Kelvin Atkinson Comes Out Of the Closet On Senate Floor

It’s easy to think of legislative politics in terms of bureaucracy and gridlock. Certainly, the American public is disenchanted with congressional efficiency — any quick look at Congress’s perennially low approval ratings will demonstrate that. But on Monday, the Nevada state Senate served as a necessary reminder that we are still capable of mature, soul-searching debate — albeit on the state level. In its discussion of Senate Joint Resolution 13 (SJR13), Nevada senators came forward with personal testimony that humanized the debate.

In particular, Senator Kelvin Atkinson (D-North Las Vegas) gave a speech that served as “a coming out of sorts,” announcing to his fellow senators, “I’m black. I’m gay.”

Atkinson spoke in favor of SJR13, which would repeal a 2002 provision that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. After amendment, SJR13 now also stipulates that the Nevada constitution recognize all marriages, regardless of gender. Senator Atkinson implored his fellow senators to pass the resolution, asserting that his right to marry did in no way infringe upon theirs. “If this hurts your marriage,” he reportedly said, “then your marriage was in trouble in the first place.”

Atkinson’s pro-gay marriage argument was echoed by his fellow North Las Vegas senator, Pat Spearman (D), who became the second openly gay member of the Nevada state legislature in 2012. Senator Spearman spoke of her experiences in growing up in the south in the 1960s, of being spit on because of her race, and argued that no institution but marriage would provide true equality for gay Nevadans: “I know what it feels like when people want to push separate but equal.” Like Atkinson, she compared the prohibition of gay marriage to racial inequity, asserting that both cases constitute discrimination that can only be rectified by providing equal rights.   

Atkinson and Spearman’s arguments — that gay marriage doesn’t affect anyone outside of such a marriage and that homosexual citizens are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual ones--are old and familiar to longtime supporters of gay rights. But these arguments seem to have found a new resonance with Americans, particularly Nevadans — in recent years, Nevada public opinion polling has swung dramatically in favor of allowing gay Americans the right to equal marriage.

Perhaps because of increasing constituent support (or perhaps because of their colleagues’ stirring testimony), the Nevada Senate passed SJR13 by a vote of 12 to 9. The resolution must now move to the Nevada Assembly, where the (usually pro-gay marriage) Democratic Party enjoys a 27-15 majority. If the Assembly passes the proposal — which seems likely, given the high number of Democrats — it will appear as a ballot measure in 2016.

As the number of openly gay Nevadan politicians increases, and as Nevada public support for equal marriage rights continues to grow, Nevada may well become the tenth state in the U.S. to recognize gay marriage.