NEVADA ASSEMBLYMAN KELVIN ATKINSON, D-NORTH LAS VEGAS
(AP Photo/Cathleen Allison,File)
by Ashley Killough
(CNN) — When Nevada state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson entered a floor debate Monday over a legislative effort to repeal the state’s same-sex marriage ban, he had no idea he’d be waking up the next morning with his name in national headlines.
That’s because Atkinson, 44, publicly announced he was gay. The decision, he said, was just as much of a surprise to him as it was to others.
“It was an impulse decision,” he said Wednesday in a phone interview with CNN, adding he wasn’t planning on saying anything in the session. “I felt it was time to do it.”
By a wide margin, Nevada voters, through a referendum, approved an amendment to their state constitution in 2002 that defined marriage as between a man and a woman. It’s one of 29 states with a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
Since 2009, however, the state has recognized same-sex unions or domestic partnerships. The legislature approved the recognition over the veto of then-Gov. Jim Gibbons, a Republican.
Now the state legislature is trying to turn back the tide in an effort that would require the measure to pass twice through the legislative body and once through voters.
While listening to his Senate colleagues debate the bill on Monday, Atkinson, D-North Las Vegas, said he was moved by some of the floor speeches. Two other Senate Democrats are also gay, he said, but they weren’t the ones who motivated him. Instead, he pointed to Sen. Justin Jones, a Democrat and a Mormon who has a gay brother-in-law. Jones argued he could very well lose re-election if he votes for the bill, but it was a chance he was willing to take.
“That floored me,” Atkinson said. As the session continued late into the night, he felt a growing conviction to speak up. “I felt at that time, why am I sitting here not saying anything, when other folks are putting their necks out on the line?”
Without any notes or thoughts on what he was going to say, Atkinson just said what came to mind.
“I have a daughter. I’m Black. I’m gay,” he said on the floor, his voice a bit shaky as he held the microphone. “I know (for) some of you, it’s the first time you’re hearing me say that, that I am a Black, gay male.”
Addressing those who argue that same-sex marriage infringes on traditional unions, Atkinson said: “If this hurts your marriage, then your marriage was in trouble in the first place.”
Reflecting on his spontaneous statement Wednesday, Atkinson said he was “very nervous” and his heart was pounding at the time. After he made his comments, he said he was surprised at what he just did and “at that point I started anticipating what was about to happen.” He expected an onslaught of harsh emails and hateful messages. He considered whether he should block his Facebook.
Not long before midnight, the Senate passed the bill in a 12-9 vote, with one Republican voting with Democrats.
Atkinson said the next morning, he woke up “inundated” with messages on Facebook and Twitter, many of which were from people on the East Coast, three time zones ahead.
While it was the first time he publicly came out, Atkinson said his close friends and family have known for years that he was gay. Atkinson said he was engaged 17 years ago, but felt he was only living a life that he “thought everyone wanted (him) to.”
“I knew I wasn’t going to be happy,” he said. It was then that he told his family.
Atkinson was elected to the state Assembly in 2002 and to the state senate in 2012. When the legislature isn’t in session, he works as a management analyst in human resources for Clark County. Asked why he chose not to come out publicly before, he said “it just wasn’t anything I ever thought about.”
“My family knew, my closest friends knew. Up until this week, that was all that mattered to me…I was comfortable with my life,” he said. Many of his colleagues in the state legislature and some local reporters knew as well, he said, but he never “validated it.”
While the measure passed the state Senate, it still has a long road ahead. It now heads to the state Assembly, and if it passes, it goes back to both state bodies for another vote. The next stop after that would be voters, but not until 2016.
As his story gained more attention this week, Atkinson said he “almost felt bad about it,” worried that the spotlight would get cast on him, rather than the bill they were trying to pass.
“I told my colleagues I hope it didn’t distract from what we are trying to accomplish,” he said. “But it’s also good, it put a face to it in the state.”
Does any part of him regret making the announcement?
“Not at all,” he said.