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For gays in Las Vegas, the welcome mat is out

Special to The Los Angeles Times

When Andy Steele and Michael Turner stepped off their plane in Las Vegas, the first-time visitors from Britain were anxious about how welcome they would be as an openly gay couple. To ease their concerns, they had booked a room at a hotel that caters to gay men. Steele thought at the time: "At least at a gay resort, you have like-minded people."

Their worries evaporated as quickly as a raindrop in the desert. As they hopped into a taxi and asked to be driven to the Blue Moon Resort, they received a warm welcome.

"Most of the taxi drivers know the Blue Moon is a gay resort," Turner said as he and Steele lounged by their hotel's pool, "but they go out of their way to be friendly and helpful."

"They say that people around here are not bothered [by] whether you're gay, straight or whatever," Steele said.

Key West, Fla., Palm Springs and even San Francisco don't come close to Las Vegas as favored travel destinations for gays and lesbians.

In fact, Vegas consistently ranks second -- behind New York -- as the most popular place to visit, according to Community Marketing Inc., a San Francisco company that researches gay and lesbian travel habits.

"Las Vegas is not known as a gay mecca," said David Paisley of Community Marketing. "So what's driving Las Vegas gay tourism? It's not gaming, according to our research."

Paisley says entertainment and the ever-changing architecture are the big hooks.

"Cirque de Soleil and the major performances by people such as Elton John have significantly driven gay and lesbian tourism," he said.

Turner and Steele spent five days just wandering around the city. Nowhere did they feel unwelcome.

"You're not having to worry about how you're acting," Turner said. "You can relax."

"There is a very open acceptance of the gay community in Vegas," observed Susan Feniger, a board member of the Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Center and the owner of Border Grill at Mandalay Bay, a property so popular that it's known in the local gay community as "Mandalay Gay."

Many of the major hotels and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority are aggressively courting gay and lesbian visitors.

Paris Las Vegas, for example, has a dedicated website with a video that features two men's razors side by side next to the sink, with a bottle of Champagne and two glasses nearby. And the Convention and Visitors Authority uses female impersonator Frank Marino, star of the long-running "La Cage" at the Riviera Hotel, to plug Vegas dressed as Joan Rivers at gay pride festivals around the country.

"Every hotel is trying to cater to the gay dollar," Marino said.

"They know who the people are with disposable income," Feniger said. "And that's who they're really going after."

John Hessling, owner of the Blue Moon Resort, said: "It's nothing more than somebody finally recognizing the concept of 'dual income, no kids.' They want to put heads on beds."

Hessling says he offers a real alternative: a Palm Springs-style property for gay men. The resort, a few blocks west of the Strip, offers a sauna, a steam room and a clothing-optional pool.

Trisha Glaha and Spring Buras, from Burlington, Iowa, say it was a longtime Vegas fixture -- the wedding chapels -- that attracted them.

On a recent Friday night, the couple had a commitment ceremony at the Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel. The ceremonies have become increasingly popular -- and they have their only-in-Vegas perks. At Glaha and Buras' ceremony, an Elvis look-alike urged the women "to always be each other's teddy bear."

John Foster, manager of Viva Las Vegas, says his chapel has hosted same-sex couples for 10 years. Basic commitment ceremonies start at $199 ([800] 574-4450; Elvis is extra).

The major Strip resorts now offer a variety of commitment ceremonies too. The lowest weekday package at Paris Las Vegas is $1,000, increasing to $1,500 for Fridays through Sundays ([877] 603-4386).

Although the after-dark scene is targeted more at gay men than gay women, the city's biggest alternative club, Krave, offers the hugely popular Girl Bar on Saturdays. When it opened three years ago, Krave became the first Strip venue specifically for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender crowd.

Border Grill is truly welcoming.

"They can come in and they can be themselves and I can be myself," said Hermaine Rodriguez, a gay man who works as a host at the restaurant. "There's no intimidation, no embarrassment."

The Blue Moon's Hessling says it's a matter of feeling comfortable. But with the growing acceptance of alternative lifestyles, he says, his hotel won't always have its niche market.

"Inevitably, it will go the way of the dinosaur," he said. "I don't know that gay-exclusive properties will be around in 20 or 25 years."

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