Fifteen years ago, a campaign to ban same-sex marriage in Nevada revealed the ugliness that results when fundamentalist faith, money and politics converge
Editor’s note: This is an edited excerpt from Out of the Neon Closet: Queer Community in the Silver State, by Dennis McBride (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform).
ON FEBRUARY 1, state Assemblyman Nelson Araujo introduced Assembly Joint Resolution 2. It would amend the state constitution to recognize same-sex marriages and allow same-sex marriages to take place in Nevada.
But didn’t the U.S. Supreme Court declare the right to same-sex marriage the law of the land in its landmark Obergefell v. Hodges ruling in June 2015? It did — but only for now. The state bill begins the three-year process to amend the Nevada constitution just in case the U.S. Supreme Court decides to overturn Obergefell — which would turn decisions on same-sex marriage back to the states. Araujo and other sponsors of the resolution, mindful that civil liberties and human rights are not guaranteed during the Trump administration, want to be sure that if worse comes to worst, Nevada will continue to be among the most progressive states in welcoming and respecting its queer citizens and visitors. The resolution is a kind of insurance.
The resolution also represents a reckoning with the social and political damage caused by Question 2, the homophobic legislation that amended Nevada’s constitution in 2002 to forbid same-sex marriage. That three-year process from 2000 to 2002 was perhaps the cruelest, most divisive — and needless — episode in the state’s political history. The saga was a wake-up call to a passionate but sometimes disorganized LGBTQ community — while revealing the ugliness that results when fundamentalist faith, money and politics converge.
The backlash begins
It’s important to remember that the original movement to ban gay marriage in Nevada was reactionary. Through the ’90s, the LGBTQ community was active and organized. Nevada’s sodomy law was repealed in 1993, and a conservative effort to amend the state constitution in 1994 with the homophobic Minority Status and Child Protection Act was successfully turned back.
The community emboldened, efforts to actually legalize same-sex marriage in Nevada weren’t far behind. They began in 1995 with the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund’s Marriage Resolution. In 1996, the Equal Right to Marry Project and the Nevada Freedom to Marry Coalition launched in Las Vegas, both putting on symposiums, workshops, discussions and fundraisers. The Coalition celebrated National Freedom to Marry Day on February 12, 1998, with a mass ceremony on the steps of the Foley Federal Building. Las Vegas Mayor Jan Laverty Jones issued a proclamation declaring the date National Freedom to Marry Day in Las Vegas. And in 1999, Governor Kenny Guinn signed AB 311, Nevada’s employment non-discrimination bill (known as ENDA), protecting gay Nevadans in the workplace.
However, Las Vegas Bugle columnist Anne Mulford had warned that the local gay community might face a “formidable” backlash when same-sex marriage became a hot-button issue in the state for the broader public.
A series of national events foreshadowed that backlash. In September 1996, Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which not only defined marriage on the federal level as between a man and woman only, but restricted all federal rights and benefits of marriage. DOMA allowed states not to recognize legal same-gender marriages from other states — and urged individual states to pass their own versions of the federal law. All four of Nevada’s federal legislators supported the federal law: Republican Representatives Barbara Vucanovich and John Ensign, and Democratic Senators Harry Reid and Richard Bryan.
It took Nevada’s social and religious conservatives three years to mount their own state-based DOMA effort. Within two months of Nevada’s nondiscrimination law taking effect in October 1999, work was under way to establish a Nevada version of the same-sex marriage ban. On December 15, 1999, the Mormon newspaper Beehive was the first to report that the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage in Nevada intended to file an initiative petition, eventually known as Question 2. It would amend the state constitution to prohibit Nevada from establishing same-sex marriage (a ban already in state statutes) or from recognizing same-sex marriages that were legal in other states. “It’s a massive grass-roots effort,” Coalition director Richard Ziser said. “It’s amazing how it’s all coming together.”
It was not at all amazing considering the help of the Mormon Church, which had bankrolled similar campaigns in Hawaii and Alaska, both of which passed gay marriage bans in 1998. At a 1998 church General Conference, Mormon President Gordon Hinckley said, “We cannot stand idly by if (gay people) try to uphold and defend and live in a so-called same-sex marriage situation.” The Beehive article described how Martin K. Jensen, a high-ranking LDS church official in Salt Lake City, telephoned Clark County District Court administrator Anna Peterson to set up the campaign structure in Nevada with church resources, focused on registering church members to vote and getting them to sign the petition to get the question on the ballot. “Ultimately,” the Beehive piece said, “Nevada coalition members hope that their campaign will have a salutatory effect on conservative causes up and down the ballot.”
