Lawmaker's 'impulse decision' to come out
April 24th, 2013
03:31 PM ET
5 years 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. Jeff Brown in jersey

    Kudos to this man for having the courage to come out; unlike the "family values" Republican homosexuals who hate themselves and make life miserable for other people!

    April 24, 2013 03:42 pm at 3:42 pm |
  2. The Real Tom Paine

    That took courage....too bad we don't see that kind of courage more often from elected officials.

    April 24, 2013 03:44 pm at 3:44 pm |
  3. Jbawld1

    Who cares, if someone is gay, just live your life and be gay. This unbelievable desire to have attention by claiming to be gay is stupid. No one cares if a person is straight, gay, bi or whatever classification could be made up, just go live your life and be good to others.

    April 24, 2013 03:52 pm at 3:52 pm |
  4. Romney is Still NOT My Hero

    Democrat+Black Man+Gay+has a Daughter. Some heads just exploded over that one! The closet doors are flying open all over the place. Now, if only Closeted Rubio and some other people on the so-called "Right" would start coming out...

    April 24, 2013 03:53 pm at 3:53 pm |
  5. Al-NY,NY

    Expect him to face some vindictive "moral" opponent in the next election. Good for him to show everyone who he really is and not have to hide or deny himself. Let's hear the righteous indignation from the thumpers......

    April 24, 2013 04:09 pm at 4:09 pm |
  6. jc vance

    The breakthrough comes when gay celebrities, athletes and other notables "coming out" isn't news anymore.

    April 24, 2013 04:21 pm at 4:21 pm |
  7. Shocked really?

    Look at him, really was anyone that shocked?

    April 24, 2013 04:22 pm at 4:22 pm |
  8. Doug

    Jbawld1: A lot of people care. Bigoted, closed-minded, religious conservatives seem to care a great deal. People who have been frightened into the closet care. They need inspirational role models to show them that it's okay to come out. I hope we ultimately get to the point where it just doesn't matter. The attitudes of young people today are a hopeful sign that time is near. Until then, the only real way to fight homophobia is for every gay person to come out; proudly and loudly.

    April 24, 2013 04:23 pm at 4:23 pm |
  9. Grumpster

    NV....legalizes prostitution and gambling but bans gay marriage...just figures the red state is in it for the money....not social justice.

    April 24, 2013 04:38 pm at 4:38 pm |
  10. nintex

    @Jbawld1 – just live your life and be gay, huh? Why do you think so many millions of gays HAVEN'T come out? Gays aren't trying to get attention by being gay – some just aren't willing to face the negativity and downright nastiness from certain segments of society. If that weren't the case, the closets would be empty.

    April 24, 2013 04:39 pm at 4:39 pm |
  11. Muhammad

    Bismillah! You homosexual want to think the majority of the people are like you. –We are not

    April 24, 2013 04:40 pm at 4:40 pm |
  12. davidwilliambarker

    Jbawld1, who cares? A lot of people in the bad way. People are still beaten or killed just because some evil bigot just thinks they're gay.

    April 24, 2013 04:43 pm at 4:43 pm |
  13. Sniffit

    "Who cares"

    Really? REALLY? While we're watching conservative bigot legislatures around the country try to make it illegal for their state to recognize the private spousal contracts of gay couples, you ask "who cares"? While DOMA and gay marriage are before the SCOTUS, you ask "who cares"? While conservative activists and kriscuhn nashun religio-fascists around the country are demanding that their bigotry be institutionalized in our laws or that they be allowed to determine the civil rights of other citizens that they don't like by vote or referendum, you ask "who cares"? While 30M+/- gay Americans of all ages have to live lives of societally-accepted ridicule and ostracization that leads to bullying, beatings, workplace discrimination, depression, higher than average suicide rates, etc., you ask "who cares"? Ridiculous.

    April 24, 2013 04:46 pm at 4:46 pm |
  14. Aurora Chuck

    History will rate Bush as a better president then Obama!

    April 24, 2013 04:53 pm at 4:53 pm |
  15. socalpimp

    Who cares? slow news day?

    April 24, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  16. micheal renken

    i so agree to that Aurora Chuck. thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    April 24, 2013 05:00 pm at 5:00 pm |
  17. 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.

    April 24, 2013 05:03 pm at 5:03 pm |
  18. yo!

    I can't trust a lawmaker that makes impulse decisions.

    April 24, 2013 05:05 pm at 5:05 pm |
  19. BO

    Another gay politician. YAWN....

    April 24, 2013 05:15 pm at 5:15 pm |
  20. craig

    I'm glad you came out, simply because it shouldn't make any difference to anyone. You've done the right thing, and there's never any shame in that. I hope you understand that many more of us support you, regardless of your orientation, than those who expose their bigotry by claiming you are somehow less than what they expect. The problem is theirs...and you don't need to make it yours.

    April 24, 2013 05:27 pm at 5:27 pm |
  21. Binga Linga

    His look in the photo says it all.

    April 24, 2013 05:52 pm at 5:52 pm |
  22. Malco

    to honor his coming out, the nevada senate broke into a rendition of his favorite show tunes!

    April 24, 2013 06:07 pm at 6:07 pm |
  23. Peaceful One

    One would think that prying into the personal life's of others would be considered a lack of respect and privacy. Should we really be the one to judge someone for their personal choices that have no negative effects on others. That's the beauty of being an "American"......the freedom to make personal choices. With that being said, why do we judge people when they rreveal to the world that they are gay? It's a personal choice that makes them happy, and who are we to say otherwise. Find another interesting topic, and stop judging others.

    April 24, 2013 06:14 pm at 6:14 pm |
  24. Peter Q Wolfe

    When somebody says "who cares" just shows that they just want no progress in normal society at all. This coming out was right for the legislative bill especiallhy with the emotional aspect of the bill that appeals to people like us! So, the people who care are also foreigners who could create businesses just because their homes of origin supress human dignity not unlike the changing tide in U.S Today. Finally, BBush was a joke like banning federal money for Stem Cells was stupid and fascist of him to do that is just my take on little Bush.

    April 24, 2013 06:37 pm at 6:37 pm |
  25. rgraz

    @Jbawld1 – See, the thing is, most people that are gay would rather it not be something that gets attention when it becomes known that they are gay. It should garner just as much attention as if someone said, "I'm married to a person with black hair."
    Instead you have people saying silly stuff like "wicked perversion" Religion- the meanest trick ever played on mankind.

    April 24, 2013 06:38 pm at 6:38 pm |
1 2