Protecting marriage

Question 2 is needed to keep our schools safe from rabid, infectious homosexuality, say proponents

Photo By David Robert

At one moment during her older daughter’s recent wedding festivities in Truckee, Holly Wilson turned to her younger daughter and said, “I wish we could do this for you.”

Wilson’s younger daughter, who’s lived in Incline Village with her gay partner for five years, has opted not to have a commitment ceremony. She and her partner are not inclined to be outspoken about their relationship. Wilson thinks that’s due to their lifestyle.

“They both have their jobs, their perks,” she says. “It’s not a situation where one is dependent on the other. … But there are gay couples with stay-at-home dads or moms who don’t get the privileges [of a legally recognized marriage or civil union].”

While Wilson’s older married daughter will be able to take advantage of joint insurance, filing joint tax returns with her husband, family visitation rights if hospitalization should occur and shared property rights, her younger daughter’s lesbian relationship will remain unrecognized by the state of Nevada.

Yes, it’s time once again to discuss same-gender marriage in Nevada—or, more specifically, the initiative on this November’s general-election ballot, Question 2, which seeks to add language to the Nevada Constitution defining marriage as something that can be legal and “given effect” only between a man and a woman. About 70 percent of voters approved the question in 2000, but the citizens’ initiative has to be approved one more time before it can be sent to the Nevada Legislature.

No matter that state law already defines marriage as a guy-gal thing. The move is an offensive play in Nevada’s version of the nationwide battle over who gets to define the social norm.

Richard Ziser, leader of the group backing the initiative, the Coalition for the Protection of Marriage, says he started the group in 1999 in response to what he perceived as threats that same-sex marriage advocates would introduce legislation to redefine marriage in the 2001 Nevada Legislature.

“We thought we’d better move forward, before these guys get too far along, and stop them from what they’re trying to do,” Ziser says. “We didn’t want to give them a chance. We felt it was important, instead of being on the defensive, to move on the offensive side and start protecting Nevada law.”

Why bother

“I was born into an evangelical fringe church,” Ziser told Stacy Willis of the Las Vegas Sun in 2000, before the marriage protection initiative was approved for the first time in that year’s election. Ziser moved to Las Vegas in the early 1990s and ran a casino-chip minting business that he sold a few years later. In 1998, Ziser ran for Clark County School Board against a gay candidate who beat him in the primary.

In 1999, Ziser was part of a group called Nevada Concerned Citizens, which lobbied against a bill that prevented employers from discriminating based on sexual orientation. (That means he lobbied for the rights of employers to maintain discriminatory hiring practices.) While campaigning for voters to approve Question 2 in 2000, Ziser was president and chairman of elders at Canyon Ridge Christian Church, a nondenominational megachurch in northwest Las Vegas.

Now, the 49-year-old Ziser tells the RN&R he’s living off the proceeds of “investments and real estate stuff around town.” That’s freed up his time to fight the battle to protect marriage.

Ziser’s been married for 28 years and has three kids. His youngest just graduated from high school and will start at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in a couple of weeks. He defends his definition of marriage as something that can happen only between a man and a woman as both a “natural” thing and a publicly supported philosophy.

“It’s a matter of someone [wanting to] redefine something that’s existed as long as we know and changing marriage into something that it was never intended to be,” he says. “The sacred institution of marriage needs to remain what it is.”

But who gets to define marriage?

“The definition of marriage has been set in stone for an awfully long time,” Ziser says.

How did it get set in stone?

“How about by nature?” Ziser answers. “Natural law just demands it. It’s a natural union.”

Coming out

Before Holly Wilson, founder of the local charter chapter of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, stopped by the RN&R office, she’d been thinking about a Bible verse she’d read earlier in the day. James 5:9 was the “Quote of the Day” in her Science of Mind magazine. She recites it to me.

“Complain not one against another, my brethren,” she reads, “lest you be condemned. For behold, judgment is at hand.”

The verse was part of an article in which a writer talks about petitions. “This gal decided that, while many are worthwhile, she’s decided not to be against anything, but to stand for something,” Wilson explains.

Wilson’s been involved with PFLAG for 17 years. She joined up in Denver not long after she had a talk with her younger daughter about the girl’s sexual orientation.

“I’d been suspicious for a long time,” Wilson says. “I brought her out actually. I said to her one night, ‘You’re gay, aren’t you?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ I went nuts for 24 hours. I had known, but I was in denial. Then I faced it. I looked at her, and I knew she hadn’t changed. I had.”

Wilson, who’d lived in the Lake Tahoe area for 22 years while she was married, came back to the Reno area in 1989, where she started the PFLAG chapter. “It’s a lifesaver, a tremendously supportive group,” she says.

