Last edited: August 08, 2004


Bill Takes Gay Rights To New Level In Nevada

Las Vegas Sun, April 4, 1999
Box 4275, Las Vegas, NV 89107
Fax 702-383-7264

By Jerry Fink, Las Vegas Sun

Ten years ago members of the Las Vegas gay and lesbian community kept a low profile, reluctant to step out of the shadows and openly declare their sexual preference.

When a Gay Pride picnic was held at Sunset Park in 1983, only 200 people attended.

Gays and lesbians met primarily in bars, the only place they felt comfortable gathering as a group.

And police routinely raided the bars.

But things have changed.

An indicator of how much: In 1993 the state's law making sodomy a crime was repealed with little opposition.

Last year the Gay Pride Festival drew between 5,000 and 6,000 people.

And now the state Legislature may be on the verge of passing a law protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination in the workplace – a law that is in place in only 10 other states.

The full Assembly passed Assembly Bill 311 on Thursday in a 30-11 vote. The bill next goes to the Senate where it faces an uncertain future. Gov. Kenny Guinn said last week that he agrees with the spirit of the bill but would not commit to signing it until he has seen the final version.

The support the bill received in the Assembly reflects the recognition gay rights now get in other institutions and the wider population. Consider:

• A survey released in January by the UNLV Cannon Center for Survey Research revealed 56 percent of Southern Nevadans favor legislation outlawing discrimination against gays.

• Metro Police has become one of the few police departments in the nation to have an anti-discrimination policy toward homosexuals.

• UNLV recently added "sexual orientation" to its own anti-discrimination policy.

• Faculty senates at UNLV and the Community College of Southern Nevada recently passed resolutions supporting proposed changes to their benefit packages that would include "domestic partners."

• The Culinary Union already offers benefits to domestic partners – whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.

• Clark County is looking at the cost of offering such benefits to its employees.

Is the struggle by gays and lesbians becoming easier?

"Absolutely," says Holly Carratelli, chairwoman of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center. "At one time, we were invisible."

Gay activist and newspaper columnist Lee Plotkin traces the change to the 1990 Lesbian and Gay Pride Festival, the first time organizers received coverage by local newspapers and television.

"I wrote that first press release," Plotkin said.

Because of the publicity generated by that one story, the gay and lesbian community came to the attention of Las Vegas.

"Absolutely, without a doubt, that was a turning point in our visibility," Plotkin said. "Mainstream media visibility allowed Southern Nevadans to see the event was taking place, and the media coverage showed there was nothing to be afraid of. That caused a snowball effect in the gay and lesbian community. They realized hundreds, then thousands were attending the festival, and the sky was not falling."

The 1993 sodomy law was another watershed moment for the gay community.

"Senate Bill 466. (The sodomy law) was one of those archaic laws that were rarely enforced," he said.

But the surprising ease with which it passed, by a 2-to-1 margin according to Plotkin, showed that attitudes toward gays and lesbians were softening.

"I believe our political leadership reflects a more tolerant atmosphere today in Nevada," he said.

There were outcries from conservative groups.

"I would have to say they pulled out all stops in '93 and only wound up shooting blanks," Plotkin said.

The population explosion in Southern Nevada also has contributed to taking the edge off the anger directed at gays and lesbians.

"That is definitely an element, getting people from all walks of life," Plotkin said. "The redneck element in Nevada has been somewhat watered down by our tremendous population growth. So many new residents have arrived, nobody can really claim turf rights."

Gay historian Dennis McBride, a Boulder City resident, agrees.

"Acceptance has accelerated in the '90s," McBride said. "All of a sudden, gay people are OK. But they weren't 10 years ago.

"Part of it is that Las Vegas is behind times, in general. By the time the gay community began coalescing here, it had already been done everywhere else. The population boom of the '90s was coming from gay-friendly places, so as the population increased, so has general acceptance of the gay community."

McBride feels that public awareness of gay issues in Las Vegas actually began with the AIDS virus.

