Viva Las Gaygas: Drag, divas and unexpected delights

Be your fabulous self in Las Vegas! (Visit Las Vegas)

Las Vegas, Nevada has something to offer the entire LGBT+ spectrum, from spectacular concerts and drag shows to inclusive hiking groups and sporting tournaments.

When you think of Las Vegas, the first things that come to mind are the dazzling lights of its world-famous Strip, filled with befeathered showgirls, high-stakes casino floors and—especially in recent years—a pantheon of musicians staging long-running residencies.

But among the glitz, glamour and gambling, Vegas has stealthily become one of the world’s top LGBT-friendly destinations.

Why Everyone’s Favorite 90’s Show Is Hugely Transphobic

Before I saw a single episode of Friends, I knew that I would hate it. Iconic though it may be, the show’s core concept — a group of inexplicably well-off pals mocking and horndogging at each other ad infinitum — always bored me to tears. Offhandedly seeing a few episodes with friends over the years did nothing to improve its reputation. From what I could tell, Friends was a show about Straight People Antics mainly consisting of bad romantic communication, slavish devotion to gender roles, and a shiny veneer of mid-twenties promiscuity.

But last week, as I sat down to intentionally watch the show for the first time, I realized I’d been wrong about the show. Friends is more than just a goofy series of contrivances based on hyperbolically strict standards of heteronormativity; it’s a show about being regularly harassed and humiliated for performing a queer sexual or gender identity, mainly by one’s closest confidants. And though it’s tempting to give the show some slack because of its cultural context, that doesn’t actually excuse any of its toxicity. In fact, with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how the show bolstered homophobia and transmisogyny in our culture for years to come.

Often, when Friends comes under fire for its messy history with queerness, fans and advocates point to the way the show was received upon its arrival in the mid-90s. Commenting on the show’s one-night revival in 2016 for the Chicago Tribune, Bethonie Butler opined that “[w]riting Friends off as homophobic ignores the inclusion of Ross‘ ex-wife, Carol, and her partner, Susan,” two supporting characters who helped propel the show to two GLAAD Media Award nominations and one win for Outstanding Comedy Series.

It’s certainly true that any semi-respectful portrayal of lesbian love in 1990s television was rare at best, but that doesn’t mean Susan and Carol’s plotline was good. As supporting characters, their relationship is constructed primarily to make Ross uncomfortable and emasculated by appearing to trump his fragile masculinity. Ross unsuccessfully bids to attach his last name to theirs when naming their child in “The One With the Sonogram At the End,” and reflects glumly that he should have known Carol was gay because she drank beer “straight from the can” in the series pilot (“The One Where Monica Gets a Roommate”); even when Ross and Susan bond in “The One With the Lesbian Wedding,” it’s with a dig at Ross’s masculinity, as Susan asks him to dance with the tongue-in-cheek offer “I’ll let you lead.” Outside of their relationship with Ross, neither character is especially well-defined.

Of course, Susan and Carol (or more accurately, Ross and his own hangups) are far from the worst source of queerphobia in Friends; that dubious honor belongs to the soulless sarcasm-peddler Chandler, and how he treats his father. Throughout the series, Chandler expresses mortification at having a “gay dad,” as Charles’ coming-out not only ended Chandler’s parents marriage, but led to embarrassment from his schoolyard peers — embarrassment that continues into adulthood, as the Friends cast routinely roasts Chandler on this topic. Three seasons before Chandler’s father plays a speaking role, “he” is already a punchline; in “The One With the Embryos” (which The A.V. Club called “one of the best half-hours the sitcom format ever produced”), the fact that Chandler’s father performs in a Las Vegas burlesque revue called “Viva Las Gaygas” is played for laughs when the gang constructs a “quiz show” about how well they know one another.

