A State Senator’s Political and Personal Journey to Marriage Equality

This year’s landmark decision to repeal Nevada’s ban on gay marriage sent hundreds of same-sex couples marching down the aisle. Nobody was more thrilled to lead the way than Kelvin Atkinson.

Hours after same-sex marriage becomes legal in Nevada on Oct. 9, District Court Judge Nancy Allf marries state Senator Kelvin Atkinson (bow tie) and Sherwood Howard. They’re the state’s first gay couple to tie the knot.

Hours after same-sex marriage becomes legal in Nevada on Oct. 9, District Court Judge Nancy Allf marries state Senator Kelvin Atkinson (bow tie) and Sherwood Howard. They’re the state’s first gay couple to tie the knot.

Imagine the scales of justice. On one side: religious edict, social norm and legal precedent. On the other side: love. Even the most confirmed cynic knew how this battle was going to end. But the twists in Nevada’s roller-coaster ride to marriage equality were something nobody could have predicted.

The ride finally ended in October, when a legal ruling—many would argue a long-overdue legal ruling—opened the doors to same-sex marriage. Hundreds of couples, supported by loved ones of every sexual orientation, immediately and blissfully burst through those doors, while the Las Vegas tourism industry immediately and blissfully pounced on a new revenue stream. Amid the bouquets, boutonnieres and tears of joy, two things became clear: First, marriage equality, while enormously significant to the LGBT community, was never just a “gay issue.” Second, society at-large has finally accepted a fact that Nevada Senator Kelvin Atkinson has long known: “You don’t control your heart and who you fall in love with.”


Cliven Bundy. Medical Marijuana. A group of 12-year-old local Little Leaguers making Nevada history. Two Metro police offers tragically and senselessly murdered. There certainly was no shortage of candidates for our Story of the Year (see Page 26). But more than anything else, 2014 will be remembered as the year same-sex marriage became legal, not only in Nevada, but across much of the United States. It will also be remembered for the overwhelmingly positive reaction the landmark decision engendered.

“We in the community are amazed at how marriage equality has swept across the nation and exceeded our wildest imagination,” says Michael Dimengo, CEO of the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada.

Indeed, most Americans living in the 21st century have at least one friend, family member or colleague who is gay, which probably goes a long way toward explaining the huge cultural opinion shift on the issue of gay marriage. But getting the majority of the country to that point was a long, difficult struggle for those in the LGBT community.

For Atkinson, the journey has been both personal and political. After moving to Las Vegas in 1992, he worked for Clark County, where he developed “the itch for politics and serving people.” At the time, Atkinson was engaged to a woman, and they had a daughter together. But after what he says was a “personal struggle [about] who I was and who I was trying to be,” Atkinson called off the wedding. He came out to family and friends, but chose not to make a public announcement. “I didn’t feel the need to,” he says.

That changed in April 2013, when the Nevada Legislature was debating a repeal of the 2002 ban on same-sex marriage. As the discussion continued late into the night, it began to shift toward more personal experiences, as well as more general ideas about love and equality. “I think one of the biggest things was when Senator [Aaron] Ford stood up and talked about being in a different place with gay marriage than he used to be,” recalls Atkinson, a Democrat whose district mostly encompasses North Las Vegas. “He talked about African-Americans and Caucasians not being able to marry [each other] 25-30 years ago because of laws similar to this.”

Marriage equality had long been important to Atkinson, but Ford’s comparison to interracial marriage brought it home in a very personal way, because Atkinson’s stepmother is white. “My dad and stepmom were together for 25 years, and I remember my father going through that. … I thought, ‘I can’t sit here and allow this to continue without making a strong statement.’” With that, Atkinson stood up and spoke. “I exposed to everybody that I was a black, gay, proud male, and equality was something that should be available to everybody. I didn’t have a speech prepared or anything; I just spoke from the heart.”

