Travel
5 min

Finding ‘the gay’ in Las Vegas

The Strip’s headliners have long dished out camp culture and queer sensibility

Liberace was the original Las Vegas diva.

From our archives, this story was first published on Jan 14, 2015.

A gay sensibility rests comfortably in plain sight behind the monstrosity of glitz and glam that is Las Vegas. Queerness is lost completely on many (most?) tourists doing The Strip. Others are confused about whether they’re witnessing gay “that way” — or just the bevy of theatrical oddballs they’d expect to find in Sin City.

For decades, the blue-rinse set thought Liberace was just theatrical. They lapped up his frequent proclamations of heterosexuality, devoutly watching a pianist dripping in diamonds and pink feathers. “And doesn’t his handsome chauffeur, Scott, look like a wholesome Midwestern boy?”

Wearing red, white and blue sequined hot pants and jacket patterned after the Stars and Stripes along with white majorette boots, Liberace marched past the double entendre of “pianist” and an attempt by gossip rag Confidential to out him in 1957 to become, during the height of his fame, the highest-paid entertainer in the world.

Liberace defined “absolutely fabulous.” A curious oddity of prissy gayness, he laughed all the way to the bank on ticket sales to old Republican women and their begrudging husbands. Long before the sadness of his life story leaked into the tabloids and was dramatized in the film Behind the Candelabra, Liberace was the original Vegas gay diva. He died of AIDS in 1987 but denied his gayness to the grave.

While the Liberace Museum closed in 2010, many of his costumes are on display at The Cosmopolitan Las Vegas. A foundation formed in 2013 to resurrect the museum but within a year announced that the effort had failed.

In conversation at Toronto’s Massey Hall a few years back, an audience member asked Penn Jillette how he and his silent partner, Teller, who have performed in Vegas since 1993, rose to become Sin City’s leading magic act. “After a tiger bit the head off a gay guy,” Jillette quipped.

He was referring to a tragic incident in 2003 when, during a Siegfried & Roy show, Roy Horn stumbled mid-performance and was dragged offstage by a white tiger named Montecore, which clutched Roy in his jaws like a kitten. The cat’s powerful grasp punctured Roy’s neck. He suffered major blood loss and the ravages of a major stroke.

Don’t mistake Penn’s comment for homophobia; it’s comedy closer to catty and cutting drag humour, though Penn is the avowed heterosexual in Penn & Teller. Both rushed to hospital after their show to join other entertainers gathered to support Siegfried Fischbacher as he awaited Roy’s prognosis.

There is a queer sensibility to Penn & Teller’s stage show, now in its 13th year at the Rio. It’s cleverly laden with social commentary (they’re both libertarians, atheists and skeptics), wrapped in mesmerizing artistry and Penn’s witty narration. They skewer government interference in our lives, touching on issues from gun control and religion to the theatrics of airport security in a post-9/11 world. Much glides by the first-time tourist; after seeing them perform eight times, I find them clever and entertaining.

The Siegfried & Roy show at the Mirage closed immediately after the accident. The performing and life partners didn’t officially retire from show business until 2010 and remain firmly entrenched as magic and entertainment royalty in Vegas history. But no magician can lay claim to being the gayest show in Sin City.

It might surprise some to learn that the longest-running Vegas headliner is a drag queen. In 2015, Frank Marino will celebrate his 30th year performing on The Strip — and as “the Queen of Vegas” (his social media moniker). His current show, Divas, is a high-end Vegas showroom production at The Linq.

On two occasions while attending Marino’s show, we’ve shared a classic showroom banquet with elderly couples in their 60s and 70s who were huge fans of Marino; we shared stories of his early days, about seeing him back in the mid-1990s at the Riviera. These weren’t fans in denial like Liberace’s — Marino is gay, gay, gay, and his legions of small-town fans — young, old, straight or gay — love him.

Situated in front of Caesars Palace in a large circus tent is Absinthe, the critically acclaimed “acro-cabaret” show by Spiegelworld. You’ll endure bum-numbing folding wooden chairs, jammed cheek-by-jowl with your neighbour, but every minute is worth it.

Absinthe, one imagines, is akin to a Weimar-era German cabaret morphed with world-class circus arts. But some of the show’s oddball characters were likely delinquents at circus school — out back in an alley smoking, drinking and trying to one-up each other in cursing.

The sexual language and banter is for neither the prudish nor the faint of heart. Absinthe’s greasy emcee delivers vulgarities and offensive quips that would make insult comic Lisa Lampanelli blush.

Some straight girls are crazy for the gay guys. Attending a late-night performance of the Chippendales is an energetic and interesting experience. Six gay men clustered at cocktail tables in row two stood out in a sea of raucous women (many clad in bridal tiaras or sashes) whose frantic energy and deafening screams outpace anything seen in a gay or straight men’s strip club.

To thunderous applause, the buffed male beauties danced (far better than I was expecting) routine after routine, easily ripping and tossing their way through 100 skimpy white tanks. Curiously, the star who provoked the largest response from the women in the crowd was openly gay Jaymes Vaughan, of Amazing Race fame. And surprisingly, whether from the stage or in aisles interacting with the audience, many Chippendales acknowledged their gay fans with friendly winks and nods. Any dancer who arrived with anti-gay machismo, apparently, had checked it at the stage door.

I was in Las Vegas in August 2014 the day Joan Rivers died. I immediately bought tickets to Frank Marino’s show that night, anticipating a sweet tribute. Marino is famous for his portrayal of Rivers, who was a close friend, and performs a “Can we talk?” segment each show in character. It was clearly a difficult night for him, but he was brilliant.

At one point between numbers, Marino pokes fun at (The Million Dollar Piano man) Elton John’s gayness, claiming the extravagant gown he is wearing was a hand-me-down from John. In another showroom, illusionist Jan Rouven tells stories of his friendship with Siegfried & Roy and also pokes fun at John’s gayness. The German-born magician pulls comedy from his “English as a second language” shtick, referring to John as “her” and feigning innocence at the audience response. There’s no note of cruelty or belittlement — Marino’s and Rouven’s banter is gay camp humour at its finest — and a kinship emerges that makes gay audience members feel welcome.

A queer sensibility abounds in Las Vegas shows. Perhaps many entertainers, like gay people, convey the experience of being outsiders in a “normal” world. Though Vegas is far from normal. 

For the most up-to-date travel information on gay Las Vegas, see our City GuideListings GuideEvents Guide and Activities Guide.