Wilson attends a Reno church call the Circle’s Edge Spiritual Center, a church that welcomes folks from the gay and lesbian community. Wilson has attended commitment ceremonies for same-gender couples there.

Bob Fulkerson, Shelly Brewster-Meredith and Ben Felix sit on the activists’ couch at A Rainbow Place.

Photo By David Robert

“They’re very beautiful, much like a wedding, only you have to change some of the wording,” Wilson says.

To say that Question 2’s goal—making doubly sure that the traditional heterosexual definition of marriage stands up in court—annoys Wilson is an understatement.

“It makes my hair curl to think of all the rights and privileges that the gay and lesbian community cannot have because somebody says it’s not right. Who’s to say that it’s not right? Who do they think they are, anyway?”

Though it’s possible for gay couples to draw up legal papers to give partners legal, medical and property rights, sometimes legal or medical professionals ignore these contracts. It’s possible, for example, that Wilson’s lesbian daughter could be admitted to the hospital and that her daughter’s partner could be kept at arm’s length.

“Even though she’s a member of our family, they’d say she’s not a member of the family, and she would not be able to see [my daughter] if she were in critical condition,” Wilson says.

It’s unfair and divisive, in Wilson’s view. “I am very disturbed, very sick and tired of religious conservatives trying to run everyone’s life on their beliefs,” she says.

Just a pushy prude?

The problem isn’t as much about same-sex marriages as it is about protecting our kids, Ziser says.

“Nobody is really all that concerned with how people live their lives, but they certainly don’t want it taught in our public schools that [homosexuality] is a healthy and viable choice,” Ziser says. “There’s a purpose and a reason why we have marriage laws—to protect families, protect children.”

Here’s Ziser’s logic:

If Nevada doesn’t pass this redundant initiative to reiterate the definition of marriage, then Nevada law could be open to challenges from gay couples who’ve had marriages recognized in other states.

If gay couples won these challenges in court, then Nevada would recognize the legal status of a civil union or marriage performed in another state between gay men or women.

If Nevada recognized any gay relationship as a legal partnership equivalent to marriage, then public school teachers would teach that gay partnerships are equivalent to marriage. After that, it would be only a matter of time before kindergarten teachers were reading Heather Has Two Mommies to impressionable 5-year-olds.

Ziser points to the fact that 35 states have pushed through similar marriage protection deals, and the marriage protection faction in at least one state, Georgia, is glad they did. Vermont enacted a civil-union law in 2000, and a lesbian couple who obtained a civil union in Vermont moved to Georgia, then pursued visitation rights with one of the women’s children. (The woman had agreed, during her divorce, that the children could not have overnight stays while she was co-habitating with a person to whom she was not married.) Georgia, having handily passed the Georgia Defense of Marriage Act, didn’t have to recognize the woman’s marriage or give her the right to overnight visits with her kids, according to a Georgia Court of Appeals decision that was recently upheld by the Georgia Supreme Court.

“Our opponents say Question 2 is unnecessary,” Ziser says. “It looks like Georgia’s Defense of Marriage Act saved the day in Georgia.”

Now in Vermont, Ziser says, educators are busy teaching that the civil unions of gay couples deserve the same kind of legal status as right and proper marriage between a man and a woman.

“The problem is that we don’t want that situation taught in our schools,” Ziser says. “By completely redefining marriage, we change the way our culture is.”

Change is good

A little cultural change is the order of the day, however, for Holly Wilson. Things are changing for gays and lesbians in Nevada, she says. This weekend’s Gay Pride event is an example. When Wilson started PFLAG here, a pride parade wouldn’t have even been considered. Now it doesn’t seem such a big deal.

“There are so many more ‘out’ gays and lesbians than there used to be,” she says. “The community on the whole is out of the closet. … They’re not making a big issue out of it, except for the parade.”

When people ask her why the gay community wants to hold a parade, she counters with easy logic.

“Why do the masons or anybody else have a parade?” she asks. “To honor their communities.”

Though 70 percent of Nevadans approved Question 2 in 2000, the issue seems to have less support in recent polls. A Las Vegas Review-Journal poll in July showed support for the initiative was at about 55 percent.

The gay community isn’t sitting idly by, either. An organization called Equal Rights Nevada ( is building an army to fend off the marriage defenders, with the help of Nevada’s Democratic Party and even Nevadans for Responsible Law Enforcement, the group working to decriminalize marijuana use in Nevada.

“People are optimistic, regardless of the vote in 2000,” Burk Morrison, campaign manager for Equal Rights Nevada, told Ed Perez of the Las Vegas Mercury. “People are excited about fighting this proposed amendment, and that is more telling about this grassroots effort forming to protect Nevada’s families than anything else.”

As for Wilson, she’s confident that gays and others interested in equality and human rights will continue to work for the right to have a legally recognized domestic partnerships for gays.

“I think it’s coming," she says.