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17 Groundbreaking LGBTQ+ Politicians and Public Officials
LGBTQ+ Candidates Who've Made History
There are more LGBTQ+ people in elected office in the U.S. than ever -- 1,043, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund -- and voters have a chance to add to that number in November, as another thousand are running for office. There are also many high-level appointed officials from the LGBTQ+ community -- ambassadors, presidential Cabinet members, and more. But out and proud Americans have been winning office since the 1970s.
Read on to learn more about some of these groundbreakers.
Pictured, from left: Danica Roem, Harvey Milk, and Mauree Turner
Roem: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images; Milk: Janet Fries/Getty Images; Turner: Facebook
KATHY KOZACHENKO, a lesbian, was the first out member of the LGBTQ+ community elected to any political office in the U.S., winning a City Council seat in Ann Arbor, Mich., in April 1974. There were two gay men on the council in the liberal college town (home to the University of Michigan), but they didn't come out until after they were elected. Kozachenko served one two-year term, then moved away, but she remained an activist, volunteering in political campaigns and helping to organize the March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights in 1979. She was named to the LGBTQ Victory Institute's first Hall of Fame class in 2021.
1974 saw another first: In November, lesbian ELAINE NOBLE became the first out candidate elected to a state legislature when voters in a Boston district sent her to the Massachusetts House of Representatives. A Democrat, she was encouraged to run for office by Ann Lewis, sister of another groundbreaker, Barney Frank, who was already in the Massachusetts House but wasn't out yet. Noble served two terms, and in 1976 she was part of the first gay and lesbian delegation to visit the White House. She later founded an LGBTQ-supportive drug and alcohol treatment center, taught school, sold real estate, and volunteered in Democratic politics.
Photo: Globe/Getty Images
No history of LGBTQ+ political trailblazers would be complete without mention of HARVEY MILK. Milk has had a higher profile than some others because of his charisma and his martyrdom, and he's been memorialized on the stage and screen. Elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, Milk was the first out candidate elected to office in California. He was assassinated a year later, along with Mayor George Moscone, by a disgruntled former supervisor, Dan White. Milk is also remembered for helping to defeat a California ballot initiative that would have barred gays and lesbians from teaching in public schools.
Photo: Janet Fries/Getty Images
BARNEY FRANK, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, made history in 1987 as the first congressman to voluntarily come out. Gerry Studds, another gay man in the Massachusetts delegation, had been outed in 1983. After serving in the Massachusetts legislature, Frank represented a Boston-area district in the U.S. House from 1981 to 2013. In 2012, he married longtime partner Jim Ready, becoming the first member of Congress in a legal same-sex marriage. He told The Advocate in 2015 that he believes he wouldn't have been elected to any office if he'd come out in the 1970s, but he doesn't regret coming out when he did and sees no reason for any LGBTQ+ politician to be closeted now.
Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
ROBERTA ACHTENBERG weathered the wrath of infamously homophobic U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms to win the distinction of being the first Senate-confirmed out presidential appointee. A former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Achtenberg was nominated by President Bill Clinton to be assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Helms called her a "damn lesbian" and accused her of a vendetta against the Boy Scouts simply because she wanted the group to be inclusive. But the Senate confirmed her by a vote of 58-31 in 1993. Achtenberg later served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Photo: Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images
TAMMY BALDWINbegan her political career in her native Wisconsin, serving on the Madison Common Council in 1986 and then being elected to four terms on the Dane County Board of Supervisors. She was elected to the Wisconsin State Assembly in 1992, and in 1998, Wisconsin sent the lesbian legislator to Washington as the first member of Congress who was out from the get-go (others had come out while in office). She served seven terms in the U.S. House and then, in 2012, was elected as the nation's first out U.S. senator. She's still in the Senate, advocating for LGBTQ+ equality and other progressive causes.
Gay activist and philanthropist JAMES HORMEL was the first out U.S. ambassador, but there were some bumps in the road on the way to that achievement. President Bill Clinton nominated him as ambassador to Luxembourg in 1997, but the Senate wouldn't vote on his confirmation. He was deemed too "aggressively gay" and was called anti-Catholic because he dared to laugh at the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Clinton made him ambassador through a recess appointment in 1999, and Hormel served until 2001. He continued working for LGBTQ+ causes until his death in 2021.
Photo: Michael Macor/The San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images
In 2010, ANNISE PARKER was elected mayor of Houston, making her the first out mayor of a top 10 U.S. city (Houston is the fourth largest). Parker, a lesbian, had previously worked in the oil and gas industry and served on the Houston City Council and as city controller. After three terms as mayor, in which she helped pass an LGBTQ-inclusive civil rights ordinance only to see it repealed by voters, she became president and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Victory Institute, helping train and elect out candidates.
Photo: Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images
California's MARK TAKANO, a gay man of Japanese descent, was elected to the U.S. House in 2012, becoming the first out LGBTQ+ person of color in Congress. He's a former public-school teacher and community college trustee, so advocating for education is high on his list of priorities. He's a member of the House Education and Labor Committee and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
KATE BROWN became the nation's first out bisexual governor in 2015, when she was sworn in as Oregon's top official after the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber. The state has no lieutenant governor, so as secretary of state she was next in line. She was elected in her own right in a special election in 2016 and reelected in 2018, both LGBTQ+ firsts. She is not running this year due to term limits, but her successor may well be a lesbian, fellow Democrat Tina Kotek.
DANICA ROEMin 2017 defeated the most anti-LGBTQ+ member of the Virginia House of Delegates and was then sworn in as the first out trans person to serve in any state's legislature (a trans candidate had been elected in New Hampshire in 2012 but withdrew before taking office). Roem has now been reelected twice, both times taking down homophobic, transphobic challengers. She's running for state Senate in 2023.
Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
JARED POLISwas elected governor of Colorado in 2018, making him the first out gay man to win that distinction in any state (Jim McGreevey resigned as governor of New Jersey after coming out in 2004). This year, he's likely to be the first one reelected. Polis is a former congressman and entrepreneur, and he added to his list of firsts by marrying longtime partner Marlon Reis in 2021 -- the first same-sex wedding of a sitting governor. They have two children; Polis was the first gay father in Congress.
Photo: Courtesy Polis for Colorado Campaign
SHARICE DAVIDSis one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress and the first gay one. Elected in 2018 (unseating a four-term Republican) and reelected in 2020, she represents a Kansas district in the U.S. House, and she's seeking a third term this year. "I would never say that I speak for all Native people or even my tribe [Ho-Chunk]," she told The Advocate in 2021. She added, "Like any group, Native people are not a monolith. I think it's helpful to constantly remind people of that and make sure that folks know that I might be an expert on my lived experience or certain parts of legislation or policy."
During the 2020 presidential race, the nation got to knowPETE BUTTIGIEGwell. Seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, the gay man who'd been mayor of South Bend, Ind., was the first out candidate on a national debate stage, and while he was not the first out major-party presidential aspirant (another gay man, Fred Karger, had that distinction by seeking the Republican nomination in 2012), Buttigieg went farther. When Buttigieg left the race, he endorsed the eventual winner, Joe Biden. Now secretary of Transportation, Buttigieg is the first out gay Senate-confirmed Cabinet member.
Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
MONDAIRE JONES in 2020 became one of the first two Black members of the LGBTQ+ community elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The other was fellow New Yorker Ritchie Torres, who was one of the Advocates for Change we profiled this summer; Torres is Afro-Latinx, and both he and Jones are gay men. Recently, when the House voted on a bill that would write marriage equality into federal law, Jones gave an impassioned speech about how the issue is personal to him. "Imagine telling the next generation of Americans -- my generation -- that we no longer have the right to marry who we love," he said. "Congress can't allow that to happen." In August, Jones lost his primary for reelection to the House -- he had to run in a new district due to a redrawing of New York's congressional map -- but he undoubtedly still has a bright future in politics.
Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty Images
MAUREE TURNER of Oklahoma made history in 2020 as the first out nonbinary person elected to any state legislature. Representing an Oklahoma City district in the state House, Turner is also the first Muslim legislator in the Sooner State. "A lot of people don't know how much you risk putting your name on the ballot if you are not a white cis het man, and it was a lot of work to get here," Turner, a Democrat, said after their election. "I had to put faith in my community to catch me when I jumped, and they did." Turner is running for reelection this year.
Photo via Facebook
DR. RACHEL LEVINEbecame the first out transgender official confirmed by the U.S. Senate when the chamber in 2021 approved her appointment as assistant secretary for health at the Department of Health and Human Services. Levine, who was previously Pennsylvania's health secretary, is the highest-ranking out trans person in the federal government. She's encountered transphobia but has continued speaking out for trans youth and other marginalized populations.
Photo: Caroline Brehman/Pool/Getty Images
This story is part of The Advocate's 2022 History issue, which is out on newsstands August 30. To get your own copy directly, support queer media and subscribe -- or download yours for Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.