DEREK WASHINGTON only has one mode when he’s talking politics: enthusiastic. So it’s not surprising that the chair of the Nevada Stonewall Democrats gets a little breathless about the upcoming election.
“Every single achievement that has been made since Obama was elected is at stake,” he said.
He’s talking about gays serving openly in the military. About changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage. The general tolerance and understanding that comes from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. All of that could go away in 2013, Washington said.
Gays and lesbians have made huge political strides in the last couple of years. Their signature achievement was the obliteration of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the policy that kept gay and lesbian service members in the closet. In 2010, before conservatives swept into Congress, lawmakers overturned the law, enacted in 1993, opening the door for gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military.
Mitt Romney opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, but has said he wouldn’t resurrect a ban on gays and lesbians in the military. He has always opposed same-sex marriage, although he did support domestic-partner benefits in Massachusetts. Although his positions on LGBT issues have waffled and changed over the years, Romney is clearly less progressive than his Democratic rival, and opposes the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), which would protect gays, lesbians and transgender people.
Obama supports ENDA. And he came out in favor of same-sex marriage, after Biden said he was comfortable with it. He has instructed the U.S. Department of Justice not to defend the Defense of Marriage Act. If he wins a second term, activists hope he might set his sights on the law that limits the reach of same-sex marriage.
Legislation isn’t the only thing at stake in this election. Although Obama has made some signature achievements, activists say it’s not the only thing he brings to the fight for equality.
“He brought a different mood about the LGBT community to the nation,” Washington said. “And we don’t want to go back into the closet.”
Although Romney has, at times, sounded almost moderate on the issue of LGBT equality, some of his most conservative supporters have not. A Republican administration might provide a political megaphone for the forces of discrimination.
“They are going to target us for extinction,” Washington said. “When I say ‘target us,’ I mean they will target our rights.”
Of course, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are not the only candidates on the ballot. The state government also plays a role in civil rights progress, and Nevada is no different. A flurry of recent legislation created domestic partnerships and protections for gay, lesbian and transgender citizens. The upcoming 2013 Legislature will probably be comparatively dull, but that doesn’t mean that LGBT voters should tune out. A coalition of groups, including Stonewall, the ACLU and the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada has created a legislative agenda. But the most exciting thing happening in Nevada right now may be the Lambda Legal lawsuit challenging the state’s ban on same-sex marriage.
If that lawsuit fails, Assemblyman Tick Segerblom has proposed a bill that would ultimately reamend the state constitution to legalize gay marriage. It would be a long haul, and the law wouldn’t be changed until 2017 at the earliest.
There are other, more immediate changes the coalition is advocating. Dane Claussen, executive director of the ACLU of Nevada, said the legislative agenda includes requiring school districts to teach comprehensive sex education. This issue, which they are taking up with Planned Parenthood, could have a positive impact on LGBT students. Right now, schools don’t have to teach sex education at all, and they don’t have to address any LGBT issues. The new curriculum would include information about gays, lesbians and transpeople.
“Ignorance plays a huge role in discrimination,” Claussen said. “If this is something that is discussed in public schools, then it becomes part of the landscape.”
The coalition also wants to change the anti-discrimination law in Nevada. Right now, the law doesn’t apply to any nonprofits. The coalition wants to change it so that only religious nonprofits are exempt from the law.
“We have hundreds and hundreds of nonprofits in Nevada, and the overwhelming majority are not religious,” Claussen said.
Claussen said they are seeking changes to the Nevada Revised Statutes that would remove derogatory language like “infamous crimes against nature” and “homosexual acts.” Those should be relatively easy changes to make, he said.
If that isn’t exciting enough for you, then consider this: Nevadans could elect four openly gay people to the Legislature. State Sen. David Parks and Democrat Patricia Spearman, who doesn’t face a major-party candidate in November, are already practically guaranteed spots in the upcoming session. Democrat James Healey is running for Assembly District 35, which leans a little left. And Andrew Martin, a Democrat, has the advantage in Assembly District 9. If all four are elected in November, it will increase LGBT representation in the Legislature fourfold. Few states have four openly gay state representatives, especially not states as small as Nevada. Spearman, who defeated conservative Democrat John Lee in state Senate District 1, said the new wave of openly gay legislators reflects positively on the state of Nevada.
“The fact that I am out, that didn’t make any difference to voters,” Spearman said. “That says something about the progress we’ve made in Nevada. It’s something we should be proud of.”