I put scare quotes around “gay dad” and “he” in the preceding paragraph because Charles Bing’s gender identity is mangled throughout the series by a team of writers with only the shallowest understanding of how trans and drag culture overlap. Though Charles is referred to as a gay male drag queen and burlesque performer, the character’s few on-screen appearances in Friends’ seventh season seem to indicate she is actually a transgender woman, given that she apparently presents as female 24/7 and is implied to have done so for years. This is a pretty safe assumption to make, given that series co-creator Marta Kauffman told Butler as much for her Tribune review. (There’s more textual evidence, too: when Chandler and Monica travel to see “Viva Las Gaygas” in “The One With Chandler’s Dad,” they’re waited on by a visibly trans waitress played by Alexis Arquette — who doesn’t appear fond of Monica’s cutesy bumbling over her pronouns.)

If we assume that Chandler’s father is a trans woman and not a cis drag queen, it becomes all the more apparent that she is a walking punchline. Chandler, we discover in “The One With Chandler’s Dad,” has been actively avoiding a relationship with his father for years, even ghosting her when she traveled to Manhattan seeking reconciliation. (Despite this cruelty and emotional manipulation, Chandler offers her no apology.) If she even has a name besides “Charles” (or her objectively excellent drag name, “Helena Handbasket,” which I’ll use from here on), viewers never learn it, the better to aggressively misgender her in “The One With Chandler and Monica’s Wedding Part 1.” Upon cresting the threshold at the rehearsal dinner, Helena is immediately subjected to a barrage of deadnaming and implicit misgendering from her ex-wife and son, including Mrs. Bing’s truly reprehensible line “Don’t you have a little too much penis to be wearing a dress like that?” (Like Susan and Carol before her, Helena’s story is not her own; her characterization is limited to only those traits which most humiliate Chandler.)

I’m not the only one who was hurt and appalled by Helena’s atrocious treatment on Friends; her actress, Kathleen Turner, doesn’t think much of her subplot either. In a Gay Times interview this February, Turner said “I don’t think it aged well,” recalling of Chandler’s father that “everyone thought he was just dressing up.” But the show’s stars have rejected any notion that the series which rocketed them to stardom could possibly be hurtful or problematic, with Matt LeBlanc lashing out at those taking “pot shots” at the series in a recent interview with the BBC, insisting that the show was about “themes that stand the test of time” like marriage and family, and that he doesn’t partake in “risque humor.”

LeBlanc has had support from mainstream queer voices, too. In Butler’s commentary, she cites GLAAD Director of Entertainment Media Ray Bradford as saying Helena “wasn’t what we hate seeing on TV by a mile” because “there was nothing tragic” about her story — except, of course, the years of humiliation and rejection from her family. In fairness, compared to the wealth of media featuring trans characters as dead sex workers and crazed killers, Helena is a downright realistic and enjoyable character: she’s a great performer with a fabulous high-femme style and a strong sense of self-assurance. It’s everyone around her who has issues, and in that sense, her inclusion really did represent a step forward for television, holding a mirror up to 1990s American culture in all its unflattering glory. It’s easy to look back and assume that intolerance is really what’s being mocked; led away from Chandler’s mother to avoid causing a scene, Monica’s father remarks “I didn’t even get a chance to pretend I’m okay with it,” one of the show’s most barbed one-liners.

But to leave the discussion there is to ignore the deeper problem with Friends: its “realistic” portrayal of cultural attitudes towards queerness ended up reinforcing those same attitudes, not driving society forward. Although female characters like Phoebe are allowed to explore their sexualities, ostensibly-cis men like Joey, Ross, and especially Chandler are not given the same chance with their gender. Instead, they’re ridiculed and shamed for the slightest deviance. In a c-plot during “The One With Chandler’s Dad,” Joey discovers the thrill and comfort of wearing women’s underwear and gushes to Phoebe about how he’s “always wondered about” pantyhose, while Ross is revealed to have taken on a female identity, “Bea,” during childhood; both are roundly mocked (with Phoebe even telling Joey that “it’s important” for him to take off the panties and repress the feelings they give him).

