Last edited: August 08, 2004


I Love a Parade

Editor's Note

Las Vegas Mercury, July 3, 2003
P.O. Box 70, Las Vegas, NV 89125
Fax: 702-387-5211

By Geoff Schumacher

In our fast-paced, multitask-obsessed era, it’s surprisingly easy to miss a big news story. We get so much information thrown at us in so many forms that sometimes the truly important news is obscured amid the sports scores, stock market updates and movie grosses. Even those of us in the business can find ourselves behind the curve about some major development.

One of those big stories that has not received the attention it deserves is last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down state laws outlawing homosexual sex. Civil rights scholars are calling this ruling the equivalent of the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision of 1954 that ended racial segregation in public schools.

“This is a moment of historic importance,” says Gary Peck, Nevada director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s not an overstatement to say this is Brown vs. Board of Education for gay people in terms of its magnitude.”

Peck says the ruling affirms the right of gays and lesbians to be treated with respect by the government. Justice Anthony Kennedy, Peck says, wrote “that the state improperly demeans gay people when it seeks to control and criminalize private sexual behavior. The court went out of its way to say gays are entitled to be treated with dignity. They are entitled to the same kind of treatment as other people. That’s a huge deal and it’s about time.”

Lee Plotkin, Nevada coordinator for the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay and lesbian organization, says the ruling could have far-reaching effects. “What the court has done is effectively decriminalize noncriminals,” he says. “Laws like that keep people from getting jobs. They cause people to lose their jobs. In the state of Texas they disallowed police officers who are known to be gay because they are in de facto violation of Texas’ sodomy law. Without that law saying that a person’s sexual orientation is criminal, it will allow greater access in the workplace and in all areas of society.”

The ruling surprised many people because of the conservative tendencies of the current Supreme Court. After all, this is the same court that installed George W. Bush in the White House. But Plotkin says the ruling is based on constitutional tenets that stand above partisan politics. “I think the court made a very educated ruling on equal protection under the Constitution,” he says. “If you read the 52-page decision, you will see that it was reasoned and based in law that the government has no business barging into people’s homes and enacting laws against one segment of society that they would not enact against another segment of society.”

Peck notes with pride that Nevada has been something of a pioneer on this issue. The state repealed its anti-sodomy law back in 1993, and about the same time it incorporated sexual orientation into its hate crime statutes. It also passed an employment nondiscrimination act in 1999. “We didn’t wait for the Supreme Court to do the right thing,” he says. This year, the Legislature quietly approved a bill extending hospital visitation rights to gay partners.

Of course, the progressive actions of the state Legislature and the recent high court ruling do not mean the people of Nevada or of the nation as a whole have embraced homosexuality. In fact, in Nevada, the overwhelming support for an initiative defining marriage as being only between a man and woman suggests there is still a long way to go before the public catches up with the law.

Plotkin agrees, noting that “in the early ‘60s, if you put civil rights up to a popular vote, you probably wouldn’t have a Civil Rights Act of 1964.”

But Plotkin is optimistic the public eventually will see the wisdom of the high court ruling. “It would be an amazing study to look at the state of Nevada, which repealed our sodomy law in 1993, to study what the effects of that were. What we heard was that it was the prelude to Armageddon. Opponents said the economy of Nevada would be destroyed. Quite the contrary has occurred. The sky did not fall. People’s lives went on. Communities thrived, Nevada thrived. With time, all of these people who are screaming Armageddon as a result of this ruling will see that it is not going to be what they make it out to be. There isn’t a worst-case scenario when you are extending equal rights to people.”

Peck agrees that history is on the side of equality and justice, but he urges constant vigilance. “I believe victories are hard fought and hard won,” he says. “People need to be vigilant.”

That said, Plotkin and other gay rights activists are in a celebratory mood. Asked about the practical effect of the ruling, Plotkin quipped, “We’ll have bigger parades.”

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