When the Las Vegas Lounge closed its doors in May of 2020, it signaled the end of an era. The small business, which employed 9 people, was a casualty to the economic decline caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic and health crisis. It became one of many businesses across the country that shut down for good during that first year of COVID-19. The Lounge first opened in 1999 and was the only bar in Las Vegas at the time; one of the few in the country that catered specifically to transgender women.
In its twenty-year existence, it survived the economic recession in 2007 and a shooting in 2018; injuring two people by a suspect who was never brought to justice. “We’ve survived so much only to be taken down by something unforeseen like the virus,” said the owner Jennifer Hallie in an interview. “We are welcomed at other bars but it is different not having your own place. The trans community, in particular trans women of color, is under siege. We need at least one place where we feel safe. We had customers there every night because this was their home away from home, A lot of them did not have ties to their families anymore. For the trans community, it is important to have a place where they feel safe. It is hard for us to get housing and employment.”
The Lounge was undeniably a safe haven, even if momentarily, for Southern Nevada’s trans community. For many Pacific Islander trans women who made Las Vegas their chosen home, the Lounge also became a place of refuge. For this story of Fofola le Fala, I reached out to some of the girls, most of whom are my friends, to be interviewed about life after the Lounge. My dear Nalita was gracious to share her journey.
Nalita Maama was one of the Lounge’s longest serving patron and later became the show director up until its closure. Some years ago I, Marion Malena, found myself living in Vegas. And like many of the girls, I didn’t have family there, but we had each other. Us girls took care of one another, by whatever means was necessary. Nalita cooked the best Polynesian food in the city, she would host gatherings on special occasions and invited all the Pacific Islander girls to her home. There were Christmases when we had no money and she brought the holiday cheer into her house by gifting us with simple presents. Since the Lounge was also a place of business for many of the girls in our circle, there was a great deal of special memories revolving around the place, especially when Nalita was its show director. The kind and thoughtful person that Nalita is to those who knew her personally, that shined at her workplace as well. There’s a saying in our lingo “don’t bring the islander out of her”, and that was always said about Nalita. She is someone who is not afraid to put people in their place.
Nalita was born in the Kingdom of Tonga and raised by her grandmother. In 1988 at the age of 9 years old, she fell ill and was brought to the United States on a medical visa. That was where she met her parents for the first time. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1980’s to make a better life for their young family. “My parents really struggled to survive” Nalita remembers, “They took whatever jobs they could find even working under the table to make ends meet and were usually paid less than most workers. All that hard work because they wanted a better future for us.” Nalita ended up overstaying after arriving in Washington state for medical care and became an undocumented immigrant for many years.
After graduating high school, Nalita’s brother was incarcerated and her younger sister was still in grade school. Nalita quickly went from being eldest child to young adult and took up jobs to help her parents, mostly working under the table as a cleaner for the Seattle Times building. She also scrubbed floors and washed toilets for a living. Nalita sought the aid of a friend who helped her obtain a borrowed social security number. She was able to find work as a caregiver in a retirement home facility. “I worked there for seven years and saw so many old folks dying” she said, “it made me realize that I didn’t want to die having not accomplished any of my dreams.” Through all of this, Nalita struggled internally with her identity as transgender woman. She always knew who she was inside, but her parents found it difficult to accept.
When a friend of Nalita’s, who made a living through escorting sites, visited one summer, she told Nalita “being an escort might not be for everyone, but it might help you financially and with your transition.” Nalita was 27 years old around then and she knew her chances of financial stability were low because of her undocumented status. Through escorting she was able to afford her own place, receive hormone therapy, and was a step closer to her dream of becoming a woman. She then had her breast argumentation surgery, but her transition did not sit well with her parents.
“I never planned to do sex work” Nalita said, “I saw how swiftly it could help achieve goals, and I did it as a means for me to balance everything out in my life. I did not just want to work and pay for my parents’ bills, because that was all I was really doing. I wanted to take care of my family, and ALSO have money set aside to take care of me. It is hard for women like me to find good jobs without being discriminated against. Some girls lose themselves on the fast lane, but if you have a strong mind, you learn to make it a business and that is exactly what I did. My parents never really asked where all of the new and sudden financial support was coming from, but I know they knew. They saw that I still took care of them, even after I transitioned, and they eventually came around to accepting me.”
In 2007, Nalita relocated to Las Vegas to begin a new life. She immediately found work as a dancer at the Lounge. Through a friend at work she was able to secure her own apartment near the bar. When the show director moved to another state in 2014, Nalita stepped in to fill her position. “The Lounge was a lot more than what some folks thought it to be” Nalita said, “not only did it help me out financially, it helped guide me through life. There was a sisterhood and sharing with the girls who came in the place, we all helped each other when one asked for or needed anything. It was one of few public places where us trans women were comfortable being ourselves.”
In 2020, when COVID-19 ravaged the country, the government rolled out applications for business owners to apply for loans through the Payroll Protection Program fund, but the Lounge was denied. Businesses where gambling was a source of revenue were excluded, meaning the Las Vegas Lounge, which had video poker machines; making them ineligible. By the time the rules were adjusted to allow smaller businesses with gambling to apply, the money for the program had dried up. There was no guarantee that the bar could attract enough businesses to pay its obligations — nearly $7,000 in rent along with another few thousand dollars in other bills and payroll, sadly they were forced to close.
Nalita’s husband found work as a truck driver and he was able to support them financially, for a time, during the pandemic. “The pandemic was both a curse and a blessing for me” said Nalita, “After 9 years of being with my soulmate Robert, we finally made it official during those long months of lock down. It made us realize that if either of us were to die because of the virus, we both wanted to have the final say and right over each other’s final decisions. A marriage certificate would give us that benefit and right. My husband is a war vet, but I met when him when he was a taxi driver; he used to drive me home from the Lounge. I was living alone and he was always there as my therapist and confidant, volunteering himself to help in whatever I needed. I should have married him the first time he asked. His heart is worth more than money could ever buy.”
It has been two years since the COVID-19 pandemic, millions around the globe have learned to somehow adapt to living with a virus that had forever change us. Life must also move on for the many patrons, showgirls and workers of the Lounge. “I still perform from time to time. But my body also cannot handle the stress like it used to. I finally got medical insurance through my husband, I’m getting old and it is time to retire”, she said laughing. Nalita helped build a house for her parents back in Tonga. Her mom has since moved back to prepare retirement plans for herself and Nalita’s dad. “I’m not ashamed of anything I did in the past” Nalita said, “It has shaped me into who I am today. We are always going to struggle, that’s life, but the show must go on. On a rainy day, never give up because the sun will rise again and a rainbow will always appear at the end.”