Despite 12 years of service, gay state senator David Parks still faces many hurdles in Nevada

State Sen. David Parks
Photo: Jacob Kepler

Satan, execution, public schools, marriage, protests: This is the stuff of the gay-rights battle as it is manifested around the world right now. California's Prop 8 marriage ban is being debated in U.S. District Court — Sen. John McCain's wife and daughter joined the NOH8 campaign this week, supporting gay marriage, making some gay Obama supporters wonder if they'd picked the wrong candidate. Halfway around the world, Uganda is considering executing homosexuals; in Moscow this week, the mayor called the gay pride parade "satanic."

But here in Nevada — progressive, human-rights oriented Nevada? — more than 1,400 same-sex couples have taken advantage of the partnership law that became effective last October, which helps gay couples achieve some of the legal benefits of marriage. The measure was sponsored by the state's first openly gay lawmaker, State Sen. David Parks, D-Las Vegas, an even-keeled, buttoned-up legislator who's now changing his focus to the Clark County Commission. He'll run for Rory Reid's seat in District G.

When Parks was asked to run for his first elective position in 1996, an assembly seat, he'd served four years in the U.S. Air Force, closeted, at Nellis, finished his MBA at UNLV and worked in government finance and computing. He had no interest in politics. His neighbor Dina Titus — now Congresswoman Titus — and the UNLV area district's then-retiring assemblyman Larry Spitler sought him out.

He told them, "As you're well aware, I tote a little excess baggage." Titus laughed and said, "Is that what you call it?" The group discussed the possibility of him denying his sexual orientation, but to Parks, it was not an option. "No. Absolutely not." So he decided to run openly.

Shortly into the campaign, Parks' opponent Tony Dane sent out a mailer attacking Parks: an article about a 10-year-old boy who raped two other boys, wrapped around an endorsement of Parks by a local gay newsmagazine. Dane lost to Parks, but in subsequent elections, Dane campaigned against Parks even though he wasn't running against him — including one year when Dane found a traveling salesman named David Parks and added him to the ballot to try to confuse voters, unsuccessfully.

Will Dane, who now runs an auto-dialer business used in campaigns around the nation, work against Parks in the commission race? "I haven't decided yet," Dane says. "It all depends on the stances he takes." That is, Dane says he doesn't oppose the man — "I am not homophobic" — but opposes pro-gay legislation. "When I ran against him, he was endorsing the gay and lesbian agenda 100 percent," which, if left unchallenged, Dane says, would eventually boil down to teaching in public schools that being gay "is a natural lifestyle."

Parks, 66, has been called a harvest of slurs, had doors slammed in his face and had foul messages left on his answering machine. One such caller left an anti-gay diatribe on Parks' voice mail but forgot to block his telephone number, so Parks called him back.

"I said, 'This is David Parks, and I'm just responding to your call.' And the man became very agitated and said, 'How'd you get my number!?' and I explained that it's on caller ID. And he said, 'Well, at least you know how I feel then,' and he hung up."

Another time Parks was campaigning door-to-door when a man ran him off, saying, "I know what you are, and I'd never vote for your type!" The next day, Parks was knocking on doors across the street, when the man who'd chased him off waved him back over, and said he'd changed his mind because he'd found out Parks had a good rating from the National Rifle Association.

Several times in the last decade, anti-gay legislation has been used to drive conservatives to the polls in Nevada by activist Richard Ziser and backed by various religious organizations and a majority share of the public, including a successful 2002 constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. That came after Parks' 2001 bill that would've provided "reciprocal benefits" for domestic partners failed. Ziser opposed a similar bill in 2007, again noting the fear that that it would trickle down to public schools teaching that homosexual relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships.

Sitting in a coffee shop near UNLV in a suit and tie and eyeglasses, Parks cuts a tremendously average impression. He's pleasant. Open, well-spoken. He waves politely at someone he knows across the room. He cites regulation of "radio frequency ID" as one of the bills he's proud of passing last legislative session. He's an unlikely villain, or hero.

All the better. In the 12 years since first elected, Parks' nonconfrontational but steady demeanor parallels the state's advances in gay rights legislation, and, given what's happening in other reaches of the world, makes Nevada seem slightly less arcane. Last fall, a statewide group of gay and lesbian leaders, including Parks, started meeting monthly to discuss other civil rights issues; another step forward in organizational power.

It will be no surprise if Dane and his robo-calling business turn out against Parks in the commission election — "It's obviously an obsession for him," says Parks, nonplussed. He responds with bits of his own résumé, rather than the war drum: 27 years of local government experience — 13 years at the City of Las Vegas, six at the county and nine at the Regional Transportation Committee, in addition to his service as a legislator. In his last legislative session, he sponsored 16 successful bills, only one of them tied to the issue of gay rights.

The landscape for gay rights issues is vast and bizarre — a few weeks ago a church in Kansas planned a Las Vegas protest of security officer Stanley Cooper's funeral, saying that the deaths of federal officers is God's punishment for the U.S.'s tolerance of gays. And yet in Houston a few months ago, an open lesbian was elected mayor.

It's not that David Parks will or should necessarily win the county seat; he has competition from his own party in former school board member Mary Beth Scow and county planning commissioner David Esposito, and who knows where the campaign will turn. But the fact that, in the ongoing battles over gay rights, Nevada has had a persistent figure such as Parks is fortune worth noting.

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