"Vegas had its first AIDS death in March 1983," McBride said.

That ignited a panic, marked by events that ended up mobilizing gays:

• People with AIDS or at risk in developing AIDS were fired.

• Phone company workers refused to enter a new AIDS support group office to hook up a telephone because the workers were afraid of catching AIDS.

• Police closed down a gay bath house.

"It was a time of great panic, but it also brought the gay community together," McBride said.

Today, McBride said, the changes that have taken place are dramatic, marked not only by favorable legislation and a willingness to provide benefits but also by more social recognition.

"Many Strip resorts are hosting gay events, which would have been unheard of 10 years ago," he said.

But to say there is no opposition, or only minor opposition, to gay rights would be naive.

A poll by a local media organization in 1997 revealed 74 percent of Clark County voters surveyed opposed same-sex marriages.

In December 1997 the school board for the Clark County School District was poised to include protection for students' sexual orientation in a proposed harassment policy.

When opponents got wind of the action, they turned out in force at a number of School Board meetings and killed the language.

"It was eye-opening to see the School Board in action," Plotkin said. "It was amazing to see how quickly they changed.

"Opponents who were not present at the first meeting, when the action was first discussed, came out of the woodwork."

One of the most vocal opponents of the gay and lesbian lifestyles is Janine Hansen, state president of the ultra-conservative Nevada Eagle Forum, a chapter of the national organization.

"It undermines the sacred bonds of marriage. It undermines the family. The family is under assault," said Hansen, who recently testified before an Assembly committee against AB311, which would add sexual orientation to the state's workplace discrimination law.

She asserts homosexuals have more rights than heterosexuals.

"Homosexuals want special rights," she said. "They already have the same rights everyone else has."

She says gay activists are aggressive to a fault.

"My experience with homosexuals has been that they are extremely aggressive at promoting their agenda," she said. "I was physically assaulted by some of them. I had to have a bodyguard. I've had death threats. My office has been picketed. Pornographic stuff has been stuck to my car window. They can be very violent in terms of opposing those who dare to speak out against them."

Hansen said homosexuals have made significant progress, but still they push a national agenda.

"There used to be sodomy laws in every state, but now they have been removed," she said. "And after they get rid of the sodomy laws, they want something else. They have more rights than anybody else.

"They've been successful in forcing their opinions on us, and so they have become emboldened."

She says homosexuals have no respect for anybody's rights.

"They have created reverse discrimination," she said. "The bill (AB311) imposes serious limits to freedom of speech, religion and association. Employers could no longer take their most deeply felt beliefs into account when making a hiring decision."

Hansen believes the law forces taxpayers to pay for lifestyles they find "morally reprehensible."

"We've identified they have a specific national agenda. They have a very big push on for public acceptance of a broad-ranging homosexual agenda. They want complete acceptance of their lifestyle.

"It's going to be a continuing battle. More people are becoming alarmed that militant homosexuals are pushing their agenda."

That the gay and lesbian movement has a national and local agenda is no secret.

This week the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force e-mailed its supporters around the nation a "Force Action Alert" for the state of Maryland, whose Legislature is set to vote on two issues, one an anti-discrimination bill and the other a hate crime bill.

The hate-crime bill would increase the punishment for anyone convicted of a crime that was motivated by hatred of sexual orientation.

Nevada already has such a law – anyone convicted of a hate crime receives an additional 25 percent to his or her sentence.

But here, hate crimes are not common, according to Bobby Siller, who retired at the first of the year as head of the Nevada office of the FBI.

"I wouldn't say there is a big problem," Siller said.

Neither would Metro Police.

"There is not a high incidence of hate crimes here," said Sgt. Karen Hoye, the department's director of employment diversity.

Nevada American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Gary Peck said his organization doesn't get a lot of complaints about sexual discrimination.

"But we get enough such complaints to be distressed by them," Peck said.

