Lawmakers rise to the occasion in gay marriage debate

During Monday night’s stirring Senate floor debate, I couldn’t help but think of Steven.

Steven is my brother.  Steven is the most wonderful, loving person I know. He has two incandescent children and a perfectly matched life partner.

Steven also happens to be gay. And as senator after senator rose last night, as if they were feeding off each other’s energy and humanity, to support repealing the state’s gay marriage law, I thought of Steven.

I hope I would feel the way I do even if my brother weren’t gay, even if I couldn’t imagine depriving him of the opportunity to marry Rob, as he did in 2011.  But every time I see them and their two adopted children together, I am reminded of how their family is no different than any happy family, while (with homage, Leo) for so many different reasons, there are so many unhappy heterosexual marriages out there.

It makes the issue real to me, just as it does for Sen. Justin Jones, who spoke movingly of his gay brother-in-law and voted to repeal the ban even though his LDS church friends might not understand or it might threaten his re-election chances. "I would rather lose an election than look my brother-in-law in the eye every Sunday and tell him he doesn’t have the same rights as I do,” Jones said, his voice soft but affecting.

On a night when I had to holster my usual snark and cynicism as I listened and watched these politicians transmogrify into human beings, allowing the personal to be the political, letting the emotions most elected officials reflexively hold in check pour forth into the public eye.

All of this surprising drama came, ironically, on a night when passage of the repeal was never in doubt. The only surprise was Ben Kieckhefer, who did not speak and declined to explain his vote (we can assume it was personal not political), siding with the 11 Democrats.

We are a long way from the repeal actually taking effect – two Legislatures and a vote of the people in 2016. And I don’t expect to see that kind of debate every day in Carson City.

But for one hour in the Senate chamber Monday night, I felt like the frustrated duffer who wants to give up the game but then hits a ball within 10 feet of the hole. It makes you want to keep believing, to come back to the game one more time.

And it was more than that, really.

It was a night when despite GOP senators mewling about process – oh, they sprung this on us (not really) and marriage shouldn’t be in the Constitution It already is)! – their objections were rendered ridiculous by the soaring speeches by more than one Democrat.

Pat Spearman, the openly gay pastor whose election over John Lee made this vote possible (he never would have supported it), preached the gospel of integration, of toleration. She managed to invoke Brown v. Board of Education, Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King.

She scoffed at the notion that gay marriages hurt other unions, suggesting perhaps adultery was a greater threat. And, in making the case, she made it simple: “Separate is not equal,” echoing the seminal Brown case.

Kelvin Atkinson said he was not going to speak, but oh, did he speak. Although many know he is gay, he declared his sexuality for the world to know, and delivered the line that many on Twitter latched onto: “If this hurts your marriage, then your marriage was in trouble in the first place.”

Aaron Ford talked of growing up in conservative Texas, of evolving, of being affected by the Loving V. Virginia case that outlawed anti-miscengenation laws. “That was the argument that persuaded me,” he said. “We’re not going to bow to the pressures of bigotry, and we’re going to say people should be allowed to marry who they want to.”

There were others, too, but it was Jones who was the most moving, I thought, because it was so obviously, as he said, “ a personal, difficult decision,” and because he was risking the most personally and politically (he is up next year and only won by 300 votes last time).

His speech and the others were unbound by the usual artifice that marks so many floor speeches, the mask removed, the sentences more poetry than prose, shorn of the standard, rote politispeak.

And the contrast to every Republican who spoke could not have been starker.

“Process is important,” Senate Minority Leader Michael Roberson said. I think this was a tough vote for Roberson, who (and there were at least three others) said he would have backed it if the language mandating governments recognize gay marriage were not in there. But he couldn’t have been more wrong.

On this night, nothing could have been less important than process. This was a vote on which methods should have been overwhelmed by the cause, pushing forward an issue that years from now (I hope not too many) will seem hardly controversial at all.

Be upset that the Democrats rammed this through. Be upset that they weren’t satisfied with just a repeal and wanted replace language, too, to avoid a gubernatorial veto and infuse national money. Be upset that they were forcing a difficult choice.

Fine. But put all that aside and simply vote for a resolution that is reflective of a new Nevada, a new America.

I understand the argument about religion and how difficult this was for the Mormons and Catholics there. But religions don’t evolve; people evolve. Religions too often aren’t tolerant; people must be tolerant. Religions may say marriage is between a man and a woman; but marriages are not just between a man and a woman anymore.

I don’t say this very often – and I wish I had cause to say it more – but I was proud of the Legislature on Monday night. I know Steven would have been, too.


You can watch the entire SJR 13 debate here.

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