LAS VEGAS – Nevada state Sen. Kelvin Atkinson says he didn’t plan to come out of the closet as a gay man before the entire state Senate, and the nation, this week. It just worked out that way.
The 44-year-old Democrat, who represents North Las Vegas, was sitting through a late-night debate on a measure he helped sponsor to repeal the gay marriage ban from the state constitution.
That’s when he heard statements that both angered and moved him emotionally, he told the Los Angeles Times in an interview.
"I didn’t expect to do it," he said of his public announcement late Monday. "I wasn’t even going to speak. It was an impulse."
First, Atkinson grew angry as he listened to one Mormon senator decry same-sex unions as cheapening the sanctity of marriage.
Then Justin Jones, another Mormon, took the floor. But Jones did not echo the previous Mormon speaker. Instead, he said he would vote for the measure out of respect for his brother-in-law – who is gay – even if it meant losing the next election. That way, Jones said, his voice breaking, he could face his relative with a clear conscience.
And Atkinson thought: OK, that’s it. Now or never.
"I remember looking down at my clothes as I stood to speak and my heart was literally moving my suit jacket, that’s how scared I was," he said.
But he told himself he could not remain silent.
"I said, 'I’ve got to do this. I’ve thought about this for so long.' I thought about all my friends who have been in same-sex relationships for decades. I thought about them and the conversations we’ve had, and my own relationship. I knew if I was going to do it, I had to come out strong."
He got to his feet just after 11 p.m., the last speaker of the night. As he opened his mouth, his passion and pain came tumbling out.
"I’m black. I’m gay," he began in a shaky voice. "I know this is the first time many of you have heard me say that I am a black, gay male."
Atkinson argued that gay marriage did not threaten any legal or moral definition of the union.
"If this hurts your marriage," he said, "then your marriage was in trouble in the first place."
Atkinson told The Times afterward that he didn’t know whether the measure was going to pass. "We have only an 11-to-10 Democratic majority in the Senate and two in our party are very strong Mormons, so I was not sure about this, not in the least."
But after he spoke, the Senate voted 12 to 9 to begin the process of repealing the gay marriage ban from the state constitution, a move to legalize unions between gays and lesbians. All 11 Democrats and one Republican voted yes.
The measure still must pass the General Assembly, be approved by the Legislature again next year, and be approved by voters in 2016.
By the next morning, Atkinson’s surprise announcement had gone viral. He arrived at his office Tuesday to find interview requests from major media nationwide. Both his Twitter and Facebook accounts had hundreds of new followers and friend requests.
"The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive," Atkinson said. "I can’t believe how many people reached out to me, through social media and on my own website."
The celebrity comes unnaturally to Atkinson, a native of Chicago who moved to Los Angeles at age 10. He attended junior high school and high school in Culver City, then went to Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he began doing community service.
During the second semester of his junior year, he learned that his father, an attorney, had been slain by an ex-client. He returned to Los Angeles to be with his family, according to his website. Later, he followed his grandparents to Las Vegas and graduated from UNLV with a political science degree.
In 1996, Atkinson was engaged to be married. His fiancee gave birth to a daughter, Haley, but Atkinson began to have doubts about his sexual orientation and called off the wedding, he said.
He's been in a same-sex relationship for five years, he said. Before Monday night, only a handful of his 20 Senate colleagues had any inkling about his sexual orientation.
Atkinson said his partner was already asleep when he made his public announcement so he didn’t hear about it until the next morning, when social media sites exploded with congratulatory messages.
But Atkinson’s favorite reaction came from his daughter, now 17.
"I was never out, and even though she lives with me and my partner, we really never talked about it," he said. "She called me the next morning and said she was proud of me.
"That really floored me."