That night, the measure to repeal the gay marriage ban passed the Senate, and Atkinson headed home, unaware that his revelation had resonated far beyond Carson City, and indeed far beyond the Silver State. “I woke up the next day, turned my phone on and the notifications wouldn’t stop from Facebook, Twitter, email, text messages—I’ve never seen anything like that,” he says. “I got messages from Africa, China, Chicago, Atlanta, everywhere.” Some messages were delivered in person. “I met with a lady who wanted just to tell me that because I came out, her son did,” he says, “and she’s so proud of him.”

Atkinson’s then-partner (now-husband), Sherwood Howard, wasn’t aware of the big announcement. “He’s a behind-the-scenes kind of guy,” Atkinson says. But Howard’s phone also lit up that morning. “He said, ‘What did Kelvin do now?!’” Atkinson laughs. “Then he realized … [and] was very, very happy.”

But there was still one opinion that mattered to Atkinson more than 10,000 “Likes.” “One of the first calls was from my daughter,” he says. “She saw it on Facebook before I could tell her. She said, ‘Dad, my gosh, what made you do that? I’m so proud of you!’ That was really all I needed to hear.”

The next month—May 2013—the Nevada Assembly voted in favor of repealing the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. At the beginning of this year, Governor Brian Sandoval and Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto announced they would withdraw their brief defending the ban. “It has become clear,” Sandoval said, “that this case is no longer defensible in court.”

Even though state leaders were ready to throw rice, the battle still had to play out before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, a California-based lobbying group, supported the ban, while Lambda Legal continued to plead for a repeal on behalf of eight Nevada couples. The 9th Circuit finally heard the case in September, at which point couples across the state prepared to spend the rest of the year flipping through Perfect Wedding magazines and watching Bridezillas while awaiting a ruling that surely wouldn’t come until 2015.

Then the U.S. Supreme Court provided an unexpected assist. On October 6, the high court announced it would let stand rulings allowing same-sex marriage in five states. Dimengo calls it a “peculiar action by inaction,” but it had a potent and immediate effect: The very next day, the 9th Circuit ruled against the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, making same-sex marriage legal in Nevada and Idaho. (Thanks to a somewhat complicated legal procedure, the states shared a ruling, as both cases were based on the same legal argument, and the court doesn’t waste its time stamping the same specious theory invalid twice.) “The court ruled much faster than we thought it would,” Atkinson says. “One of my colleagues texted me: ‘Did you see the 9th Circuit ruling on gay marriage in our state?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

Atkinson and Howard had been together for six years and had discussed marriage, but neither imagined it would be possible so soon. “I remember texting Woody [about the ruling], and he said, ‘What happens now?’ I said, ‘What do you mean, dummy? We get married!’”

On the evening of the 9th Circuit’s decision, people began to congregate at the Gay and Lesbian Community Center, where Dimengo was coincidentally wrapping up his first day as CEO. “It had a circus-like quality,” he recalls, laughing. “Everyone kept saying, ‘See what you’ve done on your first day! What will you do tomorrow?’”

As the sun dipped below the Spring Mountain Range, the crowd grew. Children played out front, senior citizens sat on benches and couples stood with their arms around each other, dazed smiles on their faces. “It was absolutely thrilling,” Dimengo says. “It was the whole gamut of emotions, from people jubilant to people in tears. One of them said it was like the first day out of jail. He and his partner had been together for close to 20 years. They never thought they would live to see the day they could marry.”

“All of these people have been fighting for this for years,” Atkinson recalls. “It made me happy and proud, and it was a great night.”

The Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel is one of dozens in the Valley courting same-sex couples.

The Viva Las Vegas Wedding Chapel is one of dozens in the Valley courting same-sex couples.

It was about to get better: Atkinson had proposed to Howard via phone earlier that day, but their secret got out. As Atkinson took the stage during the news conference at the Center, the crowd began chanting: “Do it now! Do it now!” So in front of a packed room, with cameras rolling and flashbulbs popping, Atkinson popped the question again, and was accepted again. “It went viral. It was like me coming out all over again, with everybody Facebooking and tweeting.”