In 1995, Metro Police adopted an anti-discrimination policy toward its employees that included sexual orientation. Hoye said San Francisco may be the only other department in the country that does that.

"I believe it was another watershed moment when Sheriff Jerry Keller was elected," Plotkin said. "He was the first sheriff even to address the gay and lesbian people."

He says the department's police have been effective in cutting down on harassment of gays and lesbians.

"There are still some problems, sure, but there is more protection than had ever existed before," said Plotkin.

Plotkin remembers the early 1980s, when police frequently raided gay bars, especially during election years.

That doesn't happen anymore.

"Ten or 15 years later, no one would ever dream of that happening," he said. "But it was done regularly in gay bars just a few years ago."

That policy may be having an impact on how police react to sexual differences in the general public.

Though some gays say they feel they have been harassed by police, Catherine Collins, a 62-year-old who is in the process of changing her sex, said when she was stopped on two different occasions for minor traffic incidents she was treated with respect.

The feeling that they have the protection of the law, with the state's hate crime statute and a generally sympathetic police department, has played no small part in the evolution of the gay and lesbian movement in Las Vegas Valley.

But at the heart of the evolution is the Gay and Lesbian Community Center at 912 E. Sahara Ave.

"We see our role to be the institutional voice of our community," Carratelli said. "When someone can't speak out because they are afraid of losing their job, we can speak out as an institutional voice, and we have nothing to fear. That's basically our work, to provide people an opportunity to celebrate who they are."

Tasha Hill, 26, the center's deputy director, said the founders of the organization were instrumental in getting the sodomy law repealed in 1993.

"The center is a social and support group, an information referral service," she said. "We also are an agency of first contact for the larger community of Las Vegas."

With the center leading the way, the gay and lesbian community has grown in size and visibility over the years.

"Our (gay and lesbian) community is more involved now. We have more of an infrastructure developed than five years ago. But we have not come out as much as we might," Carratelli said.

Hill feels that the increased visibility has added to the growing acceptance of gays and lesbians by the generally conservative Las Vegas community.

"It's difficult to hate someone you know," she said. "We're giving America a face to see, and people are finding we're just like everybody else."

In the future, Carratelli says, gays and lesbians will take up such issues as same-sex marriage, adoption, benefits and bias.

But today, the center is focused on AB311, a bill Carratelli and Hill believe will lead to more activism and progress because gays and lesbians won't feel their jobs are threatened when they speak out.

Hill compares the gay and lesbian movement to the black civil rights and women's movements.

"If there was no discrimination, there would be no need for laws against it," Hill said. "For the past 10 years, Nevada has been moving slowly forward."

There is movement despite the fact that Las Vegas is "set up as a playground for wealthy heterosexual males. We're 20 years behind the rest of the country," Hill said.

Assemblyman David Parks, D-Las Vegas, an openly gay legislator serving his second term, is the author of AB311 – the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

While 165 cities and counties around the nation have such a law, few states do. No cities or counties in Nevada do, either.

Parks denied claims by critics that his bill would limit the rights of employers to hire and fire.

"This bill does not set a quota," he said. "It just adds the words 'sexual orientation' to the law."

Though he has seen some opposition, such as the Nevada Eagle Forum, he says there is no "groundswell of opposition. The calls are more in favor of passage ... I'm sensing strong support."

One of the strongest supporters is the Nevada ACLU, which also has played a role in bringing gay and lesbian issues to the forefront of public awareness.

ACLU attorneys attempted, unsuccessfully, to add sexual orientation to the Clark County School District anti-discrimination policy that created a public furor more than a year ago.

It also monitors legislation in Carson City, keeping an eye out for any bills that might be "unfriendly to gays and lesbians," Peck said.

Now the group is "enthusiastically" lobbying for passage of AB311, he said.

"We would expect that most people of good faith would likewise support the bill, which is utterly American in that it stands for the principle that everyone should be treated fairly in their workplace and that affairs that should remain private have nothing to do with how they are evaluated on the job."

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