This is nothing compared to what Chandler undergoes, however. In the pilot, Chandler idly muses that he sometimes wishes to be a lesbian, the first of many plot points that suggest the character has transgender inclinations (others include effeminate behavior after listening to a hypnosis tape, a classic trope in “forced feminization” pornography, and implications that he only engages in “manly” activities like watching sports to gain acceptance as “one of the guys”). But rather than encourage their pal to explore his identity, Chandler’s friends instead take every opportunity to deride his queer quirks; after Chandler tells Monica an embarrassing story about Ross, Ross retaliates by telling her about the time he “kissed a guy.” (We can tell that “a guy” here means “a trans woman” because Ross says she’s a girl at first, and Chandler’s defense is “it was dark and he was a very pretty guy.”) Hilarity ensues, as Chandler’s attempts to save face are deflected by the ever-potent comeback “whatever dude, you kissed a guy.”

Friends is not a toxic show because of its overt homophobia or transmisogyny. It’s not a toxic show because of the more subtle ways it reflects the bigotry of its time. It’s a toxic show because both of these things are true about a sitcom that won national acclaim as a wholesome, apolitical show while actively adding to the gleeful mockery queer people in America have to face. The collective nostalgia over Friends is still powerful — powerful enough to coax Netflix into paying $118 million for streaming rights — and as such, it still influences cultural attitudes about queer genders and sexualities. That’s not a good thing for a show that peppers random episodes with queerphobic subplots and throwaway gags.

If you can enjoy Friends in 2018, more power to you, but be honest with yourself about what you’re watching: a bunch of white people sitting around and making fun of whoever “acts gay” in between hooking up. Nostalgia might make things seem rosier, but make no mistake — Friends is a terrible show about cruel people who tear others down because of their perceived queerness, and its legacy will be forever tainted as a result.

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Why Everyone’s Favorite 90’s Show Is Hugely Transphobic

Las Vegas is the ultimate party city

The neon-drenched strip is the place to be for world-class performances, regularly playing host to gay icons such as Lady Gaga, Cher and Christina Aguilera.

Away from the main thoroughfare are a dozen or so LGBT+ venues. The city’s so-called Fruit Loop, a short taxi ride from the strip, is a cluster of bars and clubs including the 24-hour Piranha and the long-running Freezone, the city’s unofficial lesbian meeting place.

In the daytime, it’s worth indulging in a spot of Drag Brunch at Senor Frog’s, which serves bottomless cocktails and top queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race every Saturday and Sunday. Prepare to cheer on some of your favorite queens as they lip-sync for their lives.

If daytime drinking isn’t your thing, you can also catch a drag show with dinner at the iconic Hamburger Mary’s, before heading downtown to the historic Fremont Street with its retro signs, street performers and a burgeoning arts scene.

Las Vegas is the ultimate party city

Experience the great Vegas outdoors

Vegas’ wholesome side can be found in the spectacular sights of the Nevada desert.

Vegas is bordered by the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, filled with dusty mountains and valleys ready to be explored by the more active holidaymaker.

Slightly further west is Spring Mountains, home to the challenging 12,000ft Mount Charleston Summit and the awe-inspiring Mary Jane Falls.

The more leisurely traveller can still experience the great outdoors with a visit to the Clark County Wetlands Park.

A 25-minute drive from the strip, it sprawls over 3,000 acres and is filled with turtles, fish and birds. Slightly further out is the Historic Railroad Trail, a scenic 4.4 mile route through five former railroad tunnels drilled in the 1930s to support the building of Hoover Dam.

Beginners and experts alike can experience the Railroad Trail, Red Rock and Mary Jane Falls with PRIDE OUTside, a monthly LGBT+ group hike which is open to all.

Experience the great Vegas outdoors

Pride headlines the Vegas LGBT+ calendar

Throughout the year Vegas plays host to a series of LGBT+ gatherings and events.

More than 8,000 queer sports fans descend each January for Sin City Classic, the largest LGBT+ sporting event in the world. Founded in 2008 as a softball tournament, the Classic now counts 240 participating teams and 21 other sports including diving, golf, cheer and soccer.

April welcomes Clexacon, a fan convention focused on LGBT+ women in comics, TV, film and entertainment.

In May, the trans community and their queer allies unite for the annual Sin City Soiree. Around the same time, Temptation Sundays–the city’s longest-running gay pool party–kicks off at Luxor, running on Sundays through until September.