Atkinson and Howard weren’t the only joyous couple. Collis Laton and her partner, Wanda Floyd—who is an interim pastor at a Las Vegas church and has performed more than a dozen commitment ceremonies for same-sex couples—are transplants from North Carolina, which legalized gay marriage almost simultaneously with Nevada. “I thought it would take a couple of years,” Laton says. “We were on the fence about whether to get married, but once both [states] recognized it, we started planning.”

Alas, there would be one more plot twist before the happy ending. While Nevada was ready to welcome same-sex couples to its hundred-plus wedding chapels, Idaho was not: It requested a stay of the 9th Circuit’s ruling, a request granted by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. Because of the nature of the ruling, the stay also applied to Nevada.

Couples who thought they would be exchanging rings and vows instead found themselves in limbo, standing outside the Clark County Marriage Bureau, noses pressed against the glass.

“It was a roller coaster of emotion, and I remember getting irritated and kind of dismayed,” Atkinson says. But he knew a lot of eyes were on him, and he had to keep his cool. “I even called and left a message for [Clark County District Attorney] Steve Wolfson.” At the exact same moment, Wolfson was leaving a message for Atkinson, informing him the stay had been lifted, and that Atkinson and Howard could proceed with their nuptials. “I still have [Wolfson’s] message on my phone,” Atkinson says, “I remember calling my fiancé and saying, ‘We’ve got it! Get down here, pack your shoes, get ready!’”

Some progressive groups wanted Atkinson and Howard to be the first at the altar, but Atkinson believed that honor belonged to another couple—namely the litigants who fought to overturn the same-sex-marriage ban. But those couples—perhaps because they hadn’t secured a caterer for the reception or lined up a top-level Elvis to officiate the ceremony—yielded to Atkinson and Howard. “They just wanted to be first to receive their licenses,” Atkinson says.

On October 9, Kelvin and Sherwood Atkinson became the first gay couple married in Nevada. Their loved ones were delighted, but those loved ones also had the same reaction most families do to quickie Vegas nuptials: What, no big wedding? “Our families weren’t necessarily happy,” Atkinson says, laughing. “But they understood the opportunity to be a part of history.” The couple has promised friends and family a full celebration in 2015.

Meanwhile, Wanda Floyd and Collis Laton have made plans to tie the knot on New Year’s Eve. “It’s a fabulous day to celebrate new beginnings,” Laton says. “Plus, it’s easy to remember!”


“Would I have done this 10 years ago?” Atkinson says. “I would not have done it, for one major reason: my daughter. She was in the school system then; now she’s in college. If I made a big public [announcement], there’s no doubt kids [can be] cruel, and someone would’ve said something, and that would break my heart.”

Today, though, kids are growing up in a world where attitudes toward homosexuality are quickly evolving, and much like in the wake of the civil rights movement, tolerance is increasing with each passing day. “It was less of an issue for us than for our parents,” Laton says. “And it’s less of an issue for my daughter’s generation than it was for mine. … There’s not the isolation. People are not as fearful of coming out as they were in our generation.”

Few would question that sentiment. Still, Dimengo is quick to point out that, while the war has been won, there are still battles to be fought.

“There’s been a sea change of attitudes in our society, and we in the community are grateful,” he says. “[But] you can be a same-sex couple who gets married on Friday, celebrates over the weekend, then announces it to co-workers on Monday and be ostracized.”

Nevertheless, Dimengo acknowledges making that announcement is necessary, invoking the words of the late gay-rights activist Harvey Milk. “He said it so well: ‘We do society no good if we remain invisible.’ We need to be out and proud.”

Today, Atkinson is settling into married life, as well as a new political role: national vice chairman of the Council of State Governments (he’s slated to take over as chairman in 2017). “It’s an organization that has never been led by an African-American or an openly gay person, and I’m very proud of that,” he says. He has been involved in energy, transportation, employment and children’s issues, but acknowledges that marriage equality will always be close to his heart. “It’s why I got behind the cause: I had friends who have been together 18 years who couldn’t marry, who never thought they’d be able to— it brings me so much joy.”

Soon, there will no longer be gay weddings or straight weddings, but just … weddings between two people in love. Says Dimengo: “We invite people to know us as someone just like them, who just happens to love someone of the same sex.”