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The Naked and the Red | The Nation

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The Naked and the Red

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Las Vegas

Marc Cooper is currently finishing a book on Las Vegas, to be published in the fall by Nation Books.

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

A specter haunts Las Vegas: organized strippers. Behind this nightmare vision lurks Andrea Hackett, a former male factory-worker turned nude dancer. And the headlines Hackett's been making have nothing to do with her sex change. Here in Glitter Gulch that raises no more eyebrows than, say, a PTA president's divorce in Peoria.

No. Hackett's been the talk of the town because the lanky, blond-streaked 49-year-old with a spectacular set of enameled fingernails has been frenetically trying to organize Vegas's thousands of strippers and nude dancers, launching them into a head-on battle royal against local government--and indirectly against the all-powerful corporate gambling interests that dominate this city's political life. "They wanted a fight," she says, unpacking a file of organizational charts and strategy notes. "And now I'm giving it to them."

This unusually colorful episode of open class warfare erupted last summer when the Clark County commissioners voted 5 to 1 to heavily regulate the stripping and lap dancing that bring millions of tourists and conventioneers and many more of their dollars annually into Vegas's thirty-six "gentlemen's clubs" and provide income for 15,000 women dancers. (No one knows for sure, but the guess is that something like a million lap dances a year are performed in Vegas clubs at twenty-five bucks a pop or more.)

Like a Church Lady skit straight out of SNL, the county commissioners took a hands-on approach--excuse the pun--to defining what would now become a legal or illegal lap dance. In brief, a dancer would no longer be able to sit on a customer's genital area--i.e., his lap--more or less rendering the very essence of the dance impotent. Dancers could no longer solicit tips. Customers could offer them but were specifically barred from any longer performing the traditional gesture of placing currency in dancers' G-strings. "This was a declaration of war," Hackett huffs. "In short, they were outlawing lap dancing."

Before her sex-change operation in 1995, Hackett spent seventeen years working for Boeing in Seattle as a machinist and union activist. Now she drew upon her previous organizing experience to fight back. "I know I'm the only nude dancer in Vegas who went to Woodstock and who burned her draft card," she says. And for good measure, she adds, "I'm also a socialist."

Within days of the bill's passage, Hackett founded the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance, and by the end of the summer she had signed up nearly a thousand members. She now has "club reps"--sort of clandestine shop stewards--in about two-thirds of the dance establishments, and they are signing up about twenty-five new members a week. In addition to holding regular organizing meetings at the local library, Hackett's LVDA published a "Dancers Voter Guide" for the November 2002 election and conducted the first known voter-registration drive in history of nude and lap dancers. "We registered almost 500 new voters among the girls," she says proudly.

The LVDA has affiliated unofficially with almost fifty other groups, including the Sierra Club and the northern Nevada NAACP, that make up the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN), and Hackett has forged a close working relationship with the local ACLU. "She's got the energy of ten organizers and the skills to go along with it," says Paul Brown, southern Nevada director of PLAN. "The County Commission has set off a spark that has turned into a firestorm. This basically comes down to an important issue of labor practices." In the past few weeks Hackett has also met with state AFL-CIO officials and other union activists exploring affiliation. "Do we want to become a union?" she asks and then answers her own query. "Let's just say that all roads are leading to the same conclusion." One organizer for a major international industrial union who met with Hackett says his organization is looking seriously into some form of collaboration. "We'd love to have these dancers eventually in our union, and we're going to help out every way we can," he says.

Hackett and other local political observers agree that the crackdown on lap dancing can be traced to the economic squeeze the big Vegas casinos and hotels have been feeling since 2000. Business is only down 2-4 percent, but that's an ice-cold shower for an industry that has been spoiled by two decades of uninterrupted growth and profitability. To jack up the inflow of tourists, many of the casino resorts have been turning to racier floor shows, but they are still prohibited by state regulation from mixing gambling with strip or lap dancing. In the past few weeks all of America has been exposed to a new, sexually suggestive, multimillion-dollar TV ad campaign run by Vegas gambling and hotel interests promising "What happens here, stays here." Meanwhile, the mega-lit billboards atop the giant Vegas hotels are filled more and more with explicitly sexual lures.

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