CARSON CITY — By a surprising majority, state senators voted 20-1 Thursday for a bill that would add crimes committed against transgender people to the list of hate crimes for which judges can order enhanced prison sentences.
“This is a very special day. I believe it punctuates the fact that the Nevada Legislature is committed to equality and equal access, and equality under the law,” said Sen. Patricia Spearman, the sponsor of the bill.
“There have been times in our history when we don’t adequately protect those who are different but are children of God. Today we make those wrongs right.”
While the bill still must go through the Assembly, the overwhelming vote, including by every Republican but Sen. Joe Hardy, R-Boulder City, is a good indication it will pass. Gov. Brian Sandoval in 2011 signed two related bills to protect transgender people.
Sandoval would not say Thursday whether he will sign the bill. His spokeswoman, Mary-Sarah Kinner, said the bill could be amended in the Assembly and the governor wants to wait and see its language when it arrives at his desk.
The vote on Senate Bill 139 was surprising because the legislation is a longer version of a bill that failed to pass the Senate 10-11 in 2011 when Sen. John Lee, D-North Las Vegas, bucked his fellow Democrats and voted no.
Spearman, who is a lesbian and a minister, last year faced Lee in the Democrat primary and beat him overwhelmingly.
During the 8 a.m. floor vote, Sen. Mark Hutchison, R-Las Vegas, said he supported the bill because judges could not order a longer sentence unless there was actual evidence that the victim was targeted because of his or her gender identity or expression.
A transgender is someone who is born to one gender, say male, but prefers to live his live as a female.
Hutchison, who is Mormon, noted that people of his faith have been victims of heinous crimes throughout history because of their religion.
Hardy said he voted against the bill because it was giving “super free speech” to a class of people. But after speaking with Spearman for about 15 minutes following the floor session, he said he would have supported the bill if he had better understood her intent.
“The vote would have been 21-0,” Hardy said.
Two years ago, the bill that didn’t pass included only gender crimes. This year’s bill was expanded to also include arson, which is already on the FBI’s hate crimes list. Nevada law already includes as hate crimes those offenses committed against a person because of race, religion, color or sexual orientation.
Because of this change, Sen. James Settelmeyer, R-Minden, said he backed the bill after opposing it two years ago.
“We are codifying federal law, that’s how I look at it,” Settelmeyer said.
Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, said legislators have had two years to learn more about transgender people and the terminology and intent of the bill.
“I think they understand (the bill),” he added.
After the vote, Spearman discussed the discrimination she has experienced over her life, including being called the “N word” and having to crawl through a ditch to escape men who were threatening her during her military career. Because of her light complexion, she also said she has faced discrimination from black people.
“If you have never been a member of a minority class who have been discriminated against because of physical characters, you cannot understand how it feels,” she said. “You are talking about characteristics people cannot change.”
The Legislature has three known gay people — Spearman, Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, and Assemblyman Andrew Martin, D-Las Vegas.
Contact Capital Bureau Chief Ed Vogel at email@example.com or 775-687-3901.