Bringing the year to a close is Las Vegas Pride, a colourful two-day affair.

This year’s Pride begins on October 11 with a dramatic Night Parade—one of the only late-night parades in the US—and is rounded off with the Las Vegas Pride Family Festival on October 12.

Pride headlines the Vegas LGBT+ calendar

The hit comedy series launched on Netflix but many argued that the show did not age well

Friends creator Marta Kauffman has admitted she would have changed the transgender jokes if the show was made today.

The hit TV series ran for 10 seasons and the finale was one of the most watched episodes of all time and fans were delighted when every episode landing on Netflix.

But many argued that the show did not age well and is full of homophobic and transphobic jokes with the introduction of Chandler’s (Matthew Perry) dad – a transgender woman who has a Las Vegas show called Viva Las Gaygas played by the amazing Kathleen Turner.

Another joke saw Brad Pitt’s cameo special reveal that while in high school he spread a rumour about Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) being a hermaphrodite.

And while speaking to USA Today, Kauffman admitted the show would be different if it was made today.

She said: “I think we didn’t have the knowledge about transgender people back then, so I’m not sure if we use the appropriate terms.

“I don’t know if I would have known those terms back then. I think that’s the biggest one.

“I might have not done the hermaphrodite stuff today if I had that to do over in the one with Brad Pitt.”

Despite some arguing the show is homophobic and transphobic, the show is still a success on the streaming giant.

This is why Canada is one of the world’s most LGBT-friendly destinations

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Besonders veraltet sind aus heutiger Sicht die homophoben Tendenzen, die bei Friends immer wieder auftauchen. Dass die Rolle von Chandler aufgrund angeblich femininer Wesenszüge automatisch homosexuell sein muss, ist der Running Gag, der die Serie durchzieht und heute wohl kaum mehr als witzig angesehen werden kann.

Krasser wird es noch bei der Figur von Chandlers Vater: Charles Bing aka Helene Handbasket wird zunächst als schwule männliche Dragqueen erwähnt, der mit seiner Tanzgruppe Viva Las Gaygas auftritt. In der siebten Staffel tritt er als trans Frau in Erscheinung – dargestellt von der Schauspielerin Kathleen Turner –, wird aber immer nur als Mann im Kleid bezeichnet. Die Frage, ob er nicht zu viel Penis habe, um ein Kleid zu tragen, die ihm von seiner Exfrau gestellt wird, zeigt, wie klischeehaft und unreflektiert die Serie nach heutigen Standards ist.

The Academy Award-nominated actress played Chandler Bing’s trans parent on the sitcom. 

In an exclusive interview with Gay Times, Academy Award-nominated actress Kathleen Turner has admitted that Friends has not aged well in regards to LGBTQ rights.

The 63-year-old icon – who played Chandler Bing’s trans parent on the show – told Gay Times: “I don’t think it’s aged well. It was a 30 minute sitcom. It became a phenomenon, but no one ever took it seriously as a social comment.”

Kathleen revealed how she received the role, and told us why the character was so groundbreaking.

“How they approached with me with it, was ‘would you like to be the first woman playing a man playing a woman?’ I said yes, because there weren’t many drag/trans people on television at the time.”

During Friends’ run, the character was never actually acknowledged as trans, and was referred to as either gay or a drag queen. She was often mocked by the other characters – especially for her drag show, which was titled Viva Las Gaygas. “Yeah, people thought Charles was just dressing up,” Kathleen added.

Since the entirety of Friends was released on UK Netflix, new viewers – and old fans – have noticed that the show had homophobic tendencies. The misgendering of Charles Bing, Chandler exhibiting ‘gay panic’ traits whenever he was mistaken as gay (which was a lot of the time), Ross – in general, have attributed to the show’s negative LGBTQ reputation.

However, the acclaimed sitcom did feature one of the first lesbian couples to be seen on television, so we do need to give credit where it’s due.

Video editor Tijana Mamula compiled a clip of all the homophobic scenes from the show, and posted it onto YouTube.

If you haven’t noticed the show’s homophobia before, you’ll notice after this 50-miniute compilation video…