One of only 13
Democrats in Idaho's 70-seat legislature, Nicole
LeFavour is used to being the odd one out when it
comes to liberal politics. "I grew up in
Idaho," she says. "Not great ground to be
But LeFavour, now 41, expressed her political
opinions early on, going so far as to make
anti-Ronald Reagan posters when he was a presidential candidate.
A writing teacher and former owner of a small
business, LeFavour has been an openly gay advocate for
equality for years, fighting antigay initiatives since
1994. Even as one of the newest members of the state
legislature (she was elected in 2004), she is credited by
many activists as the sole reason Idaho has not moved
forward with a constitutional amendment against
"A lot of what I did was in my own
party," she says. "They were very
fearful. The most important thing I could do was explain how
this could play out and how it could be bad for Democrats."
LeFavour, who has been with her life partner for
five years, not only got six Democrats to vote against
putting the amendment in front of voters, she helped
convince eight Republicans to join them, getting two more
than the 12 votes needed to kill the motion.
She credits much of her success to building
relationships with her new colleagues and also to the
simple concept of visibility. "It makes so much
difference when the issues come up and I'm sitting in
the room," she says. "That's
But LeFavour hopes her influence in helping gay,
lesbian, bisexual, and transgender Idaho residents
goes beyond blocking amendments. She says the ability
to deal with the complexities of the law, and making sure
include GLBT people are included in even the most
modest legislation, can have an impact."Over
time," LeFavour explained, "I will be able to
make a lot of small changes that will make differences."
LeFavour isn't the only out legislator
who has dealt with such an amendment. Georgia state
representative Karla Drenner faced the same issue last
year, becoming her state's highest-profile amendment
opponent, ignoring advice from friends and colleagues
who urged her to keep quiet.
Drenner, who is separated from her partner, says
her two children inspired her to get involved in the
amendment fight. "I didn't want my
kids' lives to be impacted," she says.
"Too many people walk around being afraid. And
I stood there very confidently in who I knew God made me to be."
The amendment passed by an overwhelming margin,
but Drenner says the political cost was negligible. If
anything, the fight seems to have helped her.
A native of Charleston, W.Va., Drenner got an
early sense of politics from her mother, who held a
number of government jobs and ran an unsuccessful
campaign for state representative.
"I was involved in her campaign,"
says Drenner, currently the sole out state legislator
in Georgia. "There were always political types [of
people] and those kinds of conversations going on in my house."
An environmental science professor, Drenner was
first elected in 2000, after beating in the primary a
four-term incumbent whose husband ran the Democratic
Party in DeKalb County. While campaigning in a predominantly
African-American district with 26 Baptist churches, Drenner
faced skeptics, including her mother.
"She didn't think I could
win," she says. "I hadn't done my time,
in her mind: I wasn't a native Georgian, and I
wasn't a member of civic groups."
Drenner is a leader in the legislature on issues
such as renewable energy, but she doesn't shy
away from the role she played in the amendment fight,
and she doesn't think it has hurt her standing with
her constituents. On the contrary, she notes, it has
been an asset.
"I never got a single piece of hate mail
or any derogatory phone calls from inside my
district," Drenner explains. "I attribute that
to the fact that I never hid that I was gay, and I was
literally and figuratively out and about. What I heard
[from constituents] was 'We expected you to do
that.' And if I hadn't done that, they would
have thought there was something wrong."
As out elected
officials serve longer, they are getting chances to serve
in leadership positions and move on to larger
constituencies. Jennifer Veiga has gotten the chance
to do both. After the Democrat served four terms in
the Colorado house of representatives, she reached an
impressive milestone for any legislator, let alone an
openly lesbian one: She was elected by her peers in
2003 to be the House minority leader. But soon after
she took the position, a vacancy committee for the Colorado
senate named the downtown Denver resident to that
body. Veiga, who won the senate seat outright in 2004,
says there are differences between the two bodies.
"There's a larger constituency," she
says of the senate. "It's more time-consuming."
But with a smaller group of lawmakers--35
senators as opposed to 65 representatives in the
statehouse--Veiga describes the working environment
as "more congenial" and "less contentious."
But best of all, with the Democrats taking
control of both legislative bodies with the 2004
election, Veiga now finds herself in the majority,
which she calls "another beautiful thing. It is so
much more enjoyable."
A Long Beach, Calif., native who went to college
in Colorado, Veiga got involved in politics with
former U.S. senator Gary Hart's failed 1984
presidential bid. After finishing law school in Washington,
D.C., in 1987, Veiga returned to Colorado, where she
became active in the local women's bar
association--and local politics. "I just always
loved public policy," she says. "I love
the thought process: that you can take an issue and
problem-solve and advocate."
Veiga, who lives with her partner of 11 years,
says part of that process is carrying a civil rights
bill that would protect Colorado gays and lesbians.
And with the new Democratic majority, she says, the bill has
"a good chance of making it to the
But politics is not all-consuming. Veiga still
supplements Colorado's 120-day yearly
legislative session with a law practice. "I love the
job," she says. "I've been so
fortunate. But I've always been one to balance my life."
Other out politicians are getting into the game
after spending years gaining experience through
working for other politicians. Sam Adams, who was once
the ultimate insider in Portland, Ore., had to adjust when
he finally ran for city commissioner after working as
a political staffer for 20 years, including an 11-year
stint as chief of staff for a mayor.
"I went from being the behind-the-scenes
person to the guy with his name on the bumper
sticker," Adams says. "It's surreal to
see my name on the door rather than somebody
Adams, now 41,
began his 2004 campaign as an underdog, an insider who had
worked for an departing mayor who wasn't all that
popular. But he says that because he communicated a
message, he was able to overcome a 15-point deficit in
the primary to win the runoff. "One of my tasks was
to present myself as a human being," Adams says.