At the same time Mormons were building the coalition in Nevada, a sister organization in California was funding Proposition 22, a ballot measure forbidding recognition in that state of same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. Mormon involvement in Prop 22 was direct and open. The California measure easily passed in March 2000, but the Mormon Church took a public beating over its involvement. Gay and straight Mormons repudiated the church and demanded their names be removed from church rolls. At least two gay Mormon men killed themselves in response to 22’s successful passage after making public statements about their church’s involvement in the legislation.
Mindful of the public relations disaster suicide can be, the Mormon Church determined to avoid in Nevada the negative press it had endured in California, Hawaii and Alaska. The altruistic picture the Beehive painted of the genesis of the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage in Nevada was belied by Ken Ward in his book, Saints in Babylon: Mormons and Las Vegas. Ward, a Mormon convert whose Las Vegas Review-Journal columns kept the anti-gay pot stirred throughout the Coalition’s campaign in Nevada, wrote that because, “(Anna) Peterson and the brethren didn’t want the Church to become a lightning rod on the issue,” they chose non-Mormon Richard Ziser to be director, a “conservative Christian minister” who was chairman of the right-wing group Nevada Concerned Citizens. (Ziser was also president and chairman of elders at the Canyon Ridge Christian Church in northwest Las Vegas, which sponsored a “gay recovery” program called HALO — Homosexual and Lesbian Outreach.) Ziser’s public statements made the campaign sound harmless, even wholesome: “We’re not attacking anyone. We’re just trying to protect marriage”; “It will get people out to vote”; “This will not take anything away”; “Traditional marriages are the basic building block of society;” and, “Society has the right to protect its interests.”
Anger and bafflement
The gay community’s response to news of the campaign ranged from anger to bafflement. Many in the community didn’t care about marriage, believing it was a conservative construct they had no interest in. Richard Schlegel, who later worked in the campaign against Question 2, was initially unimpressed by the concept of same-sex marriage, “because at that point in my life I just felt like it wasn’t an option. We weren’t allowed to get married and that’s just the way that it would be.”
And how to fight Ziser and the Coalition became contentious. Eddie Anderson, a Northern Nevada veteran of several liberal political campaigns, suggested the gay community not “come out of the chute defensive, weak-kneed, and playing the victim. You play victim, it’s a sign of weakness.” Anderson advised building coalitions with Republican legislators such as Bill Raggio, Mark James and Dean Rhoads and sending speakers into the straight community to make their case. Las Vegas Bugle publisher Rob Schlegel agreed, suggesting the gay community engage Ziser and the Coalition “to do what is honorable and that would be to help pass a state law, similar to Vermont’s, which would grant same-sex and unmarried opposite-sex couples basic legal rights that would be equal to marriage — without calling it marriage.”
Blindsided, however, Nevada’s gay community drifted through that winter with no coherent response to the challenge. To fight the initiative, in spring 2000, PLAN founded the Coalition for Unity. The organization, however, couldn’t pull itself together enough to accomplish much. Bob Fulkerson says that after its string of victories in the 1990s, the Nevada gay community “didn’t develop any (activist) infrastructure. There was nothing approaching a voter list, nothing approaching a list of supporters. No fundraising lists. No new leaders had risen up. No communication between north and south. People basically went back to their barstools and that was about it.”
Support from politicians and public figures who had been LGBTQ allies in other battles was missing this time. Bob Fulkerson remembers Question 2 “was polling out the roof. People were afraid their political careers would end if they (didn’t get) on board.” Las Vegas mayor Oscar Goodman, for example — who had eagerly sought the gay community’s vote in 1999 when he ran for office, had spoken at Gay Pride and who’d been grand marshal of the Pride parade — said that while he disapproved of Ziser’s petition, he also disapproved of same-sex marriage because of his religion. When he was asked to take a public stand against Question 2, Goodman refused.
And while the Coalition for Unity found support from several religious organizations such as the Unitarian Universalists, the Metropolitan Community Church, Methodists, Lutherans, and synagogues in Reno and Las Vegas, the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage’s lock on religious support in Nevada was impressive. After meeting with Ziser and other coalition officials in January 2000, Southern Nevada Catholic Bishop Daniel Walsh sent a letter to all his parish priests, advising them to urge parishioners to support the “true definition of marriage and the sanctity of marriage.”
