Out of the shadows: LGBTQ lawmakers reflect on past struggles, future goals
In late March, Assemblywoman Sarah Peters (D-Reno) stood up in the Assembly chambers to make history — coming out as openly pansexual, one of just three such state legislators in the country.
“Being celebrated for my queerness is weird,” she wrote on Twitter after the floor session. “Being bisexual and pansexual comes with so much guilt and questioning. Am I queer enough? Am I gay enough? What if I end up heteronormative, am I straight? Y'all, we are all enough and worth celebrating!”
But Nevada, as with many other states, has a long history of not celebrating but persecuting individuals who identify as LGBTQ. Almost 160 years ago, state lawmakers enacted anti-sodomy laws that were used to terrify, blackmail and persecute members of the LGBTQ community — laws that weren’t repealed until 1993.
But the path toward full recognition and equality for LGBTQ populations hasn’t always moved in one consistent direction. Six years before voters approved the same-sex marriage ban, the first openly gay member of the Legislature — David Parks — was elected, kicking off a two-decade legislative career that contributed to the state being named one of the best for LGBTQ rights by the time he left office in 2019.
Peters’ ability to share her sexual orientation on the floor of the Legislature without immediate political or social repercussions is not an overnight shift, but rather a product of decades of advocacy and legislation, LGBTQ advocates and lawmakers say.
Figures such as Parks, former Sen. Lori Lipman Brown, an ally who helped overturn Nevada’s anti-sodomy laws, and Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas), the first openly lesbian woman to serve in legislative office, are among those who pushed for equal treatment under the law regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.
Parks, an introvert by nature, never expected to run for office, but after much “arm-twisting” from members of the state party and after he considered the difference he could make as a legislator, he tossed his hat into the ring in 1996 to run for Assembly.
As an active member of groups addressing HIV/AIDS issues, Parks knew that hiding his sexuality on the campaign trail was not an option.
“There was no way that I could deny that I was gay,” he said. “I don't know if it's the fact that being gay, that I’ve used my life experiences in a way that I'm able to connect with voters from a wide variety of backgrounds, but I seemed to have had a really good connection in that respect.”
Throughout his campaigns, Parks described facing vitriolic, anti-homophobic sentiment from opponents, but he was able to maintain his seat and pass landmark legislation — often signed by Republican governors — that provided funding for HIV and AIDS programs, banned gay conversion therapy programs, established trans-inclusive health benefits, addressed “gay panic” defenses and implemented anti-bullying laws.
“I went through some pretty hard knocks,” Parks said. “[A USA Today headline] said ‘Nevada Ranks the Best State in America for LGBTQ People.’ And that's, I think, a major accomplishment that 25 years ago, I would not have thought that.”
Parks termed out of office after the 2019 session, but his legacy is still felt in the Legislature. Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) said he not only blazed trails for the LGBTQ community, but also brought forward legislation that benefited everyone.
“Growing up, I used to think, if I'm ever going to run, I probably need to move to San Francisco in the most liberal district,” Harris said. “I've got tattoos on my arms and just thought, it's probably not going to happen anywhere else.”
Harris said she did not think it was possible for her to run for public office until she was first appointed in 2018.
While she was in high school, Harris remembers pulling “protect marriage” signs advocating for banning gay marriage in the state Constitution from yards. Nearly two decades later, she watched voters undo the ban from her seat in the Nevada Senate — an office she ran for with a picture of her and her wife and their child on a campaign mailer.
Spearman vividly remembers the inception of the federal policy of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” which condemned discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community but also prohibited military service members from being openly queer.
An Army veteran, Spearman said that discussions around repealing the policy ultimately led her to come out to her community and the church where she was serving as pastor.
“It angered me when I heard some politicians in Washington saying, ‘we don't want them in the military because it would destroy morale and the good order,’” Spearman said. “We've been there. We're in graveyards. We're in Arlington National Cemetery.”
Seven members of her congregation left, Spearman said, but she did not want to hide who she was.
“I'm always conscious of the fact that I am intersectional. I'm Black, I'm a woman and I'm a same gender-loving woman,” Spearman said. “I have to look at it through all of those lenses because that's who I am ... and if you have a problem with it, then one of us probably needs to leave and I'm taking a seat right here.”
