Lawmaker's 'impulse decision' to come out
April 24th, 2013
03:31 PM ET
1 year ago

Lawmaker's 'impulse decision' to come out

(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, D-North Las Vegas, 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," Atkinson, 44, 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 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.


Filed under: Nevada • Same-sex marriage
soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Ant

    Jbawld1, the problem isn't that gay people just want to call attention to themselves. They are coming out to show those who would marginalize them that gays are everywhere, and deserve the same right to legally and equally protect their families that straight people have. It SHOULDN'T matter if a person is gay or not, but the anti-gay marriage crowd keeps using my sexuality against me.

    April 24, 2013 06:56 pm at 6:56 pm |
  2. Peter Q Wolfe

    I really am not surprised cause this is an emotionally charged issue especially for someone who will be impacted in such a dramatic way as this legislation will provide. The people who care are businesses, family, friends and coworkers of these individuals cause it impacts the community as a whole. Far too much bullying and other negativves has come to pass on these people for us not to do something about it. Finally, I'm coming out not cause of anybody else just that living a lie creates more problems than it seeks to resolve in the darkness.

    April 24, 2013 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  3. Sam Adams

    What about the status and respect that marriage has now?
    How many people would say they respect the marriage of Kim Kardashian that lasted only about 70 days before the talk began of ending the marriage?
    What were the motives of that actress in marrying?

    Perhaps having gay couples marrying will increase the respect we have for marriage, as a very large group of people are seeking the legal benefits of marriage.

    Why marriage and not something else?
    Among legal contracts, only the marriage contract can make one person the next of kin to another person with a simple oath and very little in the way of fine print.

    April 24, 2013 07:11 pm at 7:11 pm |
  4. delos

    I am pretty sure half of the so called conservitave right is Gay, This is the reason they are so afraid of gay union or marrage. Most of them are in marrages of convience for apperances sake. if this thing go's national as predicted there be leaving the female spouces and searching for there real love Big PAPA. JUST WATCH

    April 24, 2013 08:35 pm at 8:35 pm |
  5. Surfer George

    Congratulations on being proud of who you are and for being a model for those who have felt afraid.
    Being "different" isn't being bad or sinful or evil.
    As WE become more enlightened you become more acceptable – OK, you were always an acceptable human we, as a society are finally evolving enough to appreciate that fact.

    April 24, 2013 08:56 pm at 8:56 pm |
  6. ThinkAgain

    As long as he represents his state well and is a good father to his daughter, neighbor and friend, who the heck cares?

    NEXT!

    April 24, 2013 11:07 pm at 11:07 pm |
  7. ThinkAgain

    @Roger: "Do you SEE the ulterior motive? This "lawmaker" crept into the legeslature by deceit so that he could force is wicked perversion on the nation. It's a form of subversion and should be punished severely."

    I surely hope this was sarcastic ... otherwise, get back on your meds, Rog!

    April 24, 2013 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm |
  8. ThinkAgain

    OK, Sniffit, just read your response to "who cares"? I should have said "I don't care". I agree with your concern about all the religious nutjobs in our country who are trying to impose a theocracy and it drives me insane.

    All the more reason for folks to get out and vote, locally AND nationally, to push back to keep them from getting more of a foothold – and hopefully, send them all packing.

    April 24, 2013 11:25 pm at 11:25 pm |
  9. liz OH

    I too agree with Aurora Chuck. I have been saying so for years. And really no one cares who is gay anymore. The only people making a deal about it is the gays any liberals.

    April 24, 2013 11:47 pm at 11:47 pm |
  10. Name

    I must admit he's got guts!

    April 25, 2013 01:25 am at 1:25 am |
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