But it was the Mormon Church that fueled the Question 2 campaign. The most effective way the church accomplished this was through direct solicitation, on church letterhead, of its members. One such letter from the Reno Stake Presidency read, “Prayerfully consider supporting this cause in one or more of the following ways: Campaign Worker/Volunteer, Yard Sign, Walk Neighborhoods, Contribution ...” The church also told its members to pick up yard signs as they left services, signs stockpiled outside the church or in nearby parking lots.
And the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage had the money. Throughout the three-year Question 2 campaign, Ziser’s coalition collected $2,132,889. For the period ending October 25, Unity had collected a mere $35,077 — and spent nearly all of it. While the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage was getting national support, however, Unity’s appeals to the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the Human Rights Campaign, and the L.A. Gay and Lesbian Community Center were not answered. “They pretty much wrote Nevada off as a lost cause,” Fulkerson remembers. “We were on our own.”
In late June 2000, Liz Moore, a bisexual political activist from Spokane, Washington, took over as Southern Nevada coordinator for PLAN and served also as director for the fight against Question 2. Moore proposed that the organization change its name from the Coalition for Unity to Equal Rights Nevada, which kicked off its public campaign with a news conference on September 11, 2000, at Christ Episcopal Church.
But, as though taunting the gay community on its own doorstep, Richard Ziser attended the kickoff event. He recorded the meeting, tapped his foot in time to the choir — and then dominated media coverage in the courtyard afterward.
On November 7, 2000, Question 2 passed by 69.5 percent of the vote. Two days later, Richard Ziser announced he was going to turn his attention to opposing other gay-equality issues, which put the lie to the Coalition’s claim that it was only interested in protecting marriage.
Licking wounds, pointing fingers
In the gay press and local tabloids, writers and commentators analyzed, vented and pointed fingers. Many blamed the gay community itself for the passage of Question 2, for its lackadaisical attitude, its complacence and its disinterest in politics and voting.
But it was also a time for sober realization of what a formidable foe Ziser’s Coalition was. An examination of its disclosure forms revealed a who’s-who of prominent Nevada Mormon politicians and businessmen. Among the donors: high-profile lawyer George Vern Albright; Ashley Hall, a former Las Vegas City manager; and dentist Mac Barney. Jay Bybee, the notorious judge whose memos justified torture of prisoners during the George W. Bush administration — and cofounder of UNLV’s Boyd School of Law — was a donor. Ed Smith, owner of the venerable M. J. Christensen jewelry firm, donated $27,000. Bob Broadbent, former Clark County Commissioner, former aviation director at McCarran Airport and the motivating individual behind the Las Vegas monorail, donated $4,050 in-kind and cash. Among the Mormon-owned businesses whose principals and their relatives donated significant sums were such firms as Piercy, Bowler, Taylor & Kern accountants; Brady Industries; and Frehner Trucking Service, Inc., which donated $13,000. (Piercy, Bowler, Taylor & Kern later lost its contract with Nevada’s largest AIDS charity, Golden Rainbow, for donating to Question 2.)
Saddest of all, however, were contributors and supporters of Question 2 who had gay people in their families. Former Nevada U.S. Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, who sat on the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage’s sponsoring committee, has a lesbian granddaughter raising two children with her partner in Carson City, a gay brother, and a gay former grandson-in-law who is father to two of Vucanovich’s great grandchildren. Boulder City physician, city councilman, and state Assemblyman Joe Hardy and his wife, Jill, gave $1,000 to the CPM and staked a “Yes on 2” sign in their front yard. The couple has two gay sons.
Meanwhile, Equal Rights Nevada rebooted with a new executive director, Richard Schlegel. ERN issued rules for public debate (e.g., saying “gay and lesbian families,” not “gay and lesbian community;” referring to “same-gender couples,” not “same-sex couples”). Equal Rights Nevada also tried to reframe the issue by depicting committed same-sex couples in its messaging, which was surprisingly difficult. Bob Fulkerson remembers it took months to find willing couples. “They were afraid. They didn’t wanna be targeted.”
To get any message across, however, Equal Rights Nevada needed money, but its fundraising efforts mostly failed. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and the Human Rights Campaign eventually donated a token sum. “I think they had written Nevada off (and) moved on to other states,” Richard Schlegel says. Bob Fulkerson called every casino CEO in Northern Nevada for money to fight Question 2, and the only one who responded was Harvey Whittemore. Nevertheless, Equal Rights Nevada kept a brave face with house parties, bar events, auctions, dinners, donation mailers, and membership drives.