Watching Spearman run for office made running as an out bisexual woman much easier, said Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas). She wondered aloud in an interview with The Nevada Independent about past lawmakers and historical figures who had to mask their identity.
“I look back at all the pictures on the walls of all of the former legislators ... and I don't think we'll ever know how many gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans, nonbinary, asexual, otherwise, not cis-gender heterosexual legislators there have been in Nevada,” Scheible said.
Others, including Harris, said that having that representation matters and helps young people to grow into adulthood without having to hide their sexual orientation.
“If there is one kid who was like, ‘Oh, that person's like me. I could do that’ and it inspires them to be their best selves, if that happens, then I have done more than enough,” Harris said. “There is serious power in being here, in walking the halls, in speaking up, and that's just as important, if not more than, the small pieces of the Legislature.”
When Parks was first elected to office, he estimated that there were roughly 50 openly gay individuals serving in public office across the nation, most of them located in coastal areas and major metropolitan cities. Now there are five openly LGBTQ lawmakers serving in the Legislature and 979 openly LGBTQ elected officials in the U.S. which account for 0.19 percent of all elected officials. A little more than 28,000 LGBTQ people would need to be elected to achieve equitable representation in the U.S.
And LGBTQ lawmakers past and present say there’s still a lot of work to be done.
For Scheible, having an openly transgender legislator would indicate increased social progress. Harris said she would like to see more non-LGBTQ members of the Legislature pass LGBTQ-focused laws.
“I think we're all better off when we have everyone thinking about everybody,” Harris said.
Though Scheible, Harris and Spearman are driving much of the legislation surrounding the LGBTQ community, the lawmakers said their focus extends beyond that community.
As a bisexual, white woman, Scheible can mask her identity and does not have to be vocal about LGBTQ or other issues, Spearman said. However, Spearman said Scheible’s outspokenness and willingness to raise awareness is what all lawmakers should strive for, regardless of background.
“It's important for other people, who have access to privilege that I will never have, to understand what courage looks like,” Spearman said.
Below is an overview of bills introduced this session with implications for Nevada’s LGBTQ community.
Equal Rights Amendment set for the ballot box
Nevada voters will have a chance to codify the Equal Rights Amendment in the state Constitution on the 2022 ballot, after lawmakers approved SJR8 this session. The measure would formally guarantee equal rights, regardless of race, color, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, disability, ancestry or national origin, and copies language from the still-unapproved federal Equal Rights Amendment.
Democratic lawmakers and a handful of Republicans supporting the amendment hailed it as a landmark change that would codify protections for all Nevadans.
"Despite passing laws that have incrementally eroded pieces of inequality, barriers still exist, laid bare for the world to see in the midst of a global pandemic," Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) said.
Republican Sens. Ira Hansen (R-Sparks), Carrie Buck (R-Henderson) and Pete Goicoechea (R-Eureka) voted against the proposed constitutional amendment, which was approved on an 18-3 vote in the Senate.
Hansen said that he voted no out of fear that the law would remove protections given to minorities, and the inclusion of gender identity and expression in the bill would allow biological males to compete in women’s sports.
"I don't want to see this body give up the rights for all of my female children, grandchildren, nieces, and nephews, or any other women in the state of Nevada," Hansen said.
Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson) voted in favor of the bill.
"I do understand the concerns of my constituents, that the language will be misinterpreted and misused to promote changes in social order that is incompatible with their personal beliefs," Pickard said. "But while I may share those concerns, I still believe that we should be supporting equality under the law."
Adoption bill passed by committee would allow multiple parents to adopt a child
Assemblywoman Rochelle Nguyen (D-Las Vegas) introduced AB115, which would allow multiple parents to adopt a child without removing another parent from the birth certificate.
The bill would recognize the parental rights of stepparents and same-sex parents and would allow for children who are born to surrogate parents or who have divorced parents to have more than two names listed on a birth certificate.
Cathy Sakimura, deputy director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the bill is vital for children's well-being and would ensure diverse and multi-parent families are "protected and given the same dignity and respect as other families."
Members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the bill on March 12. The bill awaits a vote in the Assembly.
