Nevada inches forward on gay rights

For more about gay rights in Nevada, check out the ACLU’s website at

Each October, a month-long observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history is observed. Nevadans have a fine opportunity to study up on local gay rights legislation of the past, present and future. Northern Nevada gay-rights activists say our state has come a long way in the battle against discrimination, but we have a long way to go.

The first crucial step in the history of the gay rights movement in Nevada was the decriminalization of sodomy in 1993. This took place 10 years before the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated all sodomy laws nationwide in a ruling on the Lawrence v. Texas case, in which two men were arrested for having consensual sex in one of their apartments after a sheriff’s deputy walked through the unlocked door with his weapon drawn.

Prior to this ruling, Nevada, as well as many other states in the nation, outlawed sexual acts that were considered “crimes against nature.” This included any sex between two men or any sex between a man and a woman that was not intended to lead to reproduction.

While the repeal of the sodomy laws was the first major landmark in Nevada gay rights legislation, several other laws followed in subsequent years. In 1999, a law was passed preventing discrimination based on sexual orientation. In 2001, Nevada hate crime laws were amended to include sexual orientation as a category. This March, however, the Legislature failed to pass SB 180, which would have included gender identity and expression in the Nevada hate crimes law. On the other hand, in May, Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a law prohibiting job, housing and public-accommodation discrimination against transgender people. The law went into effect on Oct. 1.

It seems as though Nevada gay rights legislation has a “two steps forward, one step back” problem. Sometimes, I think about the more than 100 students who turned up at the University of Nevada, Reno’s first Queer Student Union meeting of the semester and think we’re making tremendous progress. Other times, I am reminded of the people I know who think “I don’t want a gay guy to watch me change!” is a justifiable reason to exclude homosexuals from joining fraternities, and I worry that progress is coming too slowly.

Same-sex marriage was banned in the Nevada state constitution in 2002. But, in 2009, the Nevada state assembly overrode Gov. Jim Gibbons’ veto of a domestic partnership bill. The law allowing domestic partnerships between same-sex couples went into effect in October 2009.

Local attorney Kim Surratt lobbied for the passage of the domestic partnership bill at the Nevada Legislature. She is also a member of the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the National LGBT Bar Association and other active gay rights law groups. Surratt and her firm help families dealing with issues from estate planning and adoption to custody disputes and assisted reproduction. She also fields questions about domestic partnerships and the rights that gay citizens really have in the state of Nevada.

“It used to be, my clients would come to me, and I didn’t have a whole lot of advice for them other than ‘You don’t have any rights, and Nevada law is not any good for you,’” she said. “Now, I actually have a lot more I can tell my clients, and I can be a lot more productive now. It’s a lot easier to sleep knowing that you have something that you can tell your clients that’s positive.”

Although gay rights legislation in Nevada seems lacking, Surratt said she and other activists have hope for the future. After all, she has been surprised before.

“It’s changed in a very short period of time,” she said. “When the voters voted for our constitution to change to marriage only between a man and a woman, the hope to ever have anything like a domestic partnership bill felt impossible at that time. We didn’t think we could do it, and we passed it. Anybody who’s in this field starts to feel the frustration. It feels like maybe nothing will ever change, but it does. It really has changed. It’s getting there.”