"My motto was 'Tough, smart,
real.' It was more about telling my life story and
the challenges I've overcome. It helped
humanize me to the public."
Adams, who was born in Montana and grew up on
the Oregon coast in a town of 6,000 people, says his
family always discussed current events. But Adams
stresses that he doesn't come from a privileged
political background. "I'm a product of
subsidized housing and food stamps," he says,
explaining that years ago he had to declare bankruptcy after
a medical emergency, something that could have
derailed less astute politicians. "I decided to
handle it by being blunt and up-front."
In Portland, commissioners are elected citywide
on a nonpartisan basis. For Adams, who has been out
publicly since 1995 and is currently single, an
"identity politics" approach to running would
have been a disaster. Just as voters in Portland would
disdain anyone running as the Latino or woman
candidate, they'd "have little tolerance for
who someone who ran as the gay candidate," he
says. "They wanted someone who had a vision that
was broad in scope."
For some gay elected officials, sexual identity
has never been a part of their public persona. But in
a world where homosexuality is no longer a career
killer and media coverage is making it harder for people to
keep quiet about being gay, more politicians are
In 1990, Paul Koering was milking cows when a
neighbor called to ask him if he wanted to go to a
farm bureau meeting. Within five months Koering was on
the bureau's board of directors, which lobbies
politicians on agricultural issues. After hearing the
first President Bush speak, he took a lobbying trip to
Washington, D.C. Koering then decided to run for state
senate in his rural, conservative district as a Republican
against a 28-year incumbent. After getting 47% of the
vote in 1996, then 49.5% in 2000, Koering beat his
opponent, by then the president of the Minnesota
senate, in 2002 by 138 votes. Not bad for a mere high school graduate.
Koering initially immersed himself in
agricultural, education, and health care issues, but
on April 13 he made national headlines when he announced
that he is gay. The sole Republican to vote against a recent
motion to force a marriage amendment bill out of
committee to the senate floor, Koering found whispers
about his sexuality became something of a roar.
Instead of letting the gossip continue, he came out.
"They can't do anything to me
anymore that is going to hurt me," he says of
his opponents. "I feel better, but I still contend
that somebody's personal life is just that."
Koering may have made some enemies in his party,
but some GLBT activists are disappointed that he
supports a referendum on the amendment and thus the
concept of marriage for straight couples only.
"I don't know how I can deny my
constituents the right to vote on it," he says.
But Koering, who is 40 and single, stresses that he will
abandon the bill if it includes limits on other legal
protections. When asked if he will run again and stay
a Republican, Koering gives a traditionally Minnesotan
response: "You betcha," he says.
"I'm just a farm boy, you know. All
I've ever wanted to do in my life is to know
I've made a difference."
A letter recently arrived from a high school
student who wrote that he had been beaten up and
called names for being gay but that Koering's
coming-out had helped him. Despite all the anxiety and media
attention, Koering says, letters like that meant it
was worth it to have come out so publicly. "If
I died tomorrow," he says, "my God, I feel I
really made a difference in somebody's life."
A number of other out politicians across the
country are making names for themselves as they fight
for GLBT equality. In Connecticut, state senator
Andrew McDonald, the cochair of the senate's
judiciary committee, was one of the lead architects of
the state's new civil unions law, which was
signed by the governor on April 20. Despite criticism from
the Right, who said he was pushing a measure that was
really a step toward same-sex marriage, and the
Left's insistence that he was selling out the
opportunity to win full marriage equality, McDonald was able
to pass a bill that will help protect thousands of
lesbian and gay families.
In January, Illinois became the 14th state to
make sexual orientation a protected characteristic in
its nondiscrimination policy, with help from state
representative Larry McKeon, who after years of resistance
was able to finally get the bill out of the Illinois
senate and to the governor's desk.
"Contrary to our opponents'
claims, it does not create special rights for any
individuals or groups," McKeon says of the bill.
"Instead, it guarantees that the law treats
everyone the same. To most Illinoisans, that's
a pretty uncontroversial idea."
For some politicians, the act of coming out is
more than just a personal statement. Just days after
Kansas became the 18th state to approve a
constitutional marriage amendment, Mike Rundle, the
departing mayor of Lawrence who was returning to the
city's commission, announced at an April 19
commission meeting that he is gay. "It is with
dignity and pride that I acknowledge that I have been
Lawrence's mayor and in all likelihood
Lawrence's first gay mayor," he said to
applause from meeting attendees and fellow commissioners.
Other elected officials are helping to fight for
equality by speaking up. In Texas, state lawmakers
have been debating a ban on allowing adoptions by out
gays and lesbians. Houston city controller Annise Parker,
who has two adopted children, has been speaking out
against any changes in the law.
"The issue should be whether
they're providing safe, loving homes for foster
kids," she told KHOU-TV on April 20, "and if
those kids are thriving in those homes. And beyond
that, it's not the state's business
whether the parents happen to be gay or lesbian."
Other public officials are helping to promote
equality just by serving. In San Diego, Republican
Bonnie Dumanis beat out her opponent in 2002 to become
the country's first openly lesbian district attorney.
Last year, voters in Dallas County, Texas, dumped a
corrupt "good ol' boy" incumbent
to make Lupe Valdez sheriff. Valdez became not only the
county's first lesbian top cop but also the
first female Latino to win the post, a daunting task.
But Valdez was never intimidated.
"When did I ever have it easy?"
she said in an April 5 interview with Ivanhoe
Newswire. "Was it when I tried to learn English? Was
it when I was working my way through college? When did
I have it easy? So why start now?