CARSON CITY — When Kelvin Atkinson on Monday night unexpectedly told fellow state senators: “I’m 44 years old, I have a daughter, I’m black, I’m gay,” the latter admission was not that much of a jolt to onlookers.
Instead, it was further evidence of how much the Nevada population and the Legislature have evolved.
When state Sen. David Parks decided to run for the Legislature in 1996, he remembers some “very smart people” who were his political advisers telling him to hide the fact that he was gay or risk defeat at the polls.
“I knew no openly gay person ever had been elected to any office in the state of Nevada,” Parks said. “I told them I would not try to be someone who I am not.”
Parks won re-election without any opposition in November.
Until the 2013 session convened on Feb. 4, the media constantly referred to him as Nevada’s “only openly gay legislator,” although there were others who had not come out yet.
Now suddenly there are five openly gay legislators — Parks, Atkinson, state Sen. Patricia Spearman, and Assembly members Andrew Martin and James Healey. All are Democrats and all from Southern Nevada.
No longer do Democrats, at least, fear political consequences if voters learn they are gay.
SPEARMAN AND ATKINSON
Spearman said it is not so much that legislators have changed, but that they have belatedly recognized that the public has moved ahead and cares most about their political views, not their sexuality.
“The American people have come a long way,” said Spearman, a minister. “People have become enlightened. Being gay is no longer an issue. It always takes time. It has kind of been like turning an elephant around in a Volkswagen.”
Atkinson said his friends, including many other legislators, have known for a long time that he is gay. He has received only a positive response from constituents about coming out publicly.
A 10-year legislator, Atkinson picked an important moment to make it known to the general public.
Senators were conducting a gut-wrenching debate on Senate Joint Resolution 13, a proposed constitutional amendment to allow gay marriage in Nevada. The resolution passed 12-9 with all 11 Democrats, including Mormons Mo Denis and Justin Jones, and Republican Ben Kieckhefer, voting yes, and the other nine Republicans voting no.
“Every once in a while you get caught up in the moment,” Atkinson said. “This was the right moment. I wanted an opportunity to control the message. You don’t have to think about it in a political sense. I am who I am. People will have to accept me for who I am. If they don’t, well that’s their problem.”
Turn back the clock 32 years to this same Senate chambers. Lt. Gov. Myron Leavitt, president of the Senate, told a legislative reporter in frank terms about his opposition to the Reno Gay Rodeo.
“They’re inviting 7,000 queers to come to the northern part of the state for a rodeo,” said Leavitt, who later became a state Supreme Court justice.
There was a time in Carson City when, outside of hearing rooms and floor sessions, legislators, hoping to show reporters they were regular guys would try out jokes about minorities.
“The public perception has changed,” said Martin, whose domestic partner works in his legislative office. “It is a wonderful thing. I am glad voters looked at my qualifications and reasons for running versus something so unrelated to what goes on here as my sexual orientation. Being gay wasn’t a problem.”
Healey says it is an affront to gay people that Nevada’s constitution allows only marriages between heterosexuals.
“Every day I say the Pledge of Allegiance” opening Assembly floor sessions, Healey said. “I put my hand over my heart and I say ‘with justice for all,’ and I don’t have justice for all. My LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) friends don’t have justice for all.”
Then there is the economic reason for having same-sex marriage in Nevada. An executive at New York-New York, Healey said same-sex marriages could be a boon to the state’s economy, particularly on the Strip.
“There were 98,000 wedding licenses issued in Nevada (including 86,000 in Clark County) in 2012,” he said. “I think we could double that number with gay marriages. Even if it is only a 10 percent increase, that is a lot of money.
“All studies show the gay community has a lot of disposable income. That money could be spent on hotel rooms, limousines, helicopter rides, tuxedos and gowns. They would bring their families and friends. We have people with the skills to handle this who are not working now. They will come to Las Vegas from all over the world.”
