RENO — History was made here one Sunday in March, when Gov. Bob Miller, resplendent in a stars-and-stripes leather jacket, took to the podium at a dark little bar and got a standing ovation from the raucous crowd.
"I never thought I'd see the day when I'd see a Nevada governor in a gay bar," recounted Eddie Anderson, master of ceremonies for the rally. The event also drew Las Vegas Mayor Jan Jones--who is challenging Miller in the governor's race--and a host of other political luminaries in this self-proclaimed "frontier state" and bastion of western independence.
But it was a bittersweet moment for the growing number of lesbians and gay men in Nevada--proof of newly minted clout, evidence of continuing vulnerability.
Just months after the Legislature repealed the state's 82-year-old anti-sodomy law, conservative activists launched a petition drive to make it legal to discriminate against gay men and lesbians. The rally was called in opposition to the initiative--a carpetbagging measure written by Lon Mabon, the architect of similar legislation throughout the Pacific Northwest.
As Mabon and his followers are the first to admit, this is a watershed year for gays in the Silver State. They are learning to flex their political and social muscle; in so doing, they are bringing Nevada face to face with its contrary personalities.
On the one hand, Nevada has long embraced behavior that no other state would allow; on the other, it blushes fast and easy. "It is a dual personality here," says Ward Bushee, executive editor of the Reno Gazette-Journal.
It is the live-and-let-live side of this statewide schizophrenia that helps to explain why the firsts for gays and lesbians are tumbling in almost too fast to count:
* This year has brought Nevada its first openly gay candidate for any public office. Jack Levin, 31, is running for Clark County school trustee. In 1990, he ran for Assembly and lost in a close Republican primary. "When I ran (before), I was gay," Levin said. "But I never came out. My positions have never changed. . . . A lot of ultra-right-wing people supported me then. They're not now."
* In Washoe County, home to Reno, the "Biggest Little City in the World," people with HIV were allowed in the classroom to talk about the disease for the first time this school year in a controversial program called Frontline.
* In October, the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Southern Nevada opened in Las Vegas, the first such facility in the state. It offers a library, a speakers bureau, counseling for families of gay teen-agers, clubs for newcomers and seniors, and referrals for roommates, jobs and legal assistance.
* Bushee told a group of gay activists this spring that if they would help form guidelines for the practice, his paper would publish same-sex unions on the wedding pages. Fewer than a dozen mainstream newspapers in the nation include such notices.
* For the first time, gay voters are a presence in a major statewide election. Politically active gays and lesbians raised $5,000 for Jones in January in the first gay-sponsored benefit for a Nevada candidate. Since then, the gay community has held several fund-raisers on behalf of state legislators. "We are all fighting over them in the governor's race," says Jones, who faces Miller in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in September.
However--and this is a big however--being courted and being accepted are two vastly different things. For every first celebrated in Nevada, there is a caveat. For every step forward, at least one step back:
* Nevada has the ninth-highest AIDS rate in the country and has been in the top 10 since 1987. It is in the bottom 10 for state spending on the disease. "The only state support we get is indirectly through Medicaid," says Dr. Jerry Cade, a Las Vegas physician who treats AIDS patients. "The rural counties are incredibly reluctant to help those big 'sin cities,' Reno and Las Vegas, with their problems."
* Although HIV-infected patients in the Frontline program can tell Washoe County students about life with the disease, they are not allowed to talk about their sexual orientation. "If (speakers) were asked point-blank if they were gay, they may say yes or no but that would be it," said Jan Donnelly, health education curriculum specialist for the Washoe County School District.
* When the Gay and Lesbian Student Union at the University of Nevada, Reno, started a youth outreach program a year ago, "we agreed not to talk about sex," says Leslie Fiske, one of the program's founders. The self-imposed prohibition was partly to avoid conflict with the university and partly in response to the anti-sodomy law, which was still in place. Nevada is "still conservative in a lot of ways, still redneck," Fiske says.