Addressing HIV stigma
To destigmatize human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), a bill sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) would update Nevada law to treat the virus in the same way as other communicable diseases.
The bill, SB275, would repeal a Nevada statute that makes it a felony for someone who has tested positive for HIV to intentionally, knowingly or willfully engage in conduct intended or likely to transmit the disease.
Repealing that statute would mean a person who has contracted HIV and engaged in such behavior would instead receive a warning for a first offense. For a second offense, the individual would be guilty of a misdemeanor — a punishment in line with the treatment of other communicable diseases, such as chlamydia and SARS.
"The priority for me is equality," Harris said during a hearing on the bill. "The goal is to remove the statutory stigma that was intentionally placed into our laws all the way across the country that's done nothing but harm to those who have contracted HIV."
Other changes within the bill would remove discriminatory language.
"These laws were written back in the '80s and '90s," said André Wade, chair of the state's Advisory Task Force on HIV Exposure Modernization. "Whenever there's a specific call out of HIV, instead of including it as a communicable disease … then that, in and of itself, is stigmatizing."
The bill was heard on April 1, and as of Friday had not been scheduled for a committee vote.
Sponsored by Assemblywoman Venicia Considine (D-Las Vegas), AB214 would replace language related to sexual assault crimes with gender-neutral language. The bill would remove references to “he or she” and “himself or herself,” replacing those pronouns with “the person’s,” “the child,” and “the perpetrator.”
The bill was heard on March 12, and passed out of the Assembly Judiciary Committee on March 24.
Study on services for veterans
AB172, introduced by Assemblywoman Michelle Gorelow (D-Las Vegas), would require the Nevada Veterans Services Commission to conduct a study on the effectiveness of its services for LGBTQ people, women or people of color.
The study would analyze services provided to veterans and military members, and spouses and dependents who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning, persons of color and women.
The bill hasn’t been scheduled for a hearing, but was given a notice of exemption from legislative deadlines in early March. State lawmakers usually limit the number of interim studies, and wait until the end of the session to approve which studies will go forward.
Strengthening protections against discrimination and harassment
SB51, which comes on behalf of the state's human resources department, would require the state to ensure that its employees do not engage in sex or gender-based harassment. The bill was heard on March 11 but hasn’t yet been voted out of committee.
The bill prohibits state employees from engaging in such behavior against anyone in the workplace, including a job applicant. It also creates the Sex-or Gender-Based Harassment and Discrimination Investigation Unit within the division and requires an investigator to prepare a written report of findings.
The state is already practicing a majority of SB51's proposals, but passing the bill would protect and solidify the investigation unit's role, said Peter Long, an administrator for the Division of Human Resource Management.
In a similar vein, SB109, sponsored by Sen. Pat Spearman (D-Las Vegas), aims to protect LGBTQ individuals by ensuring that their personal information related to sexual orientation or gender identity remains confidential. Proponents say the bill would help address the many disparities LGBTQ persons already experience in health and welfare, including high rates of poverty, suicide, homelessness and violence.
Under the bill, which was heard on March 26 and is scheduled for a committee vote on Monday, individuals would not have to provide a government agency with any information about sexual orientation or gender identity or be denied services or assistance from a governmental agency for failure to provide that information.
A bill on the table would seek to codify a defendant's right to be judged by a jury of peers.
The bill, SB223, sponsored by Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas), would stipulate that the opportunity for jury service cannot be denied or limited based on race, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, age or physical disability of a person.
"These protections are not a new idea," Harris said during the bill's presentation on March 23. "They just need to be codified to be preserved."
Language in the bill would not affect the process of creating a jury by dismissing people. Instead, it would ensure that the attorneys on the case are not removing people from the already-selected jury based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, age, physical disability, race or religion, Harris said.
"Such discriminatory treatment undermines the justice system and could hurt crime victims by preventing a fair trial by jury of their peers as well," Harris said.
Harris added that although the Supreme Court has ruled that excluding a juror based on race or gender is unconstitutional, neither the Supreme Court nor federal law explicitly prohibits discrimination in jury service based on other characteristics, such as sexual orientation.
SB258, sponsored by Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas), would require the Nevada Department of Corrections (NDOC) to adopt new standards for transgender and non-binary inmates, including adding cultural competency training for correctional staff. The bill was heard on March 29, and was voted out of committee on April 1.