GAY MARRIAGE: THE DEBATE
The Monday night debate on gay marriage showed how much legislators have changed and how hard they have struggled with the issue.
State Sen. Aaron Ford, D-Las Vegas, spoke of being born in a Dallas ghetto but then going to a conservative university and suddenly finding himself opposed to gay marriage. He voted during the 2000 election in Nevada for the marriage ban, but then changed and voted against it in 2002 when nearly two-thirds of the people put the ban into the state constitution.
“This case stands for more than the proposition that you should be able to marry,” Ford said. “It stands for the proposition that you should be able to marry who you want to, whether that person is black, white, Indian, Haitian, yellow, green, brown, same-sex or otherwise.”
State Sen. Debbie Smith, D-Sparks, said she has been married almost 39 years, and that she believes in marriage.
“I in no way believe that someone else’s marriage, and who they marry, threatens my marriage,” she said. “I think it is absurd to think that other people shouldn’t have the same right that I have to be in a loving relationship. A loving marriage.”
Jones gave a personal reason for his support of SJR13
“My brother-in-law Bryce is an Eagle Scout; he sang in a church choir with Gladys Knight for many years,” Jones said. “Bryce is gay and has been out since my wife and I were married almost 18 years ago. I would rather lose an election than look at my brother-in-law every Sunday and tell him that he shouldn’t have the same rights as I do, as his sister does. For Bryce, I will be voting yes.”
Gay marriage is not a threat to heterosexual couples, Spearman said. “People are constantly saying marriage equality is a threat to marriage. And a long time ago, I figured out that what really threatens marriage is adultery. But I don’t see anyone trying to criminalize that.”
Then there was Denis, a leader in the Mormon community in Southern Nevada and the state Senate majority leader. He first asserted that he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman.
“I also feel that I represent a constituency that has not decided on this issue. I represent a constituency that should have the opportunity to be heard.”
The 12-9 vote for gay marriage is only the beginning. To be placed on the November 2016 ballot, it must be approved by the Assembly before the June 3 adjournment. Then both houses must approve the resolution again in the 2015 legislative session.
In speaking out against the resolution, state Sen. Scott Hammond, R-Las Vegas, said if gay marriage supporters want to change the definition of marriage, then they should begin by circulating an initiative petition to amend the constitution, just like Protection of Marriage supporters did 13 years ago.
State Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, cited religious reasons for his opposition to the gay marriage proposal.
“I personally believe that marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God. I do not believe that this measure will strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society,” he said.
State Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, gave similar reasons for his opposition, saying: “Condemnation, and certainly persecution, have no place among those of us who hold these differing views. I do not support redefining marriage. However, neither do I think the law should prohibit adults from entering into loving and emotional relationships. I support civil unions. I support strong legal protections to prevent discrimination based on sexual orientation.”
State Sen. Greg Brower, R-Reno, said his opposition was due to the fact that SJR13 recognizing same-sex marriage would be placed in the constitution.
“I just don’t believe a definition of marriage should be in the constitution,” added Brower, who voted against the Protection of Marriage ballot question in 2002.
But Healey, who has been a vocal representative for the LGBT community for 10 years, virtually memorized every word uttered by Republican opponents.
He said Brower’s argument makes no sense, since the Protection of Marriage amendment has been in the state constitution since its final approval 11 years ago.
By the time the pro-gay marriage amendment appears on the ballot, 14 years would have passed since that amendment’s approval.
Healey noted the Delaware state Senate on Monday approved gay marriage and Gov. Jack Markell announced he will sign the bill. Delaware would become the 10th state with gay marriage.
France last week became the 14th country to legalize gay marriage.
Healey said Nevada and Las Vegas, in particular, have dramatically different populations than they did in 2002. He expects voters in 2016 will support gay marriage.
“By then, there could be 40 states with gay marriage, and voters will say ‘What took Nevada so long?’ Why are we so afraid to allow the voters to make the decision?”