After a rather slow couple months at the Las Vegas Lounge, Jennifer Hallie could sense things were about to turn around after the Valentine’s Day event hosted at the bar.
Hallie, who has worked at the bar for about 15 years but has managed it for five, said everything about the night just felt right.
“The vibe was great and everyone was drinking, having a great time and spending money,” she recalled. “It was just one of those fantastic nights where you got to see old friends and nothing stupid happened.”
It was the last fun night she remembers before Gov. Steve Sisolak declared a state or emergency and instructed all nonessential businesses to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
After operating in Southern Nevada since 1999, the Las Vegas Lounge, one of the few bars in the country that specifically caters to transgender patrons, officially shut down for good May 1.
The small business, which employed nine people, was another casualty of the economic downturn created by the health crisis.
“I was OK until I turned the key one last time,” Hallie said thinking back to April 30, the last time she was at the bar. “Then I realized it was the last time I would be doing this. It was heartbreaking. I broke down at that point.”
When the shutdown first started, she knew the bar had some money in reserve that would carry them a few weeks. Then April 1 rolled around with no indication when business would resume.
Hallie said they applied for a small business loan through the Payroll Protection Program fund but were denied. Businesses where gambling was a source of revenue were excluded, meaning the Las Vegas Lounge, which had video poker machines, couldn’t get a loan.
By the time the rules were adjusted to allow smaller businesses with gambling to apply, the money for the program had dried up.
Even with April rent being waived by their landlord, there were more obstacles to overcome in order to reopen safely.
To protect against potential spread of the virus, the bar would have to create extra space between gaming machines and bar stools to promote social distancing. Less seats would also mean less revenue.
By mid-April, Hallie reasoned that even if restrictions were lifted by May 1 there was no guarantee the bar could attract enough businesses to pay its obligations — nearly $7,000 in rent along with another few thousand dollars in other bills, plus payroll.
“We looked at this from a million different angles,” she said. “Fiscally it didn’t make sense to reopen.”
Hallie understands the reason businesses needed to shut down for the time being. “You can’t put people over profit,” she said.
‘At least one place where we feel safe’
Between being located in the Commercial Center District and the fact its patrons were majority trans, critics of the Las Vegas Lounge told staff again and again over the years the business would never survive as long as it did.
But the bar made it through circumstances that have claimed other businesses, including the economic downtown of 2008 and even a shooting in 2018 that caused damage to the interior and resulted in two people being injured.
With decades of history and a client base that felt more like family, she felt like it was a sour deal not to be able to say good-bye.
“We’ve survived so much only to be taken down by something unforeseen like this virus,” Hallie said. “If we would have been able to close down on our own terms we would have thrown one hell of a party. It’s sad we didn’t get to say goodbye. It feels like we were cheated.”
In the end, Southern Nevada didn’t just lose another small business. The trans community lost a haven that offered a momentary escape from a world that often fails to protect them from high rates of discrimination.
The National Center for Transgender Equality notes that one in four transgender people have lost a job because of bias while more than three-fourths have experienced workplace discrimination.
The organization also estimates that one in five trans people have been discriminated against when seeking a home.
Advocates noted the Trump administration has rolled back some housing and health protections for the trans community.
“We are welcomed at other bars but it’s different not having your own place,” Hallie said. “The trans community, in particular trans women of color, is under siege. We need at least one place where we feel safe.”
When Nalita Maama, who has worked at Las Vegas Lounge for about eight years, needed to leave her home in Seattle and decided to start a new life in Las Vegas 15 years ago, the Las Vegas Lounge helped her on that journey.
“I was looking to get away from Seattle and just trying to find myself as I was transitioning,” she said. “I found the Las Vegas Lounge. I walked in and it was all trans women working. It was a place to be comfortable and be who you are.”
After three years of being a patron, she eventually started working as a dancer and then entertainment coordinator.
Just a few years after Hallie began transitioning in the late 90s, she discovered Las Vegas Lounge, which at that time had only been open a few months.
Hallie quickly went from patron to becoming employed as a go-go dancer — less than a week after coming to the bar — then eventually a bartender and finally its general manager. (She left the lounge in 2009 but returned in 2015.)
“We had customers there every night because this was their home away from home,” she said. “A lot of them didn’t have ties to their family. It was nice for them to be able to have a place where they belonged. A place they could go where no one would look at them funny. For the trans community, it’s important to have a place where they feel safe.”
The Las Vegas Lounge, she said, often got pushback from some groups for not doing enough for the community. But Hallie countered that the place was a de facto resource center for trans patrons who got what they needed via word of mouth.
“It is hard for us to get housing and employment,” Hallie said. “We tend to get a lot more scrutiny.”
The staff would help with both, offering suggestions or even helping with letters of recommendations.
“We could help them get employment or get into apartments,” Hallie said. “If we heard of a girl getting evicted, everyone would chip in and help her find a place to stay.”
The bar also became a place people could ask questions about their trans identify. Maama said it was a spot people could discuss tips to aid in the transition process such as what doctors to avoid.
“You’d hear about bad surgeries and what doctors not to go to,” she added. “It was a safe place for the girls to go to without being judged or ridiculed.”
Even though it has been a few weeks since Hallie and the staff cleared out the bar, she said the whole ordeal still feels surreal.
Despite that, she remains open to the idea of creating another bar for trans clientele down the road when the timing is right.
“My community needs somewhere to go,” she said.