Under the bill, the director of prisons would have to adopt regulations outlining standards in each institution and facility of the department for the supervision, custody, care, security, housing and medical and mental health treatment of transgender, gender non-conforming, gender non-binary and intersex inmates.
Standards would also include the use of respectful language and currently accepted terminology that accounts for and protects the rights of those inmates.
Debora Striplin, coordinator of the Prison Rape Elimination Act at NDOC, said during a hearing that there are about 50 inmates who have self-identified as transgender.
Some committee members worried that broad standards surrounding the fluidity of gender could lead to inmates lying about their gender identity.
"My concern is that we're just perpetuating the same problem if we don't give them clear guidance ... What standards are we going to make the NDOC follow if it's not biological science?" said Sen. Keith Pickard (R-Henderson).
Another bill introduced by Assemblywoman Sarah Peters, AB280, would require all single-occupancy public restrooms to be gender-neutral. Transgender rights activists praised the bill as a necessary step to make people who are nonbinary or transgender feel safer.
Bill would prohibit insurers from denying treatment for gender dysphoria
Sen. Melanie Scheible (D-Las Vegas) presented a bill on March 12 that would require insurance companies, including Medicaid, to provide for the treatment of gender dysphoria.
Scheible said SB139 would ensure “trans people are treated equitably and with dignity” and address instances of insurance companies denying medically necessary surgeries.
“When insurers fail to cover medically necessary care, people suffer anxiety, depression, social ostracism, and a higher risk of suicide,” transgender rights advocate Brooke Maylath said during the bill presentation. “SB139 is designed to send a clear message to the greater healthcare community – discrimination is not acceptable in Nevada.”
Those seeking gender reassignment surgery already require separate letters from a psychiatrist or psychologist and a medical doctor. The letters have to attest that the patient has performed certain levels of therapy and medical interventions before qualifying for the surgery.
In 2015, the Nevada Division of Insurance issued bulletin 15-002 prohibiting the denial, exclusion or limitation of medically necessary health care services based on gender identity or expression. For example, a plan covering a medically essential mastectomy for a cisgender woman must also cover a medically necessary mastectomy for a transgender man.
“Despite these laws and policies, transgender persons still experienced denials of coverage,” Maylath said. “Those denials are most heavily felt amongst our Back and brown sisters and brothers. These exceptional marginalizations cause multiple barriers to health and opportunity.”
Treatment, including hormone replacement therapy and surgeries, is considered medically necessary because, without them, the mental health of people who have gender dysphoria would suffer.
“The policy is fairly rigorous to ensure that an individual has been diagnosed with gender dysphoria disorder and has sought several levels of treatment prior to having the surgery paid for and authorized by Medicaid,” said DuAne Young, deputy administrator for the Division of Healthcare Financing and Policy.
The bill was amended and passed out of committee on April 2.
Giving LGBTQ owned businesses additional support
Sen. Dallas Harris (D-Las Vegas) has introduced a bill that would broaden the definition of the term “disadvantaged business” in existing law to include Nevada's LGBTQ community, allowing those businesses access the same type of assistance and loan programs afforded to other minority-owned businesses.
The bill, SB237, was heard on March 23 and would apply to businesses owned by an individual who identifies as LGBTQ or have at least 51 percent of its ownership held by one or more individuals who identify as LGBTQ.
“As we work through Nevada's economic recovery, we're going to need to make sure that all of Nevada's small businesses have the resources they need,” Nevada Treasurer Zach Conine said during the hearing. “By elevating the voices of our LGBTQ business community, we can work collaboratively to create a state that is more inclusive and prosperous for all Nevadans.”
Committee members raised the question of whether business owners would require "proof" they are part of the LGBTQ community and worried about potential fraud.
Tim Haughinberry, president of the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Nevada, said the law already requires businesses to be certified to participate in the assistance and loan programs.
“I hear this question a lot, and the truth is, no one is out there masquerading as a disadvantaged person in order to gain some perceived advantage,” Harris said. “This is actually not an issue in practice and generally these types of arguments are only used to suggest that LGBTQ businesses, or even LGBTQ persons, don't need any additional protections.”