In June 2002, Equal Rights Nevada was blindsided by the most egregious piece of political theater to come out of the Coalition’s campaign — the Marriage Protection Pledge. Ahead of the September 3 primary election, Ziser’s Coalition sent a letter to candidates asking them to sign an enclosed Marriage Protection Pledge and promise to “uphold the spirit of Question 2 and oppose any government recognition or endorsement of marriage imitations, including ‘domestic partnerships,’ ‘civil unions,’ ‘reciprocal beneficiary relationships,’ or any similar arrangement that substitutes for the sacred bond of marriage between a man and a woman.”
In a July solicitation letter, the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage released the list of candidates who signed the pledge. Among these were state controller candidate Kathy Augustine, married four times, and who had a lesbian daughter named Dallas; all the Hansen family members — founders of Nevada’s Independent American Party — who ran for anything; and most of the Mormon candidates for office. African-American Las Vegas city councilwoman and fundamentalist Christian Lynette Boggs McDonald, then running for Congress against Shelley Berkley, signed the pledge. (Despite having a gay sister, Boggs McDonald believed gay people should be forbidden from adopting children or marrying.)
Most disappointing among signers of the pledge was Democratic Clark County Commissioner Erin Kenny, running for lieutenant governor against Republican incumbent Lorraine Hunt (who did not sign the pledge). As an assemblywoman, Kenny had voted in 1993 to repeal Nevada’s sodomy law, and had been a great supporter of the gay community. It had been Kenny who first proposed domestic partner benefits for county employees in 2001, and who often attended fundraisers and events in the gay community.
During the waning days of the Question 2 campaign, conflict erupted in the gay community over the hopelessness of the fight, and whether admitting that hopelessness was defeatism or just being smart about picking your battles. There were fights over how best to spend Equal Rights Nevada’s limited funds, arguments over who got to make public appearances, even what the post-Question 2 goals of Equal Rights Nevada should be.
On November 5, 2002, Question 2 passed — this time with only 67 percent of cast votes — and the Nevada state constitution was amended. On the morning after the election, thousands of Nevadans awoke to find themselves demoted to second-class citizens, denied equal rights under the law.
Bob Fulkerson remembers he was relieved when the Question 2 campaign was over. “It was a sense of relief knowing that the Far Right had had their day in the sun,” he says, “and that they would never be able to use gay marriage as a thing to bludgeon us over the heads again or to bring their voters out. I was totally disappointed in Nevadans and Nevada. … I think it set our political agenda back 10 years easily.”
The 2002 general election saw a Republican sweep of every constitutional office in Nevada for the first time since 1890, while most of those running for office who supported Question 2 won their seats. At least there seemed to be some karmic fallout, however, for Question 2 supporters: County Commissioners Erin Kenny and Dario Herrera went down in the epic G-Sting bribery scandal; Controller Kathy Augustine was impeached; and Clark County Recorder Fran Deane was booted from office for malfeasance. State Senator Sandra Tiffany faced ethics complaints and lost her seat in 2006, while Lynette Boggs McDonald lost reelection in November 2006.
And Ziser’s attempt to turn an anti-gay campaign into political capital failed. In 2004, he ran a dismal campaign for the Senate against Harry Reid, losing by 25 points. But he hasn’t let go. As late as 2005, Ziser was still inveighing against domestic partnership benefits for unmarried couples that were proposed for the state’s university system.
Have we grown more tolerant and compassionate in the meantime? Perhaps Nevadans never were as bigoted as the Question 2 campaign suggested. One of the greatest lies to come out of the campaign was that 70 percent of Nevada voters amended the state constitution. In fact, it was not 70 percent of Nevada voters, but 70 percent of Nevadans who voted. Calculating those figures gives a very different picture. In 2000, there were 874,304 registered voters in Nevada, but only 613,360 of them voted. Of that number, 414,018 voted for Question 2, and that was only 47 percent of Nevada’s electorate. The figure was even lower in 2002. That year, there were 869,859 registered voters in Nevada, but only 512,433 of them voted. Of that number, 356,141 voted for Question 2, which was only 41 percent of eligible Nevada voters.
In both cases, it was a minority of eligible Nevada voters, not a majority, who added bigotry to the state constitution. It’s impossible to know how those thousands who stayed away from the polls might have voted on Question 2, but the fact remains that in both years, fewer than half of those who could have voted supported Question 2 — and that’s far from the monolithic support Ziser and the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage claimed.