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As We See It

How Nevada missed its chance to be the gay marriage capital of the world

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This year the Nevada Legislature began a four-year process of repealing the ban on same-sex marriage.
Illustration: Chris Morris

Browsing the New York Times’ travel section on a recent Sunday must’ve been painful for the many publicists who make their livings promoting Las Vegas. The agonizing headline: “In California, Celebrating Gay Marriage With Travel Deals.”

NYT travel sections are locked up weeks in advance, so someone in Gotham scrambled fast given that same-sex marriage only resumed in California on June 28. The editors clearly saw the June 26 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court that restored marriage equality in the Golden State as good not only for the gays but also for business.

Meanwhile, the once-vaunted Vegas casino and wedding industries must twiddle their thumbs. Thanks to a voter-approved Nevada constitutional ban on same-sex marriage—one almost all of these businesses, to their credit, fought when it passed in 2000 and 2002—the best the Strip can offer are legally worthless “commitment ceremonies.” Once upon a time that was as good as gays could get, but why would anyone bother anymore with what Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg so brilliantly dubbed “skim milk marriage?”

The Nevada Legislature this year did begin a four-year process of repealing the ban, and a pending lawsuit could lead a court to strike it down anyway. And the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Defense of Marriage Act could make it theoretically possible for a legally married same-sex couple in Massachusetts to remain married—at least federally— anywhere they may live.

None of that will matter, though. Nevada’s handling of this issue has forever laid waste to a fundamental part of the state’s libertarian, adult playground reputation.

Nevada, you see, should have been first. Not 18th or 23rd or whatever it will end up at when this is over, which will be very soon. This state pioneered legal gambling along with quickie hetero marriage and divorce. It regulates and taxes whorehouses. Its ads tell the world it’s safe to be anonymously naughty here.

By every historical indication, then, Nevada should have begun letting dudes marry dudes before the concept even came into public consciousness. It certainly never got uppity about the sanctity of marriage—or decorum or good taste, for that matter—before it decided that queer-on-queer love was the one line it couldn’t cross.

Gays will remember that. In 2008 when California briefly recognized same-sex marriages, Vegas resorts tried to grab some of the gay bachelor party and honeymoon business. That was awkward but acceptable then; if they try again, it’ll feel predatory and exploitative. It’s a tough sell.

What’s more, the gay marriage money machine has marched right on by Nevada—and it’s not coming back. Massachusetts, the first state with marriage equality, reaped huge financial rewards. New York, the first one where the Legislature made it happen rather than a court, did so as well. California, home to at least three significant gay enclaves, is a natural. And even Iowa—Iowa?!—has cleaned up thanks to pent-up demand in the Midwest.

Sure, some gay couples will marry in Vegas once the ban is lifted, but it’ll likely be the ordinary proportion of the wedding business that chooses to do so. It sure won’t be the bursting dam it otherwise might have been.

The chance to become iconic and central on this is gone. But I have an only-in-Nevada solution that’s just crazy enough to work: Legalize polygamy.

Just think of all the guests!

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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