Just a couple of days before one of the most important votes in the gay history of Nevada, David Parks stood, as he usually seems to, in the background. As a member of the board of Aid for AIDS of Nevada, he was invited onstage before the kickoff of the annual mid-April AIDS Walk fundraiser. Parks joined his brethren but stood behind the speakers and said nothing.
Nor, for that matter, did anyone say a thing about him or the critical moment for the community. Nobody mentioned that on that Tuesday, the Nevada Senate would vote 12-9 to pass a law creating domestic-partnership rights for same-sex couples. Nobody mentioned that a bill was already before the Assembly to bar hotels and restaurants from discriminating against people based on their sexual orientation. And certainly, nobody from AFAN thought to point a spotlight on the only openly gay elected official in the history of the Silver State, the man without whom none of that or myriad other bits of gay progress—not to mention millions in funding for various HIV/AIDS causes over the years—would have been possible.
As strange as that seems, it did not surprise me. I polled gays at that same AIDS Walk and earlier this month at the city’s gay and lesbian pride festival. Of about 25 people I collared, only three had even heard of David Parks.
Fact is, David Parks does not light up a room when he enters. At the many parties and events where I’ve seen him, he is usually a pleasant but little-noticed presence off to the side hanging quietly with a small group of friends or by himself, swilling a drink to keep himself occupied.
“He’s not really a flamboyant human being, but it adds to it that he is who he is and the way he is,” said Denise Duarte, who helped organize the Equality Days event in April, when gay and lesbian activists lobbied the Legislature in Carson City on their issues.
Funny, that. This is Nevada, home of some of the most flamboyant human beings ever to live, both gay and straight. Yet somehow, our Harvey Milk is this nondescript 65-year-old policy wonk who favors white polos and jeans and who didn’t even want to seek elective office in the first place. Parks’ first brush with politics, in fact, was when the Las Vegas City Council fired him as its budget director in 1984 because he was openly gay. The local newspapers helped slime him, too, making a big deal out of the fact that one of his friends had died and left him in charge of the now-gone gay bathhouse Camp David. These were the earliest days of AIDS hysteria, so a right-wing Mormon city manager could hold a lot of sway in the quest to drive so-called perverts out of their jobs.
Parks moved on. He went to work shortly thereafter in the Clark County Manager’s office before, in 1990, becoming chief financial officer and chief operating officer for the Regional Transportation Commission, gigs that had him in Carson City during legislative sessions dealing with relevant policy issues.
In and among his discussions with legislators about roads, bridges and bus services, he taught them a thing or two about gay people. And in 1993, it was partly his lobbying efforts that convinced the Legislature to decriminalize private gay sex between consenting adults.
Still, he had no interest in political office until then-Assemblyman Larry Spitler decided to quit in 1996, and Spitler and state Sen. Dina Titus insisted Parks give it a go.
And so history was made. He won the race in a heavily Democratic district and won four more times, always handily. In 1999, he pushed through a law barring employment discrimination against gays, and in 2003 he got a bill through unanimously that gave adults the right to assign anyone they wished to visit them in hospitals or handle their funerary decisions, small things that made gay life in a state that had just constitutionally barred same-sex marriage a little bit better.
“He’s definitely a revolutionary,” said Kelly McFarlane Smith, publisher of Q Vegas. “Dave is a quiet leader, but he’s definitely a leader ... It’s working, the way Dave is leading us.”
Not only did Parks ascend to the state Senate this year to replace Titus, but he was also one of the few Democrats to be routinely praised for his competence and fiscally conservative ideas by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
Parks admitted it’s lonely up there in Carson City, having to carry the gay community’s water single-handedly, but he’s done so with a particular energy this session with the two significant bills. Equality Days was helpful, he said, but so, too, has been the wave of victories for marriage-equality advocates, with gay marriage now legal in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and Iowa.
His approach earns praise even from those who disagree. Democratic State Sen. John Lee, who voted against the domestic-partnership bill and will be heavily courted to change his vote if divorcing Text-Messager-in-Chief Jim Gibbons vetoes it in the name of “protecting marriage,” had only admiration for Parks.
“He doesn’t really go out of his way to shove anything down your throat,” Lee said. “He throws the issue out there and says, ‘I would like you to consider it.’ He’s not forceful. … If David Parks’ personality were more caustic, he’d probably have a lot harder time on these issues. But he’s a calm man, a very good man.”
“I’m a nuts-and-bolts-type person,” Parks said. “I look at numbers, and I formulate policy. I’m not somebody who gets out in front and makes irrational statements.”
Perhaps in a state known for bombast, Parks’ approach is the best way to foster social change. Maybe the quietest voices in a cacophony have the best chance of cutting through the clutter.