Las Vegas Sun

August 23, 2017

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Columnist Tom Gorman: In search of the gay cowboys

Tom Gorman's column runs Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at [email protected] or at (702) 259-2310.

The film "Brokeback Mountain" is creating a huge buzz, especially in the gay community and, more specifically, among gay cowboys.

I'm neither gay nor a cowboy, nor have I seen the film, so I don't fully understand its importance except for what I have read of the movie in early (and rave) reviews.

I set off the other night to find out why I should care about the movie, and after a couple of false starts I ended up at Charlie's Las Vegas, a new gay cowboy bar that opened earlier this month at 5012 Arville St., just south a couple of blocks from the Orleans. Previously, the place was known as Backstreet Saloon, which also played to a gay country-western crowd.

And I came to realize one reason why "Brokeback Mountain" is being trumpeted by local gays. I had assumed that Las Vegas and all of Nevada, with its open embrace of all things sex, would not have distanced itself from gays. But only in recent years, I was told, have gays been welcomed more openly and fully into the larger community.

I've not given a whit of a thought about gay cowboys. If ever there was an avocation where a man was a man in the most masculine sense, it would be in the cowboy world -- where fellows braver and stronger than I ride angry, snorting bulls and bucking broncos, chew tobacco or smoke Marlboros, wear sweat-stained hats and haul livestock trailers with pick-up trucks too big to fit in a garage.

I've come now to learn of the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association and its annual rodeo at Horseman's Park on East Flamingo Road.

I had no idea where to find a gay cowboy bar, and a coworker suggested a commercial center on Sahara Avenue near Maryland Parkway. "I like gay bars," she said, "because I get compliments on my shoes."

Inside the complex was a large storefront business calling itself the "world-famous Green Door." I'd not heard of the Green Door (but was familiar with the Golden Door, a high-end health spa in Escondido, Calif.).

Inside the Green Door's snack bar/lobby I was greeted by a thin, young woman with black horn-rimmed glasses. I knew this wasn't a gay cowboy bar but wasn't sure what it was.

"You've never heard of us?" she asked, slightly indignantly. I felt stupid. "We don't like using the word, but we're a club for swingers."

What a day of revelations this was turning into: Las Vegas was home not just to gay cowboys but a storefront swingers' club along one of the city's main drags.

She offered me a tour. I declined and left, and found the gay cowboy bar a few doors down. It's called Badlands. It was small, rustic, dark and quiet. A couple of guys were playing billiards on a tired table. Two fellows were sitting at the back of the bar, huddled in conversation. And one guy was sitting alone at the bar, working whiskey on the rocks.

I told the bartender I wanted to chat with his customers about "Brokeback Mountain." No one looked up and I felt oddly out of place.

The bartender politely suggested I'd have better luck at Charlie's Las Vegas because of its auction on Friday.

Before I could leave, a cross-dresser in a blond wig approached me from out of the shadows and tugged down on the fringed neckline of his house dress.

"Do you like what you see?" he asked me. "I don't like blondes," I told him. "How about grays?" he asked.

The guy sat down on a bar stool, put his feet up on another stool, played with the hem of his dress and tried to bait me in conversation. The bartender told him to knock it off, and I left for Charlie's.

It was a world apart from Badlands. It's a bright, clean saloon with a disco ball and a glass-encrusted cowboy boot hanging over the shiny wood dance floor.

In a side hallway, the walls are covered by posters promoting rodeos in places such as San Antonio, Phoenix and San Francisco, sponsored by Bud Light and the International Gay Rodeo Association.

It's here that, at 9 o'clock Friday night, the "Brokeback Mountain"-themed fundraising auction will be held. Up for grabs: a move poster signed by its acclaimed director, Ang Lee, and limited-edition, sheepskin-lined corduroy jackets (which I assume appear liberally in the movie). Posters, soundtracks, T-shirts and handkerchiefs will be given away.

Proceeds from the auction will go to the Nevada Gay Rodeo Association and, in turn, its various local beneficiaries.

The bar's general manager is Boan Jordan, who grew up in Boulder City but spent years working in the food-and-beverage industry in Phoenix, Chicago and New Orleans before returning to Las Vegas.

He said he is hoping that "Brokeback Mountain" will win big audiences in town and help the straight community better understand the tensions and dynamics of being gay.

"The gay community in Las Vegas has grown hugely in the past 10 years," he said, "but we're still lagging (proportionately) behind Chicago and other big cities."

Old Vegas, he said, didn't tolerate gays. In the old casinos, "anyone insinuated as gay would have been fired. The corporate culture of the new Las Vegas has helped. The city is progressing. The gay community in Las Vegas is beginning to relax."

I have no issues with gay cowboys as long as their huge pickups don't take two spaces at the mall.