In 1972 Congress approved and sent to the state legislatures an amendment to the United States Constitution giving women legal equality before the law. It was called the Equal Rights Amendment.
In the Nevada Legislature, the Assembly voted for it and so did the Senate, but never at the same time. So the state failed to approve it, and became a target for an economic boycott organized by the National Organization for Women.
Hundreds of national organizations signed onto the NOW boycott, refusing to take their national conventions and other programs to states that failed to ratify ERA.
This probably didn’t do major injury to, say, Missouri, where the economy is diversified and tourism and conventions are just a part of the whole. But in Nevada those are major parts of the economy, and the state was badly damaged. Years passed during which these organizations looked for other places to take their business. There was one memorable week during which there was not one convention scheduled for the Las Vegas convention center, for the first time that anyone could remember since its construction.
ERA never obtained the 38 necessary states and expired in 1982 (though since then, the intent of the amendment has been largely accomplished with court rulings). Even then it took time for the effect of the boycott to fade and for Nevada to recover.
The ERA battle wasn’t over when gaybashing language from politicians in Nevada was starting up. In 1981 Lt. Gov. Myron Leavitt and Washoe County Commissioner Belie Williams both launched attacks on the National Gay Rodeo, which was then held in Reno.
Some small right-wing groups joined in. San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt talked about calling a new boycott of Nevada.
The casino industry was not happy about all this, and over time it started cultivating gay tourism to head off any anti-Nevada activities that the state’s politicians might trigger with their behavior. The industry worked to attract gay organizations, same-gender weddings, gay excursions. Today the state gets a lot of money from gay tourism. Even last year’s antigay Nevada Legislature was unable to disrupt this status quo.
By contrast, look at the other side of the country, at Georgia and North Carolina. In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal is trying to decide what to do with a bill making antigay discrimination legal. In North Carolina, the legislature approved a bill preventing Charlotte from protecting victims of discrimination.
As a result, the state where “Dirty Dancing” was filmed is facing a boycott by Hollywood. The members of the state’s own Charlotte Hornets are restive and the NBA is talking about Charlotte losing a chance at the 2017 AllStar game.
In Georgia, some of the nation’s biggest corporations are watching to see what happens. Atlanta, Super Bowl city in 1994 and 2000, is at risk of losing another chance, which would be a shattering humiliation.
And as so often happens these days, there is bad reporting on the issue, as when a Los Angeles Times headline refers to “Georgia’s conservative values” – as though discrimination is a conservative value. Sometimes journalism cannot function without a left/right template.
“The [legislature] is on the wrong side of progress,” said Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts. “It is on the wrong side of history.” Municipalities often find themselves defending against state legislative irresponsibility.
Such high flown words are nice, but they often fail to move people. Financial security or the lack of it nearly always has more impact.
These are not the only two states facing this problem. Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, and South Dakota have been enacting or considering bigoted legislation and are facing boycotts of various kinds.
But shortsighted, narrow-minded legislators – in Nevada and elsewhere – cannot think in the 21st century that their actions concern only “their” states and that it is no one else’s business. When they act irresponsibly, they will pay a price. Sometimes citizens have to act in their own defense.
We are one country.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.