MY COLUMN: Same-sex marriage evolution signals new Nevada

"Only a marriage between a male and female shall be recognized and given effect in this state." --- Nevada ‘s constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage

Twelve years ago last week, same-sex marriage advocates held a candlelight vigil to protest Question 2 on the ballot.

That proposition, pushed by the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, had passed overwhelmingly the previous cycle and would have banned same-sex unions in Nevada if it passed again. Those attending the vigil decried homophobic bigotry and intolerance, with clerics calling for the question’s defeat.

A few days later, those advocates received a boost when the state’s most powerful political consultants, Democrat Billy Vassiliadis and Republican Sig Rogich, decried the effort. But their pleas were in vain.

Question 2 passed with two thirds of the vote.

A dozen years later, almost to the day, a joyous celebration replaced the somber vigil as the last legal obstacle has been removed, and same-sex marriage licenses are being dispensed throughout the state. The state that has had so, so many embarrassments beyond Question 2, from Sharron Angle to Cliven Bundy, from oral-sex-seeking-and-giving crooked county commissioners to a slavery-nodding assemblyman, from Jim Gibbons to John Ensign, finally, finally, something to celebrate.

The ghosts of an intolerant past, where social conservatives cowed politicians of both parties and where the doctrine from Salt Lake seemed to override the libertine libertarianism of Sin City, seemed exorcised all at once Thursday as state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson and his longtime partner, Woody Howard, were married by Judge Nancy Allf on the steps of the courthouse.

A short time later, as they appeared on "Ralston Reports,"  the newlyweds could barely contain their joy at being seen as equal under the eyes of the law to any heterosexual couple. It was beautiful. It was real. It was overdue.

Welcome to the new Nevada.

Yes, it took too long – we were the 27th state to see the light. But seeing the abrupt evolution of former foes such as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and the awkward, antiseptic statements ("This action brings finality to the issue of same-sex marriage in Nevada") of current opponents such as Gov. Brian Sandoval on Thursday, I could only shake my head at those who would still insist, from the governor to Rep. Joe Heck, that marriage was between a man and a woman.

Because it’s not.

At least not in Nevada. And, after North Carolina and Idaho on Friday, not in 28 other states.

Nevada, quite simply, is not the same place it was in 2002. Views here have changed over time as they have elsewhere , and politicians have evolved, sometimes with speed akin to Darwinism on steroids, along with their constituents – or some of them have. Some are still hopelessly paralyzed by their religious beliefs, which they cannot put aside to do their duties in the public square. Many of them are weak, more passively intolerant than actively bigoted, but with the same net effect.

Even Richard Ziser, the man who led the effort here at the beginning of the millennium, acknowledged on “Ralston Reports” that if Question 2 were on the ballot today, “It would be a fight.”

And it would be, as recent polling has shown. Nevada, often seen as some alien enclave (the interplanetary kind, not the illegal kind) among the states, has changed culturally along with most of America. The erstwhile Mississippi of the West and home to the Mormon political mafia has become more tolerant as its demographics have changed, as the influence of angry old white folks (sorry, Cliven) has been challenged by a more ethnically diverse and younger cohort.

Nevada voted twice for Barack Obama since Question 2 passed, enacted a domestic partnership law five years ago and has several openly gay members of the Legislature. Back then, Ziser was arguing that even though Nevada already defined marriage as between a man and a woman, Question 2 was needed because he was afraid same-sex couples would get married elsewhere and then – the horror! – move here and have their unions recognized.

Even then, some argued and continued to for years that the economic benefits of making Nevada the gay wedding capital of the world were being squandered. If not here, with drive-though chapels and Elvis-imitators as pastors, then where?

I always thought that was a compelling reason but secondary to the imperative of dissolving the myth that heterosexual marriage needed any protecting, that allowing gays and transgenders to marry would cause a fraying of society’s fabric. The sun will come out tomorrow, Mr. Ziser and friends. I promise.

Twelve years ago, in that last-ditch effort to stop Question 2, Miss Nevada joined consultants Vassiliadis and Rogich in opposing Question 2.

“By speaking out, we are supporting this state as one of compassion and caring," said Teresa Benitez, who recited details of the horrific beating death of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in the talent portion of the Miss America contest. “We must build a culture and climate of acceptance, tolerance and inclusion.”

In 2014, that Miss Nevada has become a dynamic, rising star in the Legislature, a Latina who has supported same-sex marriage and will someday be an even more prominent leader in this state.

Same-sex marriage legalized? A Latina leader? Legalized pot next?

Welcome to the new Nevada.