When I embarked to develop and activate a new art facility in Las Vegas, I recognized that I was an outsider coming into a new city with a bold project and a limited understanding of my new community.
In every city, there are countless diverse communities and their sub-communities that not only supports its citizens, but also generates the complex socio-economic development for a city and those communities to thrive and grow. It was important for me to immediately connect with city, civic, cultural and educational organizations, as well as to meet different people from all walks of life so that I could integrate the art facility with its community as quickly as possible.
One of the first organizations I visited when I arrived to Las Vegas in 2007 was the LGBT Center. It was there I met publisher Bill Schafer of the Las Vegas Night Beat. He unabashedly featured the full spectrum of community activism, entertainment and political commentaries to the delight and ire of many. I also met Dennis McBride, the Executive Director of the Nevada State Museum and leading independent archivist/documentarian of LGBTQ+ history in Nevada. It was here that I also met Jane Heenan, a Marriage and Family Therapist and transgender activist. Each of these individuals were incredibly helpful to introducing me to others in the LGBT community and advocating for the art facility’s success. However, it was my encounter with Jane that would prove to be instrumental and ultimately make history.
When I visited the LGBT Center at the time, it was located in the Commercial Center next to a swinger’s club and bathhouse. The Commercial Center in its hey-day was once the crème de la crème of posh and swank retail stores with the Rat Pack bustling about, but 50+ years later, it had become a haven for alternative lifestyles, multi-lingual Christian Bible study enclaves and a place to hang out one’s shingle due to cheap rent. Although the Center’s space was modest, it was extremely lively due to the tight square footage. The executive director at that moment was in the process of a capital campaign to build a stand-alone facility to provide greater resources to the LBGT community and better sustain itself financially. My conversations with Jane were nothing short of enlightening. (Note: When I first met Jane, pronouns were different then and the term “LGBT” was the norm. I now refer to Jane as they/them/their. Additionally, LGBT is respectfully LBTQIA2s+. The acronym stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual or Ally and now 2S has been added to represent Two-Spirited which is used by Indigenous people to describe their sexuality or gender and the plus sign encompasses inclusivity.) Jane was incredibly bright, full of enthusiasm and dedication to their cause. And although the Center was there to support and provide a safe space for its respective community, it was for some reason shunning the transgender community like a red-headed stepchild. I did not inquire as to the politics of why, but I immediately invited Jane and their community to utilize the art facility as a home, a safe space and a base. In fact, I gave Jane the key to the art facility, as well as the code to deactivate/activate the security alarm to come and go as needed.
I reassured Jane that there was no need to check-in with me with regard to when the space was used. Their people would report to they and we’d communicate when needed for big logistical mojo. I was so busy doing what was needed to run the place: operations, curation, marketing, educational programming and community outreach, I would see Jane and others in passing. I was never in one place long enough to join Jane’s meetings. I was just happy I could provide a space since I had designed the place for the purpose of servicing the community at-large. It was an ideal partnership and I trusted Jane and I believed in their cause. After all, the art facility was 24,000 square feet of exhibitions, libraries, auditorium and meeting areas to explore, cultivate and inspire all who entered. If a special event, a lecture or a fundraising initiative was scheduled for Jane’s needs, the art facility was available to them day and night. Jane’s activism was in line with the facility’s dedication to promote art, community activism, education and preservation of history.
When I left the art facility to pursue my art gallery and other endeavors, I lost touch with Jane for a bit. We were finally able to reconnect. I had mentioned to Jane that I was glad that Gender Justice Nevada, the 501(c)3 that they had co-founded, was able to position itself as a statewide advocacy, education and policy reforming organization that made a huge social impact in the State of Nevada. Jane mentioned that Gender Justice Nevada did not exist at that time and because the art facility provided a safe space for people to meet and organize that Gender Justice Nevada came into existence in 2011.
I am very proud that the art facility provided a safe space so that Jane and others had the opportunity to form, grow and thrive. I am forever honored that I met Jane and they ultimately activated such an amazing organization. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to organize Gender Justice Nevada, but the positive impact that they initiated for civil rights will leave a tremendous legacy for future LBTQIA2s+ communities.
Today, Gender Justice Nevada is located at New Orleans Square, a revitalized and trendy arts and culture complex, at the Commercial Center. (Yes, the same Commercial Center with the swinger’s club and bathhouse, but now boasting award-winning restaurants and galleries due to gentrification.) The organization continues to champion the healing, dignity and justice of LBTQIA2s+ communities. Per their website, “We represent progressive action for gay, queer, lesbian, bisexual, asexual, intersex, trans, non binary, and other gender diverse folks. GJNV is a multi-racial group established in 2011 by LGBTQ+ persons to provide direct services, education and policy advocacy addressing the identities and issues faced by Nevada’s LGBTQ+ communities.”