inn & Pub:
Writer's Block:
Downtown Container